Fight for right to be No. 1 has heated up

What's all this talk about there not being a clear No. 1 overall choice in the NFL draft this year? The 49ers entertained four of the top candidates for that selection this week at team headquarters, and each confidently declared he is quite worthy of the pick. If the 49ers still are holding that pick on April 23, it will come down to Braylon Edwards, Alex Smith or Aaron Rodgers – and each has intimated why he would be a better pick than the others.

Edwards, Smith and Rodgers each are fine young gentlemen, something the 49ers know even better now after three days of dog-and-pony procession that saw that top trio – along with Miami cornerback Antrel Rolle – spending quality time within the organization being courted and studied by team officials, coaches, doctors and the like.

Of that quartet, you can eliminate Rolle – he won't be the 49ers' selection with the No. 1 overall pick, though he certainly feels he qualifies.

"Of course I feel I am worthy. Definitely," Rolle said Monday afternoon during his visit at the team's Santa Clara facility. "But it's not up to me to decide if I am worthy. It's up to the organization."

While Rolle certainly has his merits as a shutdown corner who would fit well into San Francisco's new defensive scheme, the 49ers can't take a chance on passing over one of the other three top prospects who each would fill a much more pressing and vital need on an offense that needs a quick and influential infusion of firepower.

But then, everybody already knew that before the visits began when Edwards and Rolle strolled in Monday and ended Wednesday afternoon with hometown favorite Rodgers of nearby Cal as the main man of attention. In between, Smith was courted by the team on Tuesday.

Do the 49ers know more now about the Top Three than they did before the week began? Probably.

Do they have a better feel of the character possessed by each individual? Maybe.

Are they closer to deciding who will be their ultimate choice in nine days? Uh… That is the golden question.

And the answer is… probably maybe not.

The team's brain trust will use the precious remaining time between now and Draft Saturday to gather their notes from this week and study the volumes of information and data that have been compiled and processed on each player while team officials also discuss contract parameters with the agents of all three prospects.

Only then – sometime next week – will the Niners be ready to pull the trigger. And the decision could go down to the end of the week if late trade considerations come into play.

The leader going into the clubhouse – or coming out of team headquarters – is undoubtedly Rodgers, the local product with the strong arm, sturdy build and confident feel for what his mission with the team would entail.

But he's no lock to hear his name called first. Not yet, at least.

And, while it usually was respectful talk from the Top Three when they were paraded out to speak with reporters each day, Rodgers' rivals to be No. 1 were quick with a jab why they would be wiser choices for the pick.

Edwards, the Michigan receiver considered by several analysts as the best player in the draft, if not the best value at No. 1 overall, was speaking of both Rodgers and Smith when he brought up a few issues that no doubt have been rolling around in the 49ers' nightmares for months on end.

"A quarterback touches the ball every play, but it is harder for a quarterback because let's say it doesn't pan out," Edwards started. "Now your franchise is in a terrible rut. Now you are spending four or five years in a downward spiral."

Let that frightening prospect sink in for a moment, Edwards was saying without much disguise to a franchise that already has reached the bottom of that spiral.

"As opposed to – let's say – a receiver," Edwards continued. "If your receiver doesn't pan out… Well, in this case, it won't happen."

Then Edwards laughed.

Will he have the last laugh in the race for No. 1? Well, with the final week countdown about to begin, he's still running third behind the two QBs – just like he was six weeks ago after the NFL Combine.

It was Smith's turn next to downplay Rodgers as the frontrunner, and the Utah quarterback pointed out that he had his own private workout with the 49ers in addition to his impressive Pro Day, and he also holds a win over Rodgers when the two faced each other in college during the 2003 season. But Smith hardly bit on any questions that hoped to elicit inflammatory response.

"Athletically, I feel I can bring the most to the table," Smith said. "As far as football knowledge and things I was asked to carry on my shoulders, I think I can be more prepared than any quarterback. Making checks at the line of scrimmage, reading defenses, what I was asked to know and do was more than anyone else. In that sense, I feel more prepared because I played in a system."

Read between the lines. Smith thinks he should go No. 1, too.

And then there was Rodgers, the last to visit and last to speak with the media on Wednesday.

There's no doubt where he stands on the subject. Rodgers confidently believes he's the best player in the draft – and the best player for the 49ers – one of the several characteristics that makes him so attractive to San Francisco in that position.

When asked what was the strongest attribute that would make him the No. 1 frontrunner, Rodgers took a diplomatic swipe at Smith by answering, "The fact that I played in the West Coast offense and was very successful and accurate. It wasn't the shotgun the entire time and I will be able to step in right away."

Smith's prodigious college success came in the shotgun, which – in the eyes of many - has him behind Rodgers in the developmental curve of the pro game. Rodgers was rather matter-of-fact about the subject.

"The fact that I understand the offense will allow me to play earlier," he said. "The demand … was put on me as far as being involved in protection schemes and checking plays at the line of scrimmage in the West Coast offense. Dropping back and making a read is a big difference than catching the (snap) and being in the pocket already. No offense, (Smith) is a very good quarterback and he put up great numbers, but it is going to take him a bit of time for him to get adjusted to doing that."

And about Edwards being more qualified to go No. 1 ahead of him? Rodgers again was diplomatically direct.

"Braylon is a phenomenal player and a very gifted athlete," Rodgers said, "but a receiver catches the ball only a few times a game and the quarterback touches the ball every play, as far as handoffs, passing the ball and making checks at the line of scrimmage. My role on the team and importance to the offense is a little more important each play."

It's not exactly a war of words, but it shows the Niners have three legitimate contenders who aren't backing down in the Fight for the Right to be No. 1. Does that make their ultimate decision tougher or easier?

Only nine more days till Draft Saturday, and the clock is ticking.


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