I spent a couple of days with the 49ers around the draft, and one thing became clear: Jim Harbaugh and Colin Kaepernick are going to get along very well together.
This draft, particularly how quarterbacks fit with teams, was about beauty being in the eye of the beholder. Carolina got an exciting player and franchise billboard in Cam Newton. Tennessee fell in love with Jake Locker at a Seattle workout. Minnesota and the heady Christian Ponder made a good match. Jacksonville thought Blaine Gabbert's athleticism and strong arm, put in a pro-style training incubator for a couple of years, would come out pro-ready. Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden viewed Andy Dalton as Brees-like in many ways, and a great fit to run his new offense. And Kaepernick, with the Niners, is a similar fit.
A few days before the draft, Harbaugh, the rookie 49er coach, and GM Trent Baalke played racquetball. Baalke must lead NFL executives in fitness. He's thin, sculpted and can run his peers into the ground. Harbaugh has a bum knee from his playing career, but he's as competitive as anyone. Harbaugh eked out the win, but afterward his knee wasn't the only thing aching. "We both came out of it with pulled muscles in our rear ends, but winning that match was important to us both,'' Baalke said. Harbaugh won, two games to one.
Harbaugh wanted a baller out of his quarterback. He wanted a player who loves to practice, loves to learn, loves to play. As a friend of both Harbaugh and Baalke, Trent Dilfer told me in a quote I used in Sports Illustrated this week: "Kaepernick's a football junkie, and he'll be trained 24/7/365 by Jim Harbaugh to be an NFL quarterback. Every aspect of his life will be about being a quarterback. Perfect guy for Harbaugh." As another draft analyst told me Sunday: "Harbaugh drafted himself.''
When San Francisco drafted Kaepernick with the fourth pick in the second round on Friday, it was about 3:17 p.m. in Turlock, Calif., south of Sacramento, where Kaepernick lives. That's about 90 minutes from Santa Clara, where the 49ers train. And when Harbaugh got on the phone to welcome him to the team, he told him maybe they could meet halfway in the morning, then drive together the rest of the way to Santa Clara for his welcome-to-the-49ers meeting. Harbaugh just couldn't wait to get going, and even if he wasn't going to be able to talk football much because of the lockout, he wanted to start getting to know his new quarterback.
Kaepernick trumped that. "Coach, I'm only 90 minutes away,'' he said. "I can come over right now.'' And the Niners ended up taking him up on the offer. Kaepernick was in the building, grinning like a 10-year-old digging into birthday cake, by 6:30 p.m.
"Whether it's checkers or the Super Bowl,'' Kaepernick told me, "I've got to win. We had such a good time when coach Harbaugh came to work me out at Nevada. His energy is what got to me. I thought, I'd really like to play for this guy. The first thing we did was throw the ball to each other, and he made it a contest ... Who could throw five perfect spirals in a row? Then who can throw the ball through the goal posts from difficult angles? He just wanted to compete with me and see how I would react.''
Kaepernick threw a 94 mph fastball in high school, and he was sure to be a top-five-round baseball draft pick ... except he told major league officials he wasn't interested in being drafted. He wanted to play football. And even though Nevada was the only major college to offer him a scholarship, one school was enough for him. "Baseball just didn't do it for me,'' he said. "I liked it, but nothing like football.'' At Nevada, 2010 was a crucial year for Kaepernick, transforming him from a mid-round prospect. He jacked up his completion percentage from 58.9 to 64.9, something NFL teams had to see to pick him high.
Will he become a good NFL quarterback? No one knows. But he'll work at Harbaugh's pace and give it everything he has. The 49ers expect to sign Alex Smith in free agency when the market opens (the former 49er quarterback has the current 49er offensive playbook, acquired when the window between teams and players opened briefly last week), and it's likely 2011 will be a learning year for Kaepernick. If Smith plays as well as Harbaugh believes he can, they may have to fight it out for the starting job in 2012. Whatever, Harbaugh will have two quarterbacks he really wants if he gets Smith to sign.
"Colin has a unique ability to think himself to win,'' Baalke said. "That's something we believe is very important for an NFL quarterback, and that's one of the things that attracted us to him.''
Now we'll see if that translates to the big leagues.
Before I get to other points from draft weekend, I wanted to clarify something I wrote in my column yesterday. I changed the wording of it after the column had been up for an hour, but clearing up something for those who read the item about the Browns calling Cameron Jordan after drafting Jordan Cameron: Cleveland had drafted USC tight end Jordan Cameron already, and this was a phone call from the organization a few minutes later to get some biographical information on Jordan Cameron. That phone call went to the wrong Jordan -- Cal defensive end Cameron Jordan. Sorry for the confusion.
The Bengals got lucky, but they also got smart.
A couple of months before the draft, I'm told Cincinnati officials had some major questions about the work ethic of Georgia receiver A.J. Green and thought Alabama's Julio Jones was a more solid prospect. That changed in the weeks before the draft, with the team becoming convinced Green's transcendent talent couldn't be overlooked, and his approach would not be that of a prima donna.
Probably the right decision. But where Cincinnati got a great break was when Minnesota, Miami, Seattle and Buffalo passed on drafting Andy Dalton, the TCU quarterback who dropped to the 35th pick, allowing the Bengals to get a player new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden feels is the perfect quarterback -- thoughtful, a quick study, excellent progression-reader, a good-enough arm -- to run his offense. And in the third round: I found three teams post-draft that told me either speedy linebacker Dontay Moch was a great pick or they were going to pick him later in the round. So even with Carson Palmer sitting out and presumably not coming back to Cincinnati, this was a very good weekend for the Bengals, the first they've had in a while.
Tough weekend for Mark Herzlich, the Boston College linebacker who worked so hard to come back from a battle with cancer -- he's clean, but went undrafted. The Omaha Nighthawks of United Football League drafted him in the ninth round Monday night, and he'll have a decision to make whether he wants to play there first or wait for a free-agent trial with an NFL team. Herzlich played with a 12-inch titanium rod in his leg and overcame a summer foot injury to play a full season, but a less impactful one, with BC in 2010. "It's a slap in the face,'' Herzlich said, "but this is not the end for me. And it doesn't kill me. You don't have to scrape me off the floor. But there aren't too many positives about this.'' He said he'll return to his home in Pennsylvania, continue his workout regimen, and wait for the lockout to end so he can sign with team in free agency.'' We'll see if the UFL can make it attractive for him to play there, but that would abort most if not all of a rookie season in the NFL because of the timing of the season.
Now onto your e-mail:
I'M NOT SURE CHANGES ARE NEEDED. "In light of the Bears-Ravens trade snafu, are there any changes the NFL plans to make as to how trades are phoned in? I understand they responded to the Vikings-Ravens-Jax botched trade by adding additional phones, but in this day and age of texts, twitter, etc., it seems a bit antiquated to require two separate phone calls. Perhaps one conference call with both teams on the line at the same time would work or, being a $9B enterprise, station one NFL official at each of the 32 war rooms. I don't think Jerry Angelo was acting nefariously -- I believe it was an honest mix-up, but one for which the Ravens should have been compensated -- but the NFL can do better in my opinion.''-- Andy, Baltimore
I think you're over-complicating matters. A phone call to one of four dedicated phone lines for draft-day transactions is not so difficult to make. The Bears screwed up the process. It's a one-time thing. The 2003 story is a different one; two phone lines were in place then and maybe they were being blocked by one team, maybe not. But I see no reason to overhaul the system because the Bears messed up communications on a phone call.
I'M NOT SURE YOUR VALUE SYSTEM IS CORRECT. "Why do GMs in the NFL fall in love with draft prospects when the trade market (when it reopens) is so much cheaper? If the Falcons had waited for the CBA to be completed, they could have offered up far less to receive an NFL wide receiver that could help them immediately while achieving their goal of getting younger. I know he isn't the best example because of his personality, but Miami paid a quarter the price for Brandon Marshall. I would imagine that if the Falcons offered Arizona the same level of compensation, they could have landed Larry Fitzgerald. Who would you rather have, Fitzgerald (27 years old) or Julio Jones?''-- Andrew Gardiner, Toronto
Fitzgerald. But that option was not open to the Falcons, and my experience is the Cardinals would not have taken the deal, because Fitzgerald is the centerpiece of their franchise. I often think draft picks are overvalued, so on that point I agree. But I can tell you this right now: Miami would rather have two second-round picks and the $10 million a year it's paying for Marshall back instead of having Marshall on the team.
YES. "Now that the Bucs went defensive line and linebacker in the draft, don't they really have to go after a cornerback in free agency? Ronde Barber is old, and at the very least Aqib Talib is certainly going to be suspended by the league for his offseason gun incident, if not cut outright. Will the Glazers finally spend some money, maybe on Nnamdi Asomugha?''-- Mark, Tampa, Fla.
I can't see the Glazers, one of the lowest-spending owner groups in the league, spending $18 million a year on a cornerback like Asomugha, regardless how good he is. But yes, they'll need to address cornerback in free agency, maybe with someone like Cincinnati's Johnathan Joseph, if he comes free.
YES. "So you really think Trent Dilfer "earned (his) dough" for blasting the Vikings and Christian Ponder over the weekend? Take a look at what he said last year about Sam Bradford. His evaluation of his talent was similar to what he said about Ponder, and his evaluation of the Rams for taking Bradford also quite negative. Let's not give credit to someone for making a ridiculously heated argument against a young man who hasn't even had a chance to prove himself yet.''-- John, Boston
So what do you want your analysts to say? Sugary-sweet things like you hear 80 percent of the time on ESPN and NFL Network draft coverage? It was stunning to see Ponder picked 12th overall. Stunning. I'm glad there's one analyst who's going to shoot from the hip, even if he might be wrong sometimes. And I saw what Dilfer said about Ponder. It was not at all "ridiculously heated.'' It was strident, but it was reasoned. He said he'd watched tape of Ponder, and said he thought he "melted'' at some big times on the field. If I'm ESPN, and I employ Dilfer, I'm telling him, "Great job,'' not, "Be nice until we see him play for three years.''
THANK YOU. "I read several articles on the big news Monday morning, and stayed up late to watch the coverage of it Sunday night, as well. In my personal opinion, none of them were as honest and touching as what you wrote at the top of MMQB, and it was a perfect example of why, even when I am fed up with the NFL or football in general, I take the time to read your column every Monday morning.''-- Kyle Davis, Helena, Mont.
I appreciate that. Thanks a lot.