In one of the most star-deprived NFL draft classes in recent memory, even the two prized quarterbacks are still getting accustomed to their fame. California's Aaron Rodgers was unwanted by major colleges coming out of high school and made it to the Bay Area as Jeff Tedford's latest prolific pupil only after the Golden Bears coach noticed him while watching a scouting tape of a junior college teammate. Utah's Alex Smith was a third-string afterthought a little more than a year before transforming the Utes into an unlikely national power.
In six days, Rodgers and Smith will hear their names called by Commissioner Paul Tagliabue as two of the top players selected in next weekend's draft, and they suddenly will have the acclaim, money and expectations that come with being a celebrated rookie quarterback.
Will hometown kid Aaron Rodgers be the 49ers first pick Saturday?
(Douglas C. Pizac - AP)
"It's something you dream about but never expect to happen," Smith said recently. "To be in this position is definitely an honor. I'm trying to enjoy it."
Rodgers and Smith left school after their junior seasons and became the draft's top quarterback prospects when Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart decided to return to Southern California for his senior season. They were among the four players invited to the San Francisco 49ers' training facility last week to meet the team that has the top selection in the draft Saturday, and each of their agents has begun contract negotiations with the 49ers.
No one in the league seems to know for certain what the 49ers are going to do. They also met with Michigan wide receiver Braylon Edwards and Miami cornerback Antrel Rolle last week. They could choose Edwards. They could try to trade down in the first round and target Rolle or another player. Or they could stay put and choose Rodgers or Smith, attempting to rebuild their once-proud franchise around the quarterback they think will be better.
The five-time Super Bowl champions had a 2-14 record last season, which cost former coach Dennis Erickson and former general manager Terry Donahue their jobs. The team's new brain trust of Coach Mike Nolan and front office chief Scot McCloughan immediately faces a decision that could determine whether the club will return to prominence.
"Vince Lombardi once said, 'You can make a mistake on a player, and we're going to lose a couple games. But if you make a mistake on a quarterback, we're all going to get fired,' " New York Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi said late last week. "It's just so tricky. You make a decision on a position player, and you find out pretty quickly if you're right. But sometimes great quarterbacks don't play well for a while. Success and failure can be disguised. But if you have the chance, you have to try to get one."
The conventional wisdom is that Rodgers is more polished, will be more ready to play early in his career and would be the safer choice. But there also is some wariness about him among talent evaluators because he was tutored by Tedford, and none of the coach's other former standout passers -- Trent Dilfer, Akili Smith, Joey Harrington, David Carr and Kyle Boller -- has become a star. Some NFL people worry Rodgers might be too mechanical and that his success might have been a product of Tedford's system.
Rodgers said at the scouting combine in late February in Indianapolis he wasn't concerned the Tedford factor might work against him. "I'm not any of those guys," he said. "I'm a different guy. . . . I think my numbers speak for themselves. I think I did something that not a lot of people expected me to do. I came in from a [junior college] and comprehended his offense in one year and mastered it in two years. Physically, I think I'm as athletic as [Boller] was when Kyle came out. My arm strength is adequate. My fundamentals, I think, are there. I think I have all the intangibles as well."
Tedford discovered Rodgers while watching a tape of his tight end, Garrett Cross, at Butte College (near Rodgers's home town of Chico, Calif.). Rodgers became the Bears' starter early in the 2003 season and developed into a highly accurate passer who completed 23 straight passes last season against Southern California. He threw for 2,566 yards and 24 touchdowns last season and led Cal to its highest national ranking in 52 years -- No. 4 -- before a Holiday Bowl loss to Texas Tech.
Smith is regarded by some scouts as having more long-range potential, but they see him as more of a project. Smith, at 6 feet 4, is two inches taller than Rodgers and is regarded as more athletic, and the coaches and executives who have spoken to him marvel at his intelligence. He got his degree in economics in two years, in part because he entered college with so many credits from Advanced Placement courses in high school.
His football development at Utah came more slowly, but an injury to former starter Brett Elliott early in the 2003 season led the Utes' coaches to turn to Smith. He went 21-1 as a starter over the past two seasons, and he threw for 2,952 yards and 32 touchdowns (with only four interceptions) last season while leading the Utes to an undefeated record. He propelled the creative offense of Coach Urban Meyer, who left for the University of Florida after the season.
"I think there will be an adjustment," said Smith, the nephew of Michigan State Coach John L. Smith. "But I definitely think there are things from my offense that give me an edge going to the next level."
Soon, it will be time for Rodgers and Smith to deal with all the money and hope that will be invested in them by their NFL teams.
Carr, the top overall choice in the 2002 draft by the Houston Texans after being coached by Tedford at Fresno State, said in a conference call last week: "When you go to the draft, they have posters hanging up on the wall of John Elway and Troy Aikman and all these guys, Terry Bradshaw. And they've got like eight [or] nine Super Bowl rings, so you realize the company that you are in immediately and the class that you've been drafted into. It's a very prestigious group."