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‘The tools are all there’: Akili Smith sees a special Black quarterback group entering the NFL

Anthony Richardson, C.J. Stroud and Bryce Young can become the first trio of Black signal-callers drafted in the first round since 1999

Former standout college quarterback Akili Smith was selected during the only NFL draft in which three Black signal-callers were first-round picks.

Smith and many draft prognosticators believe that will change this week.

In the opening round of the NFL’s signature event of the offseason Thursday night in Kansas City, Missouri, NFL clubs are expected to select college stars Anthony Richardson, C.J. Stroud and Bryce Young. If the process unfolds as envisioned, the trio will join onetime NFL passers Smith, Daunte Culpepper and Donovan McNabb, who were first-rounders in 1999. And if the newcomers are selected within the draft’s top 10 picks, they’ll make history in their own right.

The fact that Richardson, Stroud and Young are thought of so highly by NFL talent evaluators is yet another example of the rise of Black quarterbacks in pro sports’ most successful and powerful league, Smith said.

“It’s big-time for the position, for the brothers, just because of how far we’ve come,” Smith said on the phone recently. “It’s hard for people to understand now because there are so many of us succeeding at every level [of football], but there was a time when a lot of [white] people didn’t think we had the ability to lead. There was a time when a lot of people didn’t think we had the ability to sit in the pocket.

“There was a time when a lot of people didn’t think we had the ability to remember 300-plus plays and then be able to go out there on a football field and execute. Now, yeah, it’s crazy to even think that was the thinking for a long, long time, but that’s just the way it was. So with all of that, from that standpoint, it’s a huge accomplishment for us as at the position to have them all in this position, but it’s not surprising.”

Oregon quarterback Akili Smith (center) looks to hand off to tailback Saladin McCullough (right) during a game against USC at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Oct. 25, 1997.

Elsa / Getty images

During the run-up to the 1999 draft, McNabb, Smith and Culpepper were all considered top prospects, too.

McNabb was the biggest star of the group. A three-time Big East Conference Offensive Player of the Year at Syracuse, McNabb was taken second overall by the Philadelphia Eagles.

Despite playing only two seasons at Oregon, Smith – the Pacific-10 Conference’s 1998 Co-Offensive Player of the Year – was in the running to be the draft’s No. 1 pick by the Cleveland Browns. The Browns selected Kentucky’s Tim Couch instead. Smith ended up going third to the Cincinnati Bengals.

Then there was Culpepper, who played at Central Florida, who was not as highly rated as McNabb and Smith. Nonetheless, Culpepper went 11th to the Minnesota Vikings.

Smith played for the Bengals for four seasons. Since his playing days ended, Smith has coached at the high school and college levels. After analyzing video of Richardson, Stroud and Young while they were starring for Florida, Ohio State and Alabama, respectively, Smith said there’s a lot to admire about how each quarterback approaches the game.

“I’ve broken ’em all down, and I’ve watched C.J. and Bryce since their high school careers in California,” said Smith, a high school coach in the state for many years. “They’ve been special this way the entire time.

“And Richardson is great, too. He can do so many things out there to help his team win. We really haven’t seen anything like him at the position, in terms of his build and athleticism. He’s in his own category.”

The Carolina Panthers have the draft’s No. 1 overall pick and are expected to select a quarterback. With Richardson, Stroud and Young available, Smith doesn’t envy the Panthers’ top decision-makers.

“With these three, with their ability, it makes it extremely tough,” Smith said. “If you have [the top pick], you ask yourself what am I gonna do. All of these guys are so talented.”

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Akili Smith scrambles while looking to pass against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium on Oct. 15, 2000, in Pittsburgh.

George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Back in 1999, the Eagles chose wisely: Ultimately, McNabb had the best career of the group. A six-time Pro Bowler, McNabb led Philadelphia to five NFC championship games and Super Bowl XXXIX.

In Cincinnati, Smith never found a good match. Out of the league by 2002, Smith finished his NFL career with a record of 3-14. A gifted athlete as well as strong-armed passer, Smith was discouraged from using all his skills.

The Bengals’ coaches discouraged Smith from leaving the pocket. Perhaps Smith would have fared better in the NFL had he played during this era in which the thinking on designed runs by quarterbacks has evolved.

While with the Vikings, Culpepper was a three-time Pro Bowler. Culpepper led Minnesota to the playoffs twice, and he had a few big seasons statistically. Culpepper went on to have an 11-year career but never regained top form after leading the league in completions and yards passing during the 2004 season.

If they land with the right teams, Smith said, Richardson, Stroud and Young possess the talent to thrive in the NFL.

“There’s no doubt about that,” Smith said. “The tools are all there.”

Finally, it appears that McNabb, Smith and Culpepper will have company soon.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at Andscape. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.