Ben Roethlisberger has changed the equation for rookie quarterbacks.
A year ago, the Miami (Ohio) University quarterback suffered a draft-day disappointment when he tumbled through the first-round order to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who had the 11th overall choice. He'd had hopes a few days before the draft of being the top overall selection, or at least a top-five pick.
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But Roethlisberger's rookie season more than made up for it. While the two quarterbacks drafted ahead of him, the New York Giants' Eli Manning and the San Diego Chargers' Philip Rivers, either sat on the bench or struggled, Roethlisberger had a magical season in which he helped the Steelers to a 15-1 regular-season record and became one of the league's most popular players after being forced into the lineup by an injury to veteran Tommy Maddox.
So while the two quarterbacks vying to be the first taken in this weekend's draft, Cal's Aaron Rodgers and Utah's Alex Smith, have said publicly that they'd love to go to the San Francisco 49ers with the top pick, they also seem to realize that a draft-day plummet might not be the worst thing, either -- if it would mean ending up in the right situation.
"I saw the success that he had, which is obviously abnormal for a rookie," Rodgers said at the NFL scouting combine in late February in Indianapolis. "I think he's the first rookie that has actually played well in his rookie season. I think a lot of his success was due to the fact that he went to a team with a supporting cast that was better than a lot of teams', like Eli Manning's in New York. I'd love to play right away, obviously. But I'd like to be successful where I had guys around me like his supporting cast, or come in and play maybe behind a proven veteran in the twilight of his career and learn from him, get accustomed to the speed of the game and start year two."
Smith said: "It takes a lot to win. It wasn't just him. He was on a good team. But it is exciting. That's what you want to do. You want to win and go to the playoffs."
The 49ers seem to represent a scenario for a young quarterback far more like Manning's than like Roethlisberger's. They went 2-14 last season and don't have a proven veteran starter to mentor a prized rookie quarterback. The going promises to be rough indeed if one of the quarterbacks ends up beginning his pro career in San Francisco, attempting to recapture past glories for the five-time Super Bowl champions.
But Rodgers and Smith grew up in California, and both said they were fans of former 49ers quarterbacking greats Joe Montana and Steve Young. Rodgers had a habit of wearing a Montana T-shirt beneath his Cal jersey while becoming the Bay Area's most accomplished quarterback the past three seasons in Berkeley. Both quarterbacks have been campaigning publicly in recent weeks to be the 49ers' selection.
"I don't know if there was anybody in California who wasn't," Smith said when he was asked at the combine whether he'd been a fan of Montana or Young growing up. "I was kind of young for Montana, but definitely Steve Young."
Rodgers said: "That was my team growing up -- Joe Montana, Steve Young. I was a huge Niner fan, so I'd definitely like to play for San Francisco. But . . . I just want a chance to play, an opportunity."
The 49ers have launched contract negotiations with the agents for both quarterbacks. If they don't trade the top choice, the 49ers would like to have a deal in place before the draft with the player they plan to select, as NFL rules permit.
But an executive with one NFL team said over the weekend that it appeared the 49ers were having trouble in their dealings with agent Tom Condon, who represents Smith. The executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he didn't want to have his comments affect future dealings with Condon, said that the 49ers prefer Smith but Condon might be looking for his client to be drafted by an organization that could put a stronger team around him. Condon also represents Manning and helped to engineer last year's draft-day trade that sent Manning from San Diego to New York after Manning told the Chargers before the draft that he didn't want to play for them.
Other people around the league, however, are convinced that the 49ers prefer Rodgers.
The financial target for either player in negotiations, if the 49ers end up choosing him first overall, is the six-year, $45 million contract that Condon negotiated with the Giants last summer for Manning. That deal included $20 million in bonus money, plus $9 million in incentives that could push its overall value to $54 million.
But this year's negotiations are further complicated by the fact that, because of salary cap rules and the lack of an extension of the sport's collective bargaining agreement, the signing bonus in a player's contract can be prorated for only five years for cap accounting purposes instead of the usual six or seven. That means that the parties will have to find creative ways to make the contract cap-friendly to the team. . . .
Rodgers said that he met Young, who's scheduled to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer, at this year's Super Bowl. Asked about his impressions upon meeting his football hero, Rodgers said: "He's a lot shorter than I thought he was."
Of his Montana T-shirt that he wore under his Cal jersey, Rodgers said: "I retired it." . . .
Rodgers told reporters at the combine that his arm strength was "adequate." Asked to elaborate on why he'd assessed himself with such faint praise, Rodgers said he'd merely been comparing his arm strength to that of former Cal quarterback Kyle Boller, now with the Baltimore Ravens.
"Kyle, I think, has one of the top five arms in the game," Rodgers said. "My arm is slightly behind his." . . .
Rodgers was asked at the combine which player in the draft class, besides himself, he thought deserved to be the top overall pick. He named Michigan wide receiver Braylon Edwards, to whom he'd thrown passes during a recent skills competition in Miami.
"He's a specimen," Rodgers said. "He was one-handing my passes, which I hadn't seen before. He's quite an athlete." . . .
One connection to keep in mind on draft day: Smith is friendly with Scott Linehan, the Miami Dolphins' new offensive coordinator. Linehan tried to recruit Smith to Louisville and has worked in the past with Smith's uncle, Michigan State Coach John L. Smith. The Dolphins have the second overall choice and have not ruled out selecting a quarterback, although they remain desperately in need of a tailback. . . .
When Indianapolis Colts President Bill Polian had to decide whether to draft Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf in 1998, he had tapes put together of every pass that each quarterback had thrown during his college career, and watched them over and over.
Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi says he never labored over any of his big draft-day quarterback choices like that because he was so convinced each time that he had the right player. Accorsi drafted John Elway for the Baltimore Colts (although he was forced to trade him to the Denver Broncos), drafted Bernie Kosar for the Cleveland Browns and traded for Eli Manning for the Giants. Accorsi remains a strong proponent of the need for a club without a franchise quarterback to draft one whenever it gets a chance.
"They can say all they want, 'You don't need a quarterback [to win a Super Bowl],' Accorsi said by telephone last week. "But if they re-did that  draft, do you still think Tom Brady would go in the sixth round, or would he be the first player in the draft?"
A Good Conversion
Oklahoma's Jammal Brown, one of the top offensive tackles in this year's draft class, began his college career as a defensive tackle. The Sooners coaches moved him to offense because they had Tommie Harris, a first-round pick by the Chicago Bears last year, at defensive tackle, and they had a need on the offensive line.
Brown says he resisted the move at first and even contemplated transferring to Miami or Tennessee before deciding to stay and making a successful conversion. He didn't allow a sack last season.
"I stayed, and everything worked out," Brown said at the combine. "I thought about it, and I wanted to play for Coach [Bob] Stoops."
Florida State's Alex Barron likely will be the first offensive tackle drafted Saturday, but Brown and Khalif Barnes of Washington also could come off the board in the opening round.
Peete to Retire
Quarterback Rodney Peete has decided to retire and enter television work as a regular on Fox Sports Net's "Best Damn Sports Show Period," the Charlotte Observer reported.
The Carolina Panthers released Peete in February but had been contemplating re-signing him. Peete, 39, has played 16 NFL seasons for the Detroit Lions, Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, Oakland Raiders and Panthers. . . .
Cornerback Andre Dyson, an unrestricted free agent, reportedly is scheduled to visit the New York Jets today. He is one of the better players remaining on the picked-over free-agent market and spent the past four seasons with the Tennessee Titans. The Jets also have left open the possibility of trying to sign free-agent cornerback Ty Law, the four-time Pro Bowl selection released by the New England Patriots. . . .
The NFL's restricted free agent market closed Friday without any more players signing offer sheets with other teams. That means that seven restricted free agents signed offer sheets this year. Two players switched clubs, and two stayed put when their teams matched the offer sheets; three players still have their status pending this week.
All the other restricted free agents league-wide had their rights revert to their previous teams. They no longer can switch clubs, but they still must be signed to contracts -- a mere formality now, since the players lost any negotiating leverage they had with Friday's closing of the market.
The Colts quickly re-signed four of their restricted free agents -- linebacker David Thornton, cornerback Joseph Jefferson, guard Tupe Peko and running back James Mungro. Other teams also were busy getting their former restricted free agents re-signed. . . .
Green Bay signed veteran safety Earl Little, who'd been released by Cleveland. . . . The Packers also are in the running to sign free-agent linebacker Chris Draft, a former starter who was released by Atlanta. . . . The Patriots re-signed tight end Jed Weaver and cornerback Hank Poteat days after releasing them. . . .
There are some rumblings around the league that Cleveland, which hired former Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel as its head coach, might be interested in trying to trade for New England's backup quarterback, Rohan Davey. Davey could compete with Trent Dilfer for the Browns' starting job, and the Patriots perhaps would sign veteran free agent Doug Flutie to back up Brady. New England also has former Baltimore starter Chris Redman on its roster.