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Why Bruce Gradkowski Could Be This Year’s Hot Rookie QB

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When will Matt Leinart replace Kurt Warner in Arizona?

What about Jay Cutler? When will the Denver Broncos pull Jake Plummer to the side?

And Vince Young. How long until Kerry Collins gives way to the future of the Tennessee Titans?

These three heralded rookie quarterbacks were taken in the top 11 spots of the NFL Draft. All are awesome. All could be Pro Bowlers someday. And all of us are long awaiting just how soon one of these becomes a regular starter.

But this year's starting rookie quarterback may not be a studly first-round, multi-millionaire. Rather, it could be a sixth-round steal.

Meet Bruce Gradkowski of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was selected with the 194th overall pick, while ten other quarterbacks were snagged before him.

The Buccaneers didn't exactly need a signal caller going into the draft. They needed offensive line help, which is why they drafted linemen with their first two picks. Chris Simms, son of former QB Phil Simms, earned the job last year after leading the Bucs to the playoffs. Tampa Bay's depth chart wasn't exactly a wasteland of quarterbacks either. Tim Rattay, Jay Fiedler, Luke McCown, and Jared Allen were all in training camp along with Gradkowski.

Then the Mr. Burns' Softball Team effect came into play. McCown tore his ACL in June and was out for the season. Fiedler didn't recover from his shoulder surgery and was promply cut. So was Allen. That left Rattay and Gradkowski.

The former Toledo quarterback played so well in training camp that he earned the backup job over Rattay. Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden put Gradkowski in for the bulk of the preseason games, and the numbers came pouring out like the box office draw for Pirates of the Caribbean 2: 45-of-61 for 511 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions. That's a quarterback rating of 105.3.

He was a three-year starter for Toledo, and I of all people know what kind of a big game player he is. After losing to archrival Bowling Green as a sophomore, he bounced back with wins in the annual Battle of I-75 as a junior and senior, one home and one away.

In high school he amassed more passing yards his senior year than a few other guys you might have heard of that came from the same Pennsylvania conference: Joe Montana, Dan Marino, and Joe Namath. As a college recruit his suitors were few and far between, with the University of Toledo as the most viable option. He took the opportunity and turned it into a 26-10 record as a starter.

The guy can move around the pocket. He has an accurate arm. He can throw the deep ball and make the proper reads. And — most importantly — he can win.

After the Buccaneers were shellacked at home 27-0 by the Baltimore Ravens, Chris Simms finished the day with 133 passing yards and three interceptions. (For those playing Yahoo!'s fantasy football game, that's -4 points.) Yes, after one week, fans began hopeing Gruden would bench Chris Simms, giving way to No. 7.

Gradkowski saw some playing time late in the blowout. Even though he threw 1-for-5 for four yards, he didn't throw a pick or a batted ball against the vaunted Ravens defense. And his forgettable QB rating of 39.6 was higher than Simms' that day.

It's all contingent on the coming weeks. We all know a bad week in September does not warrant a quarterback shuffle. But if Simms continues this funk, Bruce Gradkowski may be the first rookie to maintain a starting job in the NFL. That would be quicker than another certain sixth-round draft pick quarterback became a starter.

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