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First impressions (cont.)

Posted: Monday April 11, 2005 9:15AM; Updated: Monday April 11, 2005 1:22PM
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"I have to check myself when I put [Rolle] in that group,'' Nolan told me, "because I've had so much success with players from Miami -- Ed Reed, picked late in the first round, and Ray Lewis, picked late in the first round. If he's got the intangibles Ray and Ed have, and he's a great player, I wouldn't hesitate to pick him.''

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It's possible, though not certain, that the 49ers will begin negotiations with the players of their choice early next week. San Francisco will be on the clock, and it will be free to do what it wished with whom it chooses. Before that happens, Nolan and his staff want one more extended visit with each of the four players.

It's also possible, Nolan told me, that he'll ask Rodgers to work out again late this week or early next week. The Niners coaches ran Smith through a special private workout last week. When Smith worked out last month for all NFL teams, he did it inside, in a controlled environment, without taking snaps from center (which was especially notable because he operated in the shotgun exclusively at Utah, and he'll have to learn how to play under center in any offensive system in the NFL).

"Alex's first workout was not really to our liking,'' Nolan said. "Basically, what I wanted to see was more of the kind of environment he'll face here. In Candlestick -- or 3Com, or Monster, or whatever it is -- there's going to be some wind. He's going to have our receivers, not his. So we brought Brandon Lloyd and Arnaz Battle, we went outside on kind of a windy day, we had him throw into the wind, and basically we tried to make it uncomfortable for him. He threw a couple of bad balls. And he reacted like, 'Damn it!' I liked that. He had to cut the wind with his balls, which is something we had to see. Our coaches asked him to do some things he didn't expect. Like jumping rope. How would he react to that? And so we may ask Aaron to go through the same things. Right now, no one here's anticipating it, but it might be something I want to see.''

I told Nolan that I've heard Smith might be a better overall athlete, but Rodgers has the better arm. Rodgers is a little cocky, Smith a little smarter. So I asked the coach, is that perception really right or really wrong?''

"Really wrong?'' he said. "No, I would say you're really close. But some of how you describe Aaron is the way he masks his confidence. I don't think he's necessarily cocky. That's just the way he is, a confident kid.''

When I watched the coaches' tape, I liked Rodgers over Smith by quite a bit. Both quarterbacks are predominantly short-ball throwers. Rodgers is 6-foot-2 and 223 pounds. Smith is 6-foot-4 and 217. The Utah offense was a gimmicky one; Smith ran and threw from the shotgun in a wide-open scheme. Against North Carolina last season, Smith rarely seemed to read coverage. One of the things he'll have to learn as a pro is the ability to scan the field while dropping back, setting up, and throwing while the defense converges on him. It sounds so simple, but if you're set up in the shotgun all the time, you'll have an adjustment to make as a pro. Smith threw short so much that it was hard to get a feel whether he's going to be a 60 percent passer when a team asks him to play in a pro-style system. His deeper throws sometimes wobbled.

Rodgers, too, was a dinker-and-dunker more often than any pro team would like to see. But he's NFL-accurate; he throws intermediate and sideline throws where his receivers can catch and run with it; he throws a tight, hard spiral; and he definitely has the speed and agility to escape when necessary. I liked how he reacted to the blitz, throwing comfortably off his back foot for one touchdown strike against UCLA last year. And I liked how he threw hard and accurately on the run.

I've heard from NFL people that Smith has the bigger upside because, supposedly, he's a better athlete and eminently coachable. He got a 40 on his Wonderlic intelligence test (a 50 is perfect; a 40 is college-professor brainiac stuff) and won't have trouble catching on to anything he's taught. Fine, but match him up on tape against Rodgers. The Cal kid's arm is better and more accurate downfield. I watched most pass plays from two games on each player. I'm sure the Niners have watched 20 of each, as they should. Maybe a little coaches' tape in the wrong hands (mine) is a dangerous thing. But from the footage I saw, Rodgers is a better thrower and certainly a good-enough athlete to survive NFL pass-rushes.