It's nearly decision time for the San Francisco 49ers, who have not yet been able to agree to a contract with Utah quarterback Alex Smith as a precursor to selecting him Saturday with the top overall choice in the NFL draft.
The 49ers have kept their options open, including trading the pick or, as a fall-back plan, choosing Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Unlike Smith, Rodgers appears willing to agree to a deal worth less than Eli Manning's contract with the New York Giants.
The club likely will make a final push to get Smith and his agent, Tom Condon, to agree to a deal before the draft. Having the top pick signed before the draft, as NFL rules permit, eliminates the possibility of a nasty contract dispute in the summer that could spill over into training camp and ruin the player's rookie season.
But Condon has not wavered thus far in negotiations with the 49ers, maintaining that Smith deserves a contract worth more than Manning's. Condon negotiated the six-year, $45 million deal that Manning, the quarterback selected by the San Diego Chargers with last year's top overall choice and then traded to the Giants on draft day, signed last July. Manning's contract includes $20 million in bonus money, plus an additional $9 million in incentives that could push its overall value to $54 million. It potentially could pay Manning $21.5 million in the final two years of the deal -- the 2008 and 2009 seasons -- alone.
It is common practice in the NFL for a player to receive a contract worth slightly more than what the player chosen in the same draft slot the previous year received. The 49ers, however, have argued in separate presentations to Condon and Rodgers's agent, Michael Sullivan, that the Giants overpaid Manning and the player that they choose Saturday should receive less.
According to a source familiar with the negotiations, Sullivan told the 49ers that Rodgers would be willing to agree to a deal worth less over its final two seasons than Manning's contract. Condon, the source said, told the 49ers that Smith wants a deal richer than Manning's and if the 49ers pass on him because of that, then so be it.
Other agents believe that Sullivan has no choice but to be flexible in his dealings with the 49ers because it's possible that Rodgers could plummet in the first-round order if the 49ers don't select him. Other teams with early picks, including the Miami Dolphins (who have the second overall choice) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (who have the No. 5 selection) seem more interested in Smith than in Rodgers, the other agents say. Smith probably would be taken with the second pick if he's not selected with the top choice, the agents say, and Condon still could demand a contract worth more than Manning's with the argument that he doesn't have to accept a lesser deal for Smith merely because Sullivan did so for Rodgers.
A source said early this week that the 49ers planned to choose Smith if they could agree to a contract with him before the draft. An NFL head coach who's friendly with 49ers Coach Mike Nolan said this week that Nolan is enamored with Smith's intelligence and leadership, along with his size and athleticism. Smith posted a 21-1 record over the past two seasons as Utah's starter. He threw 32 touchdown passes and only four interceptions last season while leading the Utes to an undefeated record.
The 49ers have a tough choice to make if Condon won't budge in negotiations. They would have to give in to Condon's demands and sign Smith to a contract richer than Manning's; choose Smith without a contract agreement in place and hope they can strike a deal with Condon in the summer before training camp opens; sign Rodgers to a lesser deal and select him; give up on the quarterbacks and select Michigan wide receiver Braylon Edwards; or trade the pick.
Nolan, who has the final say over the team's player decisions, has been careful not to signal his intentions publicly. The once-proud franchise potentially could alienate some of its fans by having financial concerns cause it to pass on the player that it determines to be the best in the draft. But choosing a local product like Rodgers could ease any public-relations problems. Rodgers threw for 2,566 yards and 24 touchdowns last season while leading Cal to a national ranking that reached No. 4 before a bowl-game loss.
The 49ers lack a franchise quarterback and went 2-14 last season, costing former coach Dennis Erickson and former general manager Terry Donahue their jobs. The club replaced them with Nolan and front-office chief Scot McCloughan, formerly the Seattle Seahawks' college scouting director, and gave them the task of attempting to recapture the past glories of the five-time Super Bowl champions.
Trades On Tap
Several long-awaited trades involving prominent players could be completed by the end of draft weekend.
The Buffalo Bills could part with Travis Henry, who asked to be traded after losing the starting tailback job last season to Willis McGahee. Henry could go to Arizona for offensive tackle L.J. Shelton, or to Tampa Bay or Philadelphia -- probably for a draft choice if he's dealt to one of those clubs.
The Bills perhaps could deal Pro Bowl cornerback Nate Clements if they're afraid that it would be too costly to sign him to a contract extension. He has one season remaining on his current contract and would be eligible for unrestricted free agency next spring.
The Dolphins could trade cornerback Patrick Surtain. The Kansas City Chiefs have been in pursuit but have been unwilling to meet Miami's asking price of a second-round pick. The Dolphins seem unlikely to settle for less since Oakland received second- and third-round selections from Houston this week for Phillip Buchanon, a younger but less accomplished cornerback. Surtain, 28, was a Pro Bowl selection in the 2002 and 2003 seasons.
A handful of players with their teams' franchise-player tags are thought to be available, including tailbacks Shaun Alexander of Seattle and Edgerrin James of Indianapolis, Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson and defensive ends Darren Howard of New Orleans and John Abraham of the New York Jets. Of that group, Alexander and Howard appear most likely to be traded. Colts officials say they expect James to be on their roster next season, and the Jets say the same about Abraham. The Raiders have found no takers for Woodson . . . .
The Seahawks released linebacker Chad Brown on Thursday after he refused to accept the team's proposed salary cut from $4.2 million to $1 million plus $500,000 in possible incentives. Brown turns 35 in July and has missed 19 games over the past three seasons because of injuries, and became expendable when Seattle signed linebacker Jamie Sharper as a free agent. Sharper agreed to a five-year, $17.5 million contract 10 days ago but did not sign the deal until Thursday . . . .
Andre Dyson, signed by Seattle on Thursday as an unrestricted free agent, joins Marcus Trufant, Kris Richard and restricted-free-agent addition Kelly Herndon in the Seahawks' cornerback corps. Veteran Bobby Taylor could end up being released, and Herndon or Dyson likely will start opposite Trufant. All three cornerbacks are slated to be on the field regularly. Dyson, who had 16 interceptions in four seasons with Tennessee, agreed to a five-year, $17.5 million contract with Seattle that includes a $3 million signing bonus.
The busy Seahawks also signed free agent Jerome Pathon to join a group of wide receivers that includes Darrell Jackson, Koren Robinson, Bobby Engram and fellow free-agent addition Joe Jurevicius . . . .
Jacksonville signed backup quarterback David Garrard to a three-year, $5.25 million contract extension through the 2008 season. The deal includes a $2 million signing bonus and keeps Garrard from becoming an unrestricted free agent next offseason. He will have a salary of $455,000 next season under the terms of his previous contract.