Join Date: Apr 2005
King: Rodgers, Smith or Campbell
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, the Auburn QB hidden behind two great running backs this year, 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 kid 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.
I have to check myself when I put [Rolle] in that group,'' Nolan told me, "because I've had so much success with players from Miami -- Ed Reed, picked late in the first round, and Ray Lewis, picked late in the first round. If he's got the intangibles Ray and Ed have, and he's a great player, I wouldn't hesitate to pick him.''
It's possible, though not certain, that the 49ers will begin negotiations with the players of their choice early next week. San Francisco will be on the clock, and it will be free to do what it wished with whom it chooses. Before that happens, Nolan and his staff want one more extended visit with each of the four players.
It's also possible, Nolan told me, that he'll ask Rodgers to work out again late this week or early next week. The Niners coaches ran Smith through a special private workout last week. When Smith worked out last month for all NFL teams, he did it inside, in a controlled environment, without taking snaps from center (which was especially notable because he operated in the shotgun exclusively at Utah, and he'll have to learn how to play under center in any offensive system in the NFL).
"Alex's first workout was not really to our liking,'' Nolan said. "Basically, what I wanted to see was more of the kind of environment he'll face here. In Candlestick -- or 3Com, or Monster, or whatever it is -- there's going to be some wind. He's going to have our receivers, not his. So we brought Brandon Lloyd and Arnaz Battle, we went outside on kind of a windy day, we had him throw into the wind, and basically we tried to make it uncomfortable for him. He threw a couple of bad balls. And he reacted like, 'Damn it!' I liked that. He had to cut the wind with his balls, which is something we had to see. Our coaches asked him to do some things he didn't expect. Like jumping rope. How would he react to that? And so we may ask Aaron to go through the same things. Right now, no one here's anticipating it, but it might be something I want to see.''
I told Nolan that I've heard Smith might be a better overall athlete, but Rodgers has the better arm. Rodgers is a little cocky, Smith a little smarter. So I asked the coach, is that perception really right or really wrong?''
"Really wrong?'' he said. "No, I would say you're really close. But some of how you describe Aaron is the way he masks his confidence. I don't think he's necessarily cocky. That's just the way he is, a confident kid.''
When I watched the coaches' tape, I liked Rodgers over Smith by quite a bit. Both quarterbacks are predominantly short-ball throwers. Rodgers is 6-foot-2 and 223 pounds. Smith is 6-foot-4 and 217. The Utah offense was a gimmicky one; Smith ran and threw from the shotgun in a wide-open scheme.Â Against North Carolina last season, Smith rarely seemed to read coverage. One of the things he'll have to learn as a pro is the ability to scan the field while dropping back, setting up, and throwing while the defense converges on him. It sounds so simple, but if you're set up in the shotgun all the time, you'll have an adjustment to make as a pro. Smith threw short so much that it was hard to get a feel whether he's going to be a 60 percent passer when a team asks him to play in a pro-style system. His deeper throws sometimes wobbled.
Rodgers, too, was a dinker-and-dunker more often than any pro team would like to see. But he's NFL-accurate; he throws intermediate and sideline throws where his receivers can catch and run with it; he throws a tight, hard spiral; and he definitely has the speed and agility to escape when necessary. I liked how he reacted to the blitz, throwing comfortably off his back foot for one touchdown strike against UCLA last year. And I liked how he threw hard and accurately on the run.
I've heard from NFL people that Smith has the bigger upside because, supposedly, he's a better athlete and eminently coachable. He got a 40 on his Wonderlic intelligence test (a 50 is perfect; a 40 is college-professor brainiac stuff) and won't have trouble catching on to anything he's taught. Fine, but match him up on tape against Rodgers. The Cal kid's arm is better and more accurate downfield. I watched most pass plays from two games on each player. I'm sure the Niners have watched 20 of each, as they should. Maybe a little coaches' tape in the wrong hands (mine) is a dangerous thing. But from the footage I saw, Rodgers is a better thrower and certainly a good-enough athlete to survive NFL pass-rushes.
Next I watched Campbell. My first question was: Where's this guy been hiding? The simple answer: Behind Brown and a very big Cadillac. Campbell is 6-4 3/4 and 230 pounds. His pass-drop is quick and textbook perfect. He sets up well in the pocket, bouncing athletically until he finds his receivers. He never flinches against a pass rush, moving deftly this way or that to avoid traffic. He throws on the run better than Rodgers or Campbell. On one throw against Kentucky last fall, he rolled out from his 46 to his right, then flicked a sideline throw 19 yards downfield for an in-stride completion. That's the kind of throw he'll be asked to make 100 times a year in the NFL.
I had to look up Campbell's numbers, because I'd been so focused on the two big names that I hadn't focused on the lesser-lights at quarterback. He was 31-8 as an Auburn starter. He shattered the school's completion percentage by three points, completing 64.6 percent of his throws. Why was he not considered a peer of the two top prospects?
I heard two things when I asked around on Friday. One: he scored a very pedestrian 14 on his Wonderlic test last year, then got it up to 28 this year. Teams are suspicious that he studied for his Wonderlic and the 14 is closer to what his true score is. Two: If he was so good, why didn't the Auburn offensive staff design the games around him instead of the great backs?
My rejoinders: In the case of the Wonderlic, wouldn't you want your quarterback to work to get better where he's deficient? I would. And look how the kid adjusted to four different offensive coordinators in his Auburn career. He obviously was able to digest a lot of X's and O's pretty well. In regard to play-calling, let's remember two things: First, SEC coaches voted Campbell the 2004 offensive player of the year. And he averaged 21 pass attempts a game. This isn't Bob Griese with Kiick, Csonka and Morris, folks. This is a guy who controlled a high-octane offense and was the ringleader.
I saw Frye bounce two short throws three feet away from uncovered receivers in his Indianapolis workout, and maybe that just soured me. But his over-the-top throwing motion looked cumbersome and labored. Anderson's been schooled well by former Chargers boss Mike Riley. He throws a tight, hard spiral with a nice touch on the deep ball.
But the 49ers won't be looking at those guys. I hope they take another look at Campbell. I sure would if I were Mike Nolan.