Monday April 11, 2005 9:15AM;
As they do every NFL draft season, the gurus, general managers and coaches are narrowing the top first-round prospects to a select four or five or six. In some order, the top-of-the-draft guys this year are two quarterbacks (Cal's Aaron Rodgers and Utah's Alex Smith), a wide receiver (Braylon Edwards of Michigan) and two running backs (Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams, both from Auburn).
But this is an odd draft. This year no player is truly deserving of being chosen first overall by the 49ers. Two years ago, I watched Carson Palmer late in his USC season rise above the crowd. The way Palmer threw short and deep, evaded the rush and threw on the run, made you say, "This looks like a great NFL player." Ditto each of the other last four top picks, really -- Michael Vick (2001), David Carr (2002) and Eli Manning (2004) ... though I could respect the arguments of those last year who put Robert Gallery, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Sean Taylor or Kellen Winslow in the discussion with Manning. The scouting reports on all those players showed them capable of greatness, guys who could rise above the crowd. You can't look at any of the players this year (well, maybe Brown, the 233-pound brute who can outrun the most gifted cornerbacks) and say, "Now there's the first pick of the draft.'' Think back to bowl season. Can you honestly say you watched Aaron Rodgers or Alex Smith and thought he was worth some bad team staking its future on him? No way.
I watched four hours of coaching game tape last Thursday with CBS analyst and quarterback guru Phil Simms. He asked that his opinions be kept private, which I'll honor. I saw five quarterbacks: Rodgers, Smith, Campbell, Charlie Frye of Akron and Oregon State's Derek Anderson. My feeling after watching these prospects:
1. I think the 49ers have two options. They could do the safe thing -- maybe the smart thing -- and take Rodgers. Or they could step out on a limb and pick an excellent receiver (Edwards) or really good back (Brown) with the first pick, and follow at the top of the second round by choosing underrated Auburn quarterback Jason Campbell, who will be one of the real gift picks of this draft when someone nabs him in round two.
2. Of the two quarterbacks considered possibilities to go first in the April 23 draft, Rodgers is better than Smith -- better mechanically, with a stronger arm and very good athleticism.
3. Campbell looked really good -- so good that you find yourself wondering: How can a scout watch this kid and not label his arm, athleticism and field presence all first-round gifts?
4. Frye, a guy some call a late first-round prospect, is really overrated.
5. Anderson, with a very good arm and good-enough mobility, is a nice mid-round sleeper. I say he has the best chance of anyone to be the fifth-round surprise of this year's draft.
More about them in a couple of paragraphs. Now for the latest on the 49ers' plans. The man with the final say on the top pick, 49ers coach Mike Nolan, told me the other day he still expects some team to go fishing for San Francisco's first selection, but we all know it's a long shot the Niners will be able to trade it. Assuming they can't make a deal, I don't see how Nolan can come out of the first day without his quarterback of the future.
Today through Thursday, Nolan and his staff will host the four players, one by one, he says they're considering with the first overall pick. Smith and Rodgers will be the last two visitors, with Edwards and Miami cornerback Antrel Rolle in today and Tuesday. I'm sure Rolle wouldn't be the first overall pick; he's not even the top corner on some teams' boards. Nolan is likely examining Rolle closely so if the 49ers trade down they'd have an option beyond the top three or four players.