It's time for serious deliberations to begin for the San Francisco 49ers, who have the top overall selection in the draft in nine days. They completed a final round of meetings with their top four prospects Wednesday, and now they must settle on a pick or find a way to make a trade.
Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers visited the 49ers' training facility Wednesday, a day after Utah quarterback Alex Smith was there. Michigan wide receiver Braylon Edwards and Miami cornerback Antrel Rolle visited on Monday.
_____ Maske's Mock Draft _____ • Who will be the first player taken in the NFL draft April 23? See how The Post's Mark Maske has the first round scoped out.
The 49ers are coming off a 2-14 season that cost former coach Dennis Erickson and former general manager Terry Donahue their jobs, and the team's new brain trust of Coach Mike Nolan and front-office chief Scot McCloughan probably will end up getting the club's would-be franchise quarterback in the fold.
The conventional wisdom league-wide is that Rodgers is the more polished quarterback, will be more ready to play early in his NFL career and would be the safer choice. But there also is some wariness about him among NFL talent evaluators because he was tutored by Cal Coach Jeff Tedford, and none of Tedford's other former celebrated pupils -- Trent Dilfer, Akili Smith, Joey Harrington, David Carr and Kyle Boller -- has become a star in the pro ranks. Some NFL people worry that Rodgers might be too mechanical and his success might have been a product of Tedford's system rather than his own abilities.
Smith is regarded by some scouts as having more long-range potential, but they see him as more of a project who will need more coaching to be ready to play at the NFL level. Smith is taller than Rodgers and is regarded as more athletic, and the coaches and front-office executives who have spoken to him during the pre-draft evaluation process marvel at his intelligence. But there are some questions about his arm strength, and some scouts league-wide believed that his nearly flawless performance during his pro-day workout last month was manufactured by receivers who were running at less than full speed. When 49ers officials traveled to Salt Lake City last week to watch a private workout by Smith, they took along two wide receivers of their own, Arnaz Battle and Brandon Lloyd.
The 49ers have begun preliminary contract negotiations with their finalists, and those talks likely will intensify in the coming days. If they don't trade the pick, the 49ers would like to agree to a contract before the draft with the player they plan to choose, as NFL rules permit. Rodgers's agent, Mike Sullivan, accompanied him on Wednesday's visit, and 49ers officials are scheduled to talk today to Smith's representative, Tom Condon.
Edwards is viewed as the player most likely to be drafted by the 49ers if they opt against picking a quarterback, while Rolle is regarded as a candidate if they trade down in the first-round order. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have the fifth overall choice in the draft, appear interested in exploring the possibility of trading up to select Rodgers or Smith.
Bad Draft? So What?
The quality of the players available in this year's draft class has been widely disparaged since the NFL scouting combine in February, when it began to become clear that this group lacked headliners. But New England Patriots front-office chief Scott Pioli said that people in the league give little thought to such matters as they prepare their final draft boards.
"Here's the bottom line: This is the pool of players we all have to pick from, all 32 teams, and we have to find a way to make the best of it," Pioli said last week. "Depending on what they're looking at, what they're looking for, some people think it's weaker, some people think it's stronger. I honestly don't look at it in those terms. I always look at it from the standpoint, 'We have a need. This is the pool of players. This is what we've got to do.' That's just one of those things where I don't waste a lot of time and energy looking at the whole big picture."
Edwards defended his draft class during the combine.
"I don't worry about the critics and what other people say," the wide receiver said then. "There's a lot of great players in this draft. I can start naming guys in this draft and then you guys would say, 'Well, that's true, that's true, that's true.' Especially at the running back and defensive back positions, there are a lot of marquee guys in this draft. I haven't felt slighted at all. Also, we know what we have to do, the guys in this draft. The 2005 draft class, we know what we have to do. It's not about the draft itself. It's about getting into the league and making a mark, and that's what we're looking to do. It might seem a little different now. It might not seem as highly [celebrated] as last year's class. But wait until we get into the NFL. Wait until we make our noise." . . .
Northwestern defensive tackle Luis Castillo tested positive for androstenedione at the scouting combine, the Associated Press reported. The substance is banned by the NFL under its steroid policy. Castillo reportedly sent a letter to each of the 32 NFL teams attempting to explain his steroid use, saying he was trying to improve his performance at the combine after an elbow injury had been slow to heal. Castillo had been regarded as a potential second- or third-round pick. . . .
Teams continue to get their restricted free agents re-signed. Atlanta re-signed safety Kevin McCadam and offensive lineman Martin Bibla. Detroit re-signed cornerback Mike Echols. Green Bay re-signed linebacker Paris Lenon, and Minnesota re-signed kicker Jose Cortez. . . . Coach Bill Belichick presented President Bush with one of his trademark hooded, gray sweatshirts during the Patriots' visit to the White House on Wednesday. Linebacker Tedy Bruschi accompanied the Super Bowl champions and was praised by Bush. Bruschi suffered what the team called a mild stroke in February.