By Don Banks
March 23, 2005

KAPALUA, Hawaii -- Attending his first NFL annual meeting as a head coach, Mike Nolan on Wednesday morning found himself surrounded by reporters and seated at the vaunted No. 1 table at the NFC coaches media breakfast at the Ritz Carlton Kapalua.

And by No. 1, we mean in possession of the top pick in next month's NFL draft, a fact that ensures that San Francisco's new head coach will never be lonely or want for conversation between now and April 23.

Peppered with questions concerning the top two quarterbacks in this year's draft -- Cal's Aaron Rodgers and Utah's Alex Smith -- Nolan praised both players, but for the first time drew some distinctions between the two leading prospects for the No. 1 spot. This after Nolan watched both quarterbacks go through their pro-day workouts on consecutive days last week, and then met with them individually for a meal and a little job interviewing.

Nolan's early read? Rodgers has the edge mechanically, given that he is coming out of a pro-style passing game with Cal, while Smith played in Utah's variation of the run-and-shoot, where he lined up in the shot-gun formation and rarely took a snap from under center.

"They did a very good job with all the mechanics, but Aaron is certainly ahead of Alex because of the style of offense he ran," Nolan said. "Alex was doing a lot of things in the workout that he has not really done for two, three years. There was no center to come from underneath. He did take a drop and all those types of things, but it was a little different. The difference was there's a polish in Aaron at this point because he's been doing those types of things physically."

There you have it, NFL fans. With exactly one month remaining until the 49ers have to turn in their card to commissioner Paul Tagliabue, San Francisco's head coach says Rodgers is more polished than Smith in terms of running an NFL-style passing game.

Case closed. Wonder who Miami's going to take at No. 2?

Not exactly, dear draftniks. Rodgers, the local Bay Area boy, is ahead of Smith at this point, but it's not like he can just sit on his cushion and run out the clock for the next 30 days. Good mechanics, Nolan quickly pointed out, aren't everything.

"Mechanics are all fine,'' Nolan said. "Jeff George [the No. 1 overall pick by Indianapolis in 1990] was mechanically pretty damn good, but he couldn't move them more than a couple plays without something happening.

"Alex does some under-the-center stuff in his offense, but he's just behind the other fellow as far as development in that area. Maybe in three years or less they'll be very similar to each other as far as that goes.''

But for every minute Nolan spent talking about Rodgers and Smith's mechanics, he spent twice as much time trying to underscore just how big a role intangibles will play in the 49ers' decision, if they choose to take a quarterback in the No. 1 spot. In Nolan's eyes, a quarterback who has proven he can keep drives alive is a far safer bet than the most mechanically sound passer.

"To me the intangible things are really critical, because in all my years of coaching, and the guys I went against, those are the guys who are tough to beat,'' he said. "The more important thing to me is who's going to get in that huddle, command that huddle, have command presence, and who's going to be the better guy to move that ball down the field. You want a guy who when he gets in that huddle, the other 10 guys know, 'Hey, this is our guy. It's going to work.' That's important.''

In talking so much about the top two quarterbacks, Nolan certainly lent credence to the notion that San Francisco isn't seriously considering anyone but a passer at No. 1. Nolan said otherwise, claiming the 49ers could bypass both Rodgers and Smith in favor of another talent if he was clearly the best player in the draft, or even trade down. But in the next breath he conceded that in the NFL, you overlook the special quarterback at your own risk.

"If New England was taking the top pick, you're probably getting one of the other guys,'' said Nolan, in acknowledgment of Tom Brady's secure status. "When we're taking the top pick, you're probably right with taking the quarterback if the top players are all bunched up together that close. That's what you've got to do, take the quarterback. Taking the best player available only goes so far. It goes a long way, but when you get right down to the point, you've got to fill a need sometimes. That does happen.

"The good thing about the quarterback position, if there is a guy worthy of that pick and he's better than anyone else, because of the position, you take him because you don't get the chance again. If the opportunity is there to get the right guy, you've got to do it. Because I like to think we'll never pick here again.''

Make no mistake, pre-draft poker face or no poker face, the 49ers need to take a quarterback and are a virtual lock to do so. Why? Because the top three quarterbacks on their roster -- Tim Rattay, Ken Dorsey and Cody Pickett -- were each drafted in the seventh round, and so far in their brief pro careers, none has inspired much confidence.

Even in the NFL, some times things are just that straightforward.

Asked Wednesday if he could win with the quarterbacks he has on hand, Nolan hesitated and then begged off on answering until he gets a first-hand look at his depth chart in the team's upcoming mini-camp. In other words, the most polite of votes of no confidence.

For now, Nolan understandably doesn't want to tip his hand about much of anything having to do with the 49ers' thinking at No. 1. San Francisco hasn't ruled out trading down, but Nolan admits no one has come calling and that the 49ers aren't inclined to shop the pick. He also maintains the team's front office is still at least a week away from any real consensus on the selection.

"I don't know who we're going to pick,'' Nolan said. "Next week we're going to go through the whole thing. It might take us a week, or maybe more. But [if it's a quarterback], it'll be our decision. Not the perception of the public's decision. If he's perceived [as the No. 1 pick] and we feel that same way, then that's a good fit. If there's a difference of opinion, then obviously we have to go the way we feel will make us better.''

That's where the 49ers are in luck. Getting better isn't that difficult a task when you went 2-14 last season, and are 9-23 since last making the playoffs in 2002. The first step in that process will be to select either Rodgers or Smith (our money remains on Rodgers) next month, and let Nolan and the new quarterback combine to interject the 49ers franchise with some renewed hope.

"It's certainly not a burden [picking first],'' Nolan said. "You want to get the best player, because it's an opportunity for us to get better. We got the pick because we were 2-14, obviously. So we need this. We need good players.

"I think both of those [quarterbacks] are going to play and play well in the NFL. Are either one of them the best player in the draft? That's what I want to really be convinced of if it's true.''

And that's what the 49ers and the rest of us have one more month to analyze and debate.

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