Aaron Rodgers and the 49ers Draft
by Glenn Dickey
Apr 25, 2005

THE NFL is really the National Fear League, as Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers discovered Saturday, as the 49ers took Utah quarterback as their No. 1 pick, which I’ll discuss in a moment.

NFL coaches and executives are scared to death of making a mistake, and there’s no more obvious mistake than a quarterback. The 49ers have made several bad first-round picks in the last 15 years, but what’s the one you remember most? The quarterback, Jim Druckenmiller.

When a quarterback who is expected to be picked high in the first round isn’t, the decision-makers for other teams start to look at each other and say, “What do they know that we don’t know?” – and they pass when their turn comes up.

That’s how the 49ers got Druckenmiller, who was supposed to go in the top 10 but fell to them in the 26th position. In that case, other teams did know something: He couldn’t play.

But that also happened to Dan Marino in 1983. He kept falling and falling until the Dolphins, who had the next-to-last pick in the round because they’d lost the Super Bowl that season, picked him. Marino went on to have a Hall of Fame career, and the Dolphins got back to the Super Bowl in his second season.

The questions about Rodgers were trivial and stupid. Some said he was “mechanical”, which meant that he had good technique. That’s supposed to be bad? Others questioned whether he could throw deep with his arm cocked high, but he certainly answered that with accurate 70-yard throws in his workouts for scouts and coaches. The fact that other Jeff Tedford-coached quarterbacks have not had huge success was thought of as a drawback, though the cases were entirely different.

In time, NFL decision-makers will look back and say, “What was I thinking?’’ Rodgers’ career will be a successful one, and he’ll benefit from not being under pressure to be the savior of the franchise, as Smith will be with the 49ers. He’ll learn from another quarterback who will be in the Hall of Fame eventually, Brett Favre.

The Packers will also benefit. The best teams don’t usually have the chance to get a highly-rated quarterback out of college because the teams are drafting low in the first round. In this case, that means that they’ll be able to transition from Favre when he retires, probably in two years although he’s hinted this might be his last season, to Rodgers, and they’ll still have a strong supporting cast for Aaron.

The 49ers had that for an extended period because Bill Walsh traded for Steve Young, who had been devalued by other NFL executives because he was playing for a bad team in Tampa. Walsh knew Young was far superior to any quarterback the 49ers could get in the draft and, as usual with quarterbacks, he was right.

The 49ers thus had a 20-year period when their quarterbacks were Hall of Famers: Joe Montana followed by Young. Walsh’s move meant they didn’t have to draft a quarterback high, and the only one they drafted in the first round in that period was Druckenmiller, which only emphasized how fortunate they were in not having to do that in other years.

The Packers aren’t as strong as the 49ers of the Walsh years, but they’ve either been champions or contenders since Favre arrived, and now, with Rodgers, who is only 21, they’ll have the quarterback to keep their run going.

THE 49ERS DIDN’T make the player choice I wanted, but they did make the right position decision.

Many of the socalled experts thought it would be a mistake to draft a quarterback No. 1 because there were no “franchise quarterbacks” in the draft.

I looked at it differently. Because quarterback is such an important position, a good one always has more value than other players. Look at it this way: Montana played with his good friend Ronnie Lott, who is also in the Hall of Fame, and Jerry Rice, considered the best receiver of all time, but if you could only take one of those players, Montana would clearly be the one.

Take another example, from two days ago: Braylon Edwards was considered the best player in the draft, so the Cleveland Browns took him in the No. 3 position. But, who’s going to throw the ball to Edwards?

In the debate over the future of Smith and Rodgers, many brought up the 1998 draft when Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf were picked 1-2, and there many football people who thought Leaf had the brighter future. Since then, Manning has become a great quarterback and Leaf has self-destructed.

But that was a question of character, not ability. Nobody has any doubts about either Smith or Rodgers in that regard. They are both very smart and mature for their age (Smith is even younger, at 20). They’ll both have fine careers, though Rodgers probably has a better chance because he’ll be with a better team.

There was so little difference between the two that some observers thought the 49ers took Smith because they thought they had a better chance to trade him, getting an extra pick and still being able to get Rodgers. On Saturday, there were apparently discussions with both Tampa Bay and Cleveland, but no deal was made.

Though many were skeptical when 49ers coach Mike Nolan said on the Monday before the draft that economics would not be a factor in the decision, he was speaking the truth. It would have been easier to make the deal with Rodgers, who has a local agent, Mike Sullivan, than with Smith, whose agent is Tom Condon.

Condon is considered a reasonable negotiator, though, and it is imperative that the Niners make the deal quickly, so Smith can participate in mini-camps as well as summer camp. The mini-camps, especially, are where he will learn the system. That’s the biggest question about him because he played in a spread offense at Utah.

Nolan has said only that Smith will compete with last year’s starter, Tim Rattay, but the sooner Smith gets in the starting lineup, the better. Rattay is valuable as a backup, a guy who can be respectable if your starter goes down, but when he’s starting, it’s an admission of failure.

Ken Dorsey has been a disappointment and, though some 49ers fans like Cody Pickett, he probably doesn’t have high NFL potential. When a quarterback succeeds after being drafted low – Tom Brady being the prime example now – it’s usually because evaluators underrated his intangibles. That was not the case with Pickett, who is impressive physically but was very slow to pick up the 49ers offense last season. He doesn’t seem to have the feel for the game that a successful quarterback needs – no matter how many passes he completes against nobodies in an exhibition game.

All the quarterbacks will benefit from the fact that the 49ers are finally addressing their offensive line weaknesses, starting with the free agent pickup of left tackle Jonas Jennings and the addition of guards David Baas and Adam Snyder in the second and third rounds Saturday. They’re also getting bigger – both Baas and Snyder are near 320 pounds – because they’re following the NFL trend instead of bucking it, as they did for years by going with smaller, quicker offensive linemen.

AND, FINALLY:

Cal running back J. J. Arrington got a break by being drafted in the second round by the Arizona Cardinals, a team on the rise and in need of a running back, with the retirement of Emmitt Smith. Barring injury, the underrated Arrington is going to have a fine NFL career and make teams wish they had paid more attention to his production than his size.

Wide receiver Chase Lyman was a surprise fourth round pick by the New Orleans Saints; most NFL observers had thought he’d go undrafted because of his injury problems. He’s a risk, but he could pay off big time for the Saints if he can stay healthy. There’s no question about his ability.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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