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Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III: Two sides of a golden NFL coin

Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, this town is big enough for both of them.

For the moment.

But come April 26, the first day of the NFL draft, Stanford’s Luck and Baylor’s Griffin — the top two quarterbacks at the scouting combine this week — will head in different directions to begin their pro careers. In a league so focused on passing, they are the shiny superstars in the making, players likely to be inexorably linked as the first quarterbacks to go 1-2 in the draft in more than a decade.

Their styles are different, but Luck and Griffin have notable similarities. They grew up in Texas about 200 miles apart — Luck in Houston, Griffin in tiny Copperas Cove in the middle of the state — and each was an A-student. Both were cornerstones in the revival of moribund college football programs.

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Likewise, they will be expected to do that in the pros. By all indications, the Indianapolis Colts plan to use the No. 1 pick on Luck, who would take the torch — either immediately or eventually — from future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning.

While saying it’s “absolutely” important to him to be the top pick, Luck said he doesn’t view it as a head-to-head competition with Griffin.

“Good thing about football is it’s a team game,” Luck said. “Robert’s a great quarterback, a great competitor, a great guy, really easy to get along with. I don’t get motivation by competing against him for something. I don’t think it’s one player versus another by any means.”

St. Louis has the No. 2 pick and already has a quarterback in Sam Bradford. The Rams are in prime position to trade that selection, however, especially with franchises such as Cleveland, Washington and Miami in need of a quarterback.

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The last time quarterbacks were chosen in succession at the top of the draft was 1999, when Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb and Akili Smith were selected 1-2-3. A year before that, in the Exhibit A of divergent career paths, Manning was taken first by Indianapolis, and Ryan Leaf second by San Diego.

Although the Colts are picking first again, and appear to be locked in on Luck, there is no indication that either Luck or Griffin is headed for a Leaf-like flameout. (Of course, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, virtually every NFL scout and draft maven now says it was plain to see Leaf would be a bust, even though Manning-Leaf was a hotly contested debate at the time.)

Regardless, there are no such red flags with Luck and Griffin, only a division along the lines of style. While Luck is mobile and not drop-back dinosaur, he is at least closer to the traditional quarterback mold of a Manning than is Griffin, who, although an accurate passer, is a more dangerous runner than Luck and played in a less-conventional college offense.

“I look at both of them as two unbelievable prospects,” said Denver Broncos executive John Elway, a former Stanford quarterback and No. 1 overall draft pick to whom Luck has been compared. “I think that if you look at what they both did this year with Andrew at Stanford and ‘RG3' down at Baylor, they’re two tremendous talents — tremendously mature, intelligent guys that I look at as two [who] are going to have a lot of success in the NFL.”

The Colts have until March 8 to decide whether to pay a $28-million bonus to keep Manning, who sat out last season recuperating from multiple neck surgeries. One scenario — perhaps prohibitively expensive — is to keep him and draft Luck, allowing the young quarterback to learn at his elbow the way Aaron Rodgers learned behind Brett Favre in Green Bay.

Luck said he’d be perfectly comfortable with that, calling Manning “my hero growing up.” Griffin echoed that, saying that if the Colts were to make him the top pick and keep Manning, “I’d hold that clipboard with pride.”

Griffin, who like Luck opted not to throw for scouts at the combine, said he is looking forward to his campus pro day and beyond to disprove “a misconception that comes with being a dual-threat quarterback: You’re run first, throw second. I think I’ve proven I’m throw first, then run if I need to.”

The success in Carolina of last year’s No. 1 pick, Auburn’s Cam Newton, can only bolster Griffin’s stock. Newton not only made the transition from a college spread offense to the Panthers’ pro-style scheme much more quickly and seamlessly than most observers expected, but also was named the league’s offensive rookie of the year.

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In meeting with the media this week, Griffin addressed the comparison to fellow Heisman Trophy winner Newton.

“As a runner he is a little more shifty than I am, but I’m faster than he is,” said Griffin, who rushed for 2,254 yards and 33 touchdowns in 41 college games. "[I am] more experienced in the passing game in college. Not that I’m more polished and he’s not polished, just we threw it a little bit more at Baylor than they did at Auburn. Other than that, confidence-wise his confidence is off the charts. I try to keep my confidence on the charts. But I’m a confident guy as well.”

In a way, Griffin was standing a little taller this week — at least officially. It’s not uncommon at this point in the year for people to search for a prospect’s flaws, a rationale for why he won’t succeed at the next level. The talk in some circles was that Griffin was shorter and lighter than the 6 feet 2, 220 pounds at which Baylor listed him.

At the combine, he was measured 6-23/8 and 223 and later joked about the debunked rumor.

“In high school, I was 6-4, 200 pounds,” he said. “So when I got to college I shrunk an inch and gained weight. I was 6-2, 220. I guess they thought I just shrunk some more, I was 6-foot and 190 now. It’s official, I’m 6-23/8 and 223. You try to block those things out, but at the end of the day the numbers don’t lie.”

As numbers go, the impeccable passing statistics of both Griffin and Luck speak to their excellence as quarterbacks. Griffin completed 72.4% of his passes last season with 37 touchdowns and six interceptions; Luck completed 71.3% with 37 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

NFL Films’ Greg Cosell said the 6-3 Luck has an excellent over-the-top throwing motion, which helps him clear the big men in the trenches to complete passes in the middle of the field.

“Drew Brees is great at that, which is one reason that despite his [6-foot] height he is so great,” said Cosell, executive producer of “NFL Matchup.” “Brees throws those inside throws like he’s 6-4. Peyton Manning [who is 6-5] throws them like he’s 6-7. Luck’s really good at that. He’s good at the mechanics of the game. He’s a very comfortable player.”

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Griffin, Cosell said, has a throwing style that almost looks like an effortless flick, a remarkable arm.

“He threw a long touchdown pass against Oklahoma,” he said. “The pocket closed in on him and he couldn’t really step into his throw, and he just kind of went [flicking his wrist] and it was about 48 yards in the air, right on the money. Luck is not a flick-it guy.”

Luck, who threw for 9,430 yards and 82 touchdowns as Stanford’s starter, is described by many draft experts as the most polished, most NFL-ready quarterback prospect to emerge in years — maybe since Elway was drafted No. 1 (by the Baltimore Colts) in 1983.

“He’s one of the finest football players I’ve been around — and an even better person,” San Francisco 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh said of Luck, whom he coached at Stanford. “One of the top five guys I’ve been around. So he’s just a joy to coach. Not going to like playing against him. Not looking forward to that.”

Coming out of high school, Griffin made a recruiting trip to Palo Alto, but decided not to accept the scholarship offer. Instead he committed to the University of Houston before following Coach Art Briles to Baylor. Appealing as Stanford was, Griffin knew that Luck was already headed there.

“My whole thinking behind that was he was already committed and the two-quarterback thing doesn’t work,” Griffin said. “I didn’t want to have to either me be the one that transferred or Luck be the one that transferred. So I decided to go to a different college.”

Under Harbaugh then David Shaw, Luck had significant input on Stanford’s offense, both during practice and on game day.

“The systems have changed since I was playing there,” Elway said. “We’d call a play then audible at the line. Now, they just call three plays in the huddle and [Luck would] decide. Most people, they just do two. Stanford, they can do three because they can handle it. Everybody else around him had to remember the three plays too.”

Briles said Griffin too had a great deal of authority to change plays at the line of scrimmage.

“We change some of our concepts and reads on a weekly basis,” Briles said. “Probably the greatest aspect of our offense with Robert is we had a lot of freedom. We’ve always been a quarterback-driven offense.”

Griffin dismisses critics who suggest Baylor ran a simplistic scheme, something he views as a slight that implies he could have a difficult time stepping up to a complicated pro scheme.

“I’d like to sit down with them and show them how simple it is,” he said. “It’s not a simple offense. It’s a good offense. It’s a really great offense and it’s a quarterback-friendly offense. Simple would not be the word to describe it.”

Asked about adjusting to the schemes of likely suitors, he said, “West Coast offenses with Washington and Cleveland? Highly concept-based, long verbiage in the plays. But other than that, once you get into a system it’s easy to learn it.

“I’m not saying I’m going to open the playbook and know it immediately. Once you can get on the field and start going through the routes and the protections that you’re going to have to run in those types of offenses, it comes to you a lot sooner.”

Griffin has had the chance to get his point across to teams at the combine, where the 15-minute interviews are akin to speed-dating meet-and-greet sessions. From the look of things, Luck has a decent idea of where he’ll be this season. For Griffin, like his college offense, the field is wide open.

“As a player you want a team that really wants you,” he said. “Head coach, GM, owner, everybody that really wants you in that place and the players believe in you. That’s what I’m looking forward to. I’m looking forward to making somebody fall in love with me.”

sam.farmer@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesfarmer


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