Most NFL drafts are quarterback-heavy near the top because teams that have a bad passer or an aging one want somebody new to play the most important position in the game. So for the last two months quarterbacks Alex Smith of Utah and Aaron Rodgers of Cal were considered the favorites to be the No. 1 pick in the draft, by the San Francisco 49ers. It figured that the player who did not go first would be taken by another team selecting in the top 10, clubs like the Miami Dolphins, Cleveland Browns, Tennessee Titans or Arizona Cardinals, which all had a long-term need for a quarterback. So after the 49ers chose Smith, naturally Rodgers went....
That's where the 2005 draft took a curious turn. Rodgers fell to No. 24, at which point he was finally rescued by the Green Bay Packers. Neither quarterback had been considered a can't-miss player, and that ultimately carried more weight with those teams picking in the top 10 than many, including San Francisco coach Mike Nolan, had expected. "Nobody ever made us an offer for the pick," Nolan said last Saturday night, a surprising revelation considering he had talked with six teams about the top choice in the 48 hours before the draft. "But if someone had thrown a lot at us, I'd have made a trade. I know we could have won with Aaron. I liked him." But Nolan liked Smith even more.
The new coach was cagey during the evaluation process, hoping the Niners, 2-14 last season and with holes throughout their lineup, could hit the lottery in a trade with a team hungry for the player it thought San Francisco would select. But on Saturday night Nolan explained why he had selected Smith. He conceded that Rodgers has the more NFL-ready arm and is better prepared to play in the league right away. (For the Utes, Smith ran an option offense and operated almost exclusively out of the shotgun.) But Nolan said Smith's work ethic--the young man often broke down film with the Utah coaches for hours on Sundays, a college player's day off--and his easygoing leadership style and intelligence (Smith earned a degree in economics in two years) made the decision easy in the end. What's more, some in the front office thought Rodgers came across too much like a big man on campus.
Nolan compared Smith with Phil Simms, who came out of Morehead State in 1979 and was drafted seventh by the New York Giants. "Like Simms, Alex proved himself by being the hardest worker on the team and by being a leader in every sense of the word," said Nolan, a friend of Simms's. "I couldn't get off that. Then there were a bunch of little things. Like when Alex talks to his mother, he says, 'yes, ma'am.' and [how he handled] what we put him through in his workout at Utah."
After Smith's carefully scripted workout for all interested NFL teams, the Niners wanted to see more. On a windy day in Salt Lake City in early April they worked him out on their terms. Nolan told offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy to put Smith through a tough, discomforting session. First, McCarthy took three jump ropes out of his equipment bag and handed them to Smith and his two receivers for the day, San Francisco starters Arnaz Battle and Brandon Lloyd. "You want to see how he'll accept coaching and if he'll compete," McCarthy said on Saturday. "So I told them they'd jump rope for 30 seconds on the right foot, 30 on the left and 30 on both. Alex's eyes got a little wide, but he competed. He got right into it." McCarthy made Smith throw into the wind. He made Smith do a crazy ball-handling drill. Smith passed the test.
As for Rodgers, plummeting from No. 1 to No. 24 will cost him about $10 million on his rookie contract. And after waiting almost five hours offstage in New York City to be selected, he has incentive to show the 21 teams that passed on him (the Minnesota Vikings and the Dallas Cowboys had two selections in the top 20) and the draft experts who played up his faults that they were wrong about him. "ESPN's been tearing him up all week," said Luke Rodgers, Aaron's 23-year-old brother. "Well, he didn't suddenly get worse."
Aaron ended the arduous experience on a more positive note. "We all believe Green Bay's the best place for me," he said. "I fell way down, but with the chance to play behind one of the best quarterbacks of all time [Brett Favre], I fell into something great." --Peter King