The NFL Draft, like it or not, is defined by the quarterback position. This year's is no different.
"A lot of people think this draft is down because they don't feel there are the franchise quarterbacks -- the can't-miss John Elway or Peyton Manning -- at the top of the board," said one NFC personnel director. "The two guys at the top of the quarterbacks lists have a lot of differing opinions on them."
Shoulder surgery has had Andrew Walter's stock falling, but he's worth the risk. (Getty Images)
Those two guys are Utah's Alex Smith and Cal's Aaron Rodgers. They have spent the past four months jockeying to see who not only will be the top quarterback taken, but quite possibly the top player selected overall.
The San Francisco 49ers, in dire need of a franchise passer, own the first pick, and coach Mike Nolan and his staff have spent a lot of time evaluating these two quarterbacks.
The 49ers attended the on-campus workouts of both Smith and Rodgers, and the 49ers had another workout with Smith on Tuesday. They will meet with both again individually in the next week or so.
Blowing quarterback picks can damage a franchise, which is why the 49ers and this new regime will exhaust the due diligence in deciding which quarterback to choose -- if they go in that direction.
There is no real consensus on these two players, which makes it even tougher.
"I don't think either one should be ranked as high as they are," said one NFC scout. "I just don't think they're all that good."
Yet you hear other scouts praise the heck out of them.
"I've been on Smith for a while," said an AFC scout. "I really like the way he handles things. He's mature. He's accurate and his arm is good enough. Rodgers has the better arm, which is why some people like him better."
Rodgers is a Bay Area kid, which has made some think he's the logical choice for the 49ers. But regional picks don't matter in the NFL. If the 49ers think Smith is the better player, he will be their choice.
It's that simple.
And there is some talk making its way through the league that the 49ers are leaning toward Smith -- although some are saying it's just a smokescreen.
|NFL Draft: Schedule|
|April 8||Special Teams|
|April 11||Defensive line|
|April 13||Running backs|
|April 15||Updated Mock|
|April 18||Offensive line|
|April 22||Tight Ends|
|April 22||Updated Mock|
Nolan and director of player personnel Scott McCloughan, as well as offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy, attended the workouts of Rodgers and Smith. They were impressed with both.
Smith's first workout was so impressive, though, that many of the scouts in attendance actually gave him a standing ovation when he was done. That's rare in those circles.
Of the 80 passes he threw that day, only three balls hit the ground and two were dropped.
Even more impressive is that he showed the scouts that he could take three, five and seven-step drops. At Utah, he played in Urban Meyer's wide-open system that had him in the shotgun most of the time.
"In Alex's case, he's very athletic and it is just a matter of getting him in a structured offense that has him do those types of things," Nolan said that day. "So, I really don't have any concerns about that part of his game because of his abilities."
But the 49ers conducted their own workout Tuesday.
They brought two of their own receivers with them to help create a different set of circumstances for Smith. He threw to his Utah receivers last time. The 49ers also had him taking snaps from under center, which he did not do last time.
After the workout, Nolan said Smith did fine under the conditions. Whether he actually believes that is up in the air.
Smith's maturity also impresses the 49ers. He earned a degree in two years and they consider him a good leader, something the young team needs.
At 6-feet-4 with prototype size, Smith has come a long way in a hurry. He was the team's No. 3 quarterback in the fall of 2003, but took over as the starter in the third game that year when an injury forced out the starter. Smith hasn't looked back since.
In 2004, he was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, leading Utah to an unbeaten season. Along the way, he began to pick up steam in NFL scouting circles. But some thought he might be a gimmick, a product of the wide-open offense.
As they delved deeper, the scouts noticed he was much more. There were some concerns about his arm strength, but he helped ease some of that at his Pro Day workout. As for touch, it reminds people of Joe Montana.
Smarts? He was in master's classes in economics last year. Football smarts? He's the nephew of Michigan State coach John L. Smith.
"He sees the field," said the AFC scout.
If you want to know more about Smith, there's actually a book out on him. It's titled: Alex Smith: The Story of the University of Utah's Unlikely Star Quarterback.
The only thing is, this career is just beginning.
"I think to be the No. 1 pick you have to be a good football player," Smith said. "And you have to be smart in order to be successful in the NFL. I think I bring those things to the table."
Rodgers' route to possibly being the top pick was winding as well. He had to go to junior college for two years before surfacing at Cal -- even though he grew up down the road from the school. Cal coach Jeff Tedford, somewhat of a quarterback guru, found him while recruiting a tight end teammate of Rodgers'.
Two years later, Rodgers was leading Cal to a 10-2 record and earning rave reviews from the scouts. He showed a powerful arm in the Cal system, enough to forgo his senior season to enter this draft.
Despite his impressive resumé, some scouts are still worried about his height. He measured 6-2 at the combine, but he just doesn't look that tall.
"Maybe he had lifts in his socks," said one team's scout.
Rodgers also has to fight off the Tedford curse talk. Tedford has tutored a lot of quality college quarterbacks who have not done so great in the NFL. Among them are Akili Smith and Joey Harrington. The talk is Tedford's system is quarterback friendly, but it doesn't always translate to NFL success.
He teaches things a certain way. One is to have the passers hold the ball up by the ear hole in the helmet before releasing it. That is often coached out in the NFL.
"I really don't believe in the Tedford curse," Rodgers said at the combine.
Rodgers wore a Joe Montana T-shirt under his Cal jersey for good luck. He said he won't wear it in the NFL. But he would love to wear a 49ers jersey.
"You better believe it," he said. "That was my team growing up. I was a huge Niners fan."
So will it be it Smith or Rodgers? And is either an elite quarterback?
The guess here is that Smith will be the better of the two, but both will have solid careers. Are they John Elway or Peyton Manning? That's unlikely. But it's doubtful they're Ryan Leaf, either.
|Top Prospects: Quarterbacks|
|1. Alex Smith, Utah|
|The skinny: He's accurate, has good size (6-4) and he has mobility. He's going to be a star.|
|2. Aaron Rodgers, Cal.|
|The skinny: He is just behind Smith. Rodgers does have a good arm, but the throwing motion is a concern.|
|3. Kyle Orton, Purdue|
|The skinny: This is a guy with a real strong arm. If not for an injury last season, he might be going higher.|
|4. Jason Campbell, Auburn|
|The skinny: A player who really rose up a lot of teams' boards after an impressive senior season. Has a strong arm.|
|5. Andrew Walter, Arizona State|
|The skinny: Hasn't been able to throw because of late-season shoulder surgery, but he is worth the risk in the second or third round.|
|Campbell. He's a player who was a second-day pick a year ago, but could now be the third quarterback taken.|
|Walter. The injury to his shoulder really hurt his chances of being a first-round pick.|
|Ryan Fitzpatrick, Harvard. Some scouts think this kid has a chance to make it in the NFL, even though he played against lesser competition.|
|Rodgers. He's good. But he's small and the feeling here is he's not as good as Smith.|
|Orton. He has a big arm and that translates well on the next level. Plus, he played in a pro-style offense at Purdue.|
|There are many who think this is a down year for quarterbacks, but we beg to disagree. Smith and Rodgers will both be quality starters early in their careers. Do they have the look of John Elway? No. But both have good arms and can make all the throws. They are right there with Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. There is a drop down from them, but one or two of the other passes in this draft will become quality starters.|