With the arrival of March the fun begins for NFL draftniks. And every year at this time they either know who the No. 1 pick will be (Jeff George, Michael Vick, Carson Palmer) or the pool of quality candidates is so rich (David Carr and Julius Peppers, Eli Manning and Robert Gallery) that the team selecting first is certain to get a cornerstone player. ¬∂ That's why the upcoming draft is so weird--and why the San Francisco 49ers and their new coach, Mike Nolan, are in a tough spot. There isn't a can't-miss player on the board. "I don't remember a year like this," Buffalo Bills president Tom Donahoe said last week at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. "I've talked to 10 people, and I've gotten 10 different answers on who they like at the top. It makes it hard on San Francisco. If the 49ers don't want the pick, it might be hard for them to trade it."
A year ago who would have thought that the names being bandied about at the top of the draft would be Ronnie Brown, Braylon Edwards, Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith? At the same time who would have thought that the biggest power brokers in this draft would be Nolan, Scot McCloughan, Nick Saban, Romeo Crennel and Phil Savage? And what would the odds have been that the most famous player in the draft, Maurice Clarett, wouldn't be selected?
That's the 2005 draft in a nutshell. It's like The Gates. You're not sure what to make of it, but you know you haven't seen anything like it.
With the draft set for April 23 and 24, here's how SI sees the top four picks:
• San Francisco exhausts all attempts to trade down, then reaches around the corner for Rodgers, the Cal quarterback.
• Assuming he doesn't get a running back through free agency or in a trade, Saban, the Miami Dolphins' new coach, selects Brown, who split time with Carnell (Cadillac) Williams at Auburn. Brown has very good speed (4.47 seconds in the 40) for a 233-pound back.
• The Cleveland Browns aren't in love with this quarterback crop, but Crennel, the former New England Patriots defensive coordinator, has to have a passer. It'll be the mobile Smith, out of Utah.
• If any player is a lock to be among the first four picks, it's Edwards, the Michigan wideout. "He's probably the best player in the draft," Nolan says. The pick is held by the Chicago Bears, but last Saturday they signed free-agent All-Pro wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad to a six-year deal. The Bears will trade the pick.
"YOU'RE ON the clock," a reporter said to Nolan in Indianapolis last week.
"That's pretty cool," he said.
The 46-year-old Nolan, who was Baltimore's defensive coordinator the last three seasons, was the surprise choice of Niners owner John York to resurrect a once-proud franchise that sank to a league-worst 2--14 last season. Nolan has never been a head coach at any level, and he's never worked as a personnel man in a front office, but he will have the final say in the San Francisco draft room. The bookish Nolan may not look the part, but he's a bulldog. Working in the coaches' booth during a game against the New York Jets last season, Nolan got upset at Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis for showing disgust at his play calls. Nolan phoned down to inside linebackers coach Mike Singletary and barked, "You tell Ray to stop giving me an attitude. That impacts the other guys. That's not going to help us win." Lewis dropped the attitude.
York has gotten the lion's share of the criticism for the 49ers' demise, and Nolan spent part of his interview with the owner pressing him for answers on why the team went south so fast. After Nolan got the job in January, he recalls, York told him, "You're the only [candidate] who attacked me. I liked that."
Likewise, Nolan's choice to be his top personnel aide, the 33-year-old McCloughan, who was the Seattle Seahawks' director of college scouting, caught everyone by surprise. Nolan spent just 30 minutes with McCloughan before hiring him. "He was a complete stranger," Nolan says, "and he's going to make or break me. But he came very highly recommended, and I knew he was the guy when I asked him what he looked for in football players, and he said, 'Passion, football intelligence and being a playmaker.' That's what I look for."
Beyond the notion that San Francisco will draft a quarterback first, the Nolan-McCloughan draft board is a mystery. The Niners' starting signal-caller, Tim Rattay, a seventh-round pick in 2000, has been mostly ineffective and plagued by injury during his 11/2 seasons in the lineup. The 49ers' options were narrowed after Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart announced in January that he would return to Southern Cal for his senior season. Now Rodgers and Smith, both of whom had a year of eligibility left, will get long looks from Nolan and McCloughan. Barring a lucrative offer from a team looking to move up to take Edwards or a running back, one of those quarterbacks is about to hit the lottery. "It looks like it's down to me and Aaron," Smith said at the combine.
Both rose out of college football obscurity and California towns. Smith, from LaMesa, is a wiry (6'4", 217) kid who's probably the most intelligent player in the draft. Still only 20, he got his economics degree in two years. As a sophomore he capitalized on an injury to the Utes' incumbent in the second game of the season and never gave the job back. In two seasons as a starter he rushed for 1,072 yards, completed 66.3% of his passes, went 21--1 and had a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 47 to 8. The book on his arm: excellent touch on short and intermediate passes, throws an average deep ball that sometimes flutters. "I think what separates me from other quarterbacks," Smith says, "is my athleticism, leadership and intelligence."
What separates Rodgers, who grew up in Chico, is his confidence. In high school he refused to believe the college scouts who said he wasn't Division I material; he went to junior college for two years, then signed with Cal and went 17--5 as a starter. Unlike other Jeff Tedford--coached quarterbacks, Rodgers is an accurate passer (63.8% completion rate) who isn't hesitant about making any throw. "I think I'm a guy you can build a franchise around," he says. But he'll have to overcome the reputation of other Tedford-coached quarterbacks--Trent Dilfer at Fresno State, Akili Smith and Joey Harrington at Oregon, and Kyle Boller at Cal--who after putting up impressive college numbers have been far less successful in the pros. "When I interviewed with the Packers," says Rodgers, "they killed me on that stuff. They asked me, 'How are you different from Harrington?' And, 'Are you just a Tedford product?' It's frustrating. I think I'm the most accurate quarterback Coach Tedford ever had."
The 49ers interviewed Rodgers and Smith at the combine. "I liked them both a lot," says Nolan. "Aaron doesn't ride the fence on anything, which I like. People don't follow fence-sitters. Alex is very smart, very capable. He sees the target and knows what he has to do. My job is to figure out if he can be a great one."
Saban and Crennel, who worked under the secretive Bill Belichick in Cleveland and New England, respectively, won't be offering clues on which way they're leaning with the second and third picks. Brown's speed and squeaky-clean image would seem to give him an edge as the Dolphins' running back choice over Williams and Texas' Cedric Benson (both of whom should go in the top 10). Though they need a quarterback, Crennel and Savage, the former Ravens director of player personnel who is now the Browns' general manager, may choose the best player (Edwards) or an impact defensive player (Wisconsin pass rusher Erasmus James or West Virginia cornerback Adam Jones). After all, Crennel has seen firsthand how a passer drafted in the sixth round, Tom Brady, can be molded into a champion.
finally there's Clarett, who hasn't played in a game in 26 months, after dropping out of Ohio State and losing his bid to have NFL draft rules overturned in court. He participated in last year's combine before an appeals court ruled in favor of the NFL. This year he returned to Indianapolis far more fit, his body fat down from 17.0% last year to 11.4%. But then he ran tight-end-like 40 times of 4.72 and 4.82. Three seasons ago, when Clarett was tearing up the Big Ten during a freshman year in which he scored 16 touchdowns, it would have been ridiculous to suggest he would someday be a sixth-round draft choice. Now, that's probably a best-case scenario.
Before his Saturday workout he said, "This is the date I've had circled on my calendar for a long time." After running poorly, he was so crushed that he pulled out of the rest of the running back drills, further diminishing his worth. Asked about his dismal 40 times, Clarett said, "I can't explain it."
That's goes for the rest of the 2005 draft.