Sunday, April 3, 2005
In the 20 days remaining before the NFL Draft, the 49ers may be tempted to take an offer for additional picks and trade out of the top choice. That would be a bad idea.
As do most teams bad enough to earn the first pick in the draft, the 49ers need help at just about every position. But what they really need are players of quality, starting with a quarterback, not players in quantity.
"You can get better with other players, but you don't become a great team or a consistent team for a period of time until you hit on (a quarterback), and they're in position to do that," said the offensive coordinator of another NFL team.
That's why the 49ers should stay No. 1 and choose Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Of course, nothing in the draft is for sure -- neither quality nor quantity. But, particularly in the absence of a "can't-miss" game-breaking defensive player such as Lawrence Taylor, Reggie White or Julius Peppers in this draft, a team that has the first pick needs to get a quarterback if it does not already have a star-quality player at that position.
It would be extremely rare for a team with a star-quality quarterback to be drafting first.
"It's hard to win if you don't have a quarterback. You have no margin of error," said Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher.
So far, we have only hints that the 49ers are leaning toward Rodgers. But there is plenty of circumstantial evidence the team will choose a quarterback, including coach Mike Nolan's comments at the NFL meetings in Hawaii, and the fact that Nolan had not even met Tim Rattay, last year's starter, prior to this weekend's minicamp.
Conventional wisdom around the NFL is divided, with many experts saying that neither Rodgers nor Alex Smith of Utah is worth the mega-millions in dollars that the first pick will command. But it was also conventional wisdom that consigned Tom Brady to the sixth round of the draft in 2000. Aside from Brady's Patriots, six of the other seven teams among the final eight in the playoffs last season were led by quarterbacks they drafted in the first round. The 49ers earned the worst record in the league in 2004 while playing with three quarterbacks they drafted in the last round.
"You've got to roll the dice. For a quarterback, you have to," said Matt Millen, president of the Detroit Lions. "If you don't have (a quarterback), you have no chance. If you think you have one, at least you have something to build onto."
"You can't manufacture one," said Ernie Accorsi, general manager of the New York Giants. "You have to be very careful you don't evaluate by the curve. There's no one more quarterback-conscious than me, but if you don't feel they're franchise quarterbacks ... you can't pick him."
History is full of teams that made mistakes using the first pick. History is also full of teams that made mistakes trading the first pick. In today's game, which revolves around quarterbacks and operates with rules that make it difficult for teams to retain more than a small core of players for very long, trading down for extra draft picks is a particularly difficult strategy to execute.
Many 49ers' fans, wistful for the old days, still dream of 1986. They remember Bill Walsh's masterful series of trade-downs from the first round that replenished the team's roster, and they think it could be done again now.
Eight of those Walsh picks in 1986, all of them chosen after the first round, became starters on Super Bowl championship teams, in one of the great draft-day successes of all time. But that was a different team and a different time.
In 1986, the 49ers already had a first-rate roster and had won two Super Bowls in the previous five seasons, so the numbers game suited them well. Further, there was no free agency, so the team was able to stockpile all the drafted players for years until they were needed.
Also, the 49ers were trading out of a late first-round pick, not the top overall selection.
Walsh had such a unique eye for talent that he often was able to trade down in the first round with success.
But not always.
He got long-time starters such as Bubba Paris and Roger Craig after trade- downs. He helped rebuild the 49ers in 2000 with trade-downs from the third spot in the first round. But in 1980, his second season with the 49ers, Walsh moved out of the second pick in the draft and wound up with two journeymen, fullback Earl Cooper and defensive end Jim Stuckey. One of the players Walsh passed on, chosen with the third pick in the draft, was Hall of Fame tackle Anthony Muñoz.
Nonetheless, if Walsh still were running the 49ers, chances are he would try to trade down again.
"If there was a truly great player like John Elway there, you could see how you'd take that pick and use it," he said. "But they'd probably be wise to try to move back even two or three or five spots, still get a potentially great player and get some compensation for it to help the draft in other rounds. That would probably be as good a move as they could make, unless they have somebody in mind (for the first pick)."
Generally, however, when teams trade out of an ultra-high pick, they regret it.
Perhaps the most egregious trade-down occurred in 1977, when the Seattle Seahawks gave up the second pick in the draft for three later choices from Dallas. The Cowboys got running back Tony Dorsett, who is in the Hall of Fame. The Seahawks got Steve August, Tom Lynch and Terry Beeson.
A year later, Tampa Bay dealt the top selection to Houston, which chose Hall of Fame running back Earl Campbell. The Bucs got Jimmie Giles, a veteran tight end of little distinction, and four draft picks. Tampa Bay picked a future Super Bowl MVP, Doug Williams, with one of those picks. Unfortunately for the Bucs, Williams' success came with Washington, not Tampa Bay.
In 1990, New England sent the third overall pick to Seattle, which used it on defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy, who played in eight Pro Bowls. The Patriots got the forgettable pair of Chris Singleton and Ray Agnew.
In 1997, the Jets traded out of the top pick, sending it to St. Louis. The Rams got a franchise left tackle, Orlando Pace. The Jets got a serviceable linebacker, James Farrior, whose best season came in 2004 -- with Pittsburgh.
Let's not forget, either, that the Colts traded the first pick in 1983 after the fact; a couple of days after drafting Elway, they traded him to Denver.
The jury still is out on the 2001 trade between Atlanta and San Diego that sent Michael Vick to the Falcons with the first overall pick and LaDainian Tomlinson to the Chargers. As good as Tomlinson is, it's hard to argue the Falcons didn't get the best of it. They have two playoff appearances, including a trip to the NFC Championship Game, in the last three years, and they have a waiting list for season tickets that never before existed.
The 49ers used to have a waiting list for tickets, too. If they don't get a quarterback, and soon, that waiting list will be gone -- if it isn't gone already. That's another reason they should not be tempted to trade.