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Hype surrounds superstars of '06 class, including Young

TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) _ They will always be intertwined _ by the calendar, by their success, by the Heisman Trophies and national championships they won for themselves, and denied to the others.

And, most of all, by their talent.

Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart and Vince Young were all, at some point, supposed to be the top pick in the NFL draft. None of them quite made it, but all enter the NFL on good terms, albeit with much to prove. They are the headliners of the superstar class of 2006. The group already is drawing comparisons with the class of 1983, though there are thousands of yards to be gained and hundreds of games to be won before anyone can say they've lived up to the hype.

``It's fun,'' Leinart said. ``Maybe they'll be talking about us in 10 or 20 years.''

As things are set up now, they will have to be compared not side-by-side, but from different fields in different parts of the country.

Leinart and Bush, the former USC teammates who won back-to-back Heismans, are both in the NFC, but in different divisions. Young, who denied the USC boys a third straight national title in January after they denied him the Heisman twice, is in the AFC.

John Elway and Dan Marino, the two superstars of the historic 1983 draft, played each other three times over 16 years. Marino won twice in the regular season and Elway once in the playoffs. Both are in the Hall of Fame, and the debate still lingers over who was better _ Elway with his two Super Bowl championships or Marino with his career NFL passing record.

That 1983 class is remembered for its quarterbacks _ Todd Blackledge, Jim Kelly, Tony Eason and Ken O'Brien were in the mix, too _ but there was also a star running back in Eric Dickerson. He was picked second _ the first step on his Hall of Fame career.

This year, Bush was picked second. Since running backs almost always take to NFL offenses more quickly than quarterbacks, Bush is expected to have an impact more quickly than the others, even though he'll share the Saints backfield with Deuce McAllister.

``For me, I always play like I have something to prove, and I feel like that's what has gotten me to this point,'' said Bush, who finished ahead of Young and Leinart in last year's Heisman voting. ``I'll always play with a chip on my shoulder.''

In only his second run of his preseason, Bush showed what he could do in the NFL. Stopped behind the line, he changed direction and sped past two Tennessee Titans for a 44-yard gain.

``He's the real deal,'' Leinart said. ``I told him, he's going to have about 1,000 to 1,500 yards rushing and 1,000 yards catching. It's realistic, I think, just with the way they can use them.''

Leinart would not, however, put anything near those kind of expectations on himself.

Nor should he.

Even the very best quarterbacks take time to develop. For every Ben Roethlisberger, who won a Super Bowl with the Steelers in only his second season, there are a dozen Elways and Donovan McNabbs and Peyton Mannings, all of whom had their successes but not all of whom got their team to the top right away.

Leinart's coach, Dennis Green, already has anointed Kurt Warner as his starter, following a strategy he used successfully in Minnesota when Daunte Culpepper was a rookie. It's something of a risk. The Cardinals are playing in a gleaming new sold-out stadium.

The fans will be there to see the stadium, to see newly signed running back Edgerrin James and _ yes _ to see Leinart.

``You have the fans' opinion, and you have the coach's philosophy,'' said Cards quarterbacks coach Mike Kruczek, who coached Culpepper in college. ``It's not to say Matt couldn't go in there and light it up. He might. But history says that doesn't happen.''

Green says he's comfortable with where things stand now.

``He comes in with really high expectations, and you want to maintain the high expectations,'' Green said. ``The significance is that once he got to USC, they started winning. He wasn't recruited into a winning program there. He wasn't drafted into a winning program here. But we expect him to be a major contributor toward that goal.''

It will be interesting to compare and contrast Leinart and Young over the next several years, because they are two very distinct players at the same position.

Leinart, a lefty, is the classic, drop-back passer with experience in a pro-style offense. That, plus the stats, the winning, his ability to read defenses and the Heisman, of course, were what made him the presumptive top pick had he left college after the 2004 season.

One more year in college gave all those scouts more to nitpick. The strength of his arm became the top question mark, along with his accuracy on intermediate-distance throws. He dropped significantly in the draft _ from a possible first pick to 10th. One of the goals now is to make those other nine teams regret it.

``Things happen for a reason,'' said Leinart, who insists he's not unhappy trading in the glitz of LA for what has long been considered one of the NFL's least-desirable outposts. ``Whatever teams that were ahead of Arizona, those are the players they wanted. I'm happy the Cardinals wanted me.''

Much was made of the fact that the Titans chose Young over Leinart even though Norm Chow is their offensive coordinator. Chow held that same position at USC and taught the game to Leinart with the Trojans.

Now, when Chow goes to practice, he sees an entirely different kind of player. Young was identified as a burgeoning talent entering his last year at Texas. But he ran a college-style offense, heavy on quarterback running and movement. So, nobody quite knew how his skills would translate in the NFL.

Still, after a great season, and after he threw for 267 yards and ran for 200 more in a 41-38 win over USC in the national title game, many handed him the title of ``best available player'' in the upcoming draft.

Soon after, his stock began fluctuating, as questions about his ability to read defenses, to his overall intelligence to his choice of agent muddled the picture. He wound up going third to Tennessee, one spot after Bush and seven ahead of Leinart.

``There are always similarities when they're topflight players,'' Chow said. ``They're leaders. They're people who people respect. They're both tall. I think they came from such differing offenses that it was hard to measure mentally what one guy knew, as opposed to what the other knew because they were so different in what they were trying to get done.''

Though Titans coach Jeff Fisher hasn't anointed Young the starter, he has said the rookie will play. Young, too, has different forms of motivation _ most notably that his hometown team, the Houston Texans, passed him over to take defensive lineman Mario Williams with the first pick.

``Every time I go down there, it's going to be different, a little more edge to me when I step out there,'' Young said.

So, who's really the best?

This season, the edge figures to go to Bush, simply because of his position.

From there, it's anybody's guess.

``I think three years'' is a good amount of time to gauge, Green said. ``By the time a guy gets to his third year in the NFL, you can kind of see what he's going to do.''

But really, what these three players would like most is for the debate to still be raging in 10 years _ or 15 or 20.

``We did some tremendous things in college so everybody is going to look at us to do this, do that,'' Young said. ``But it's a whole new ball game right now and the next level. We've got to get ourselves more comfortable in the offense and take our time and let the game come. We'll be all right.''
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