Will McCloughan cast a vote that really counts?

This is Scot McCloughan's element, and this is why the 49ers brought him to San Francisco as the NFL's youngest personnel chief. It's McCloughan's job to tell the Niners what to do with the No. 1 overall pick Saturday, and if it's going to be a quarterback – which it is, by the way – McCloughan's say should have heavy sway in the final verdict. Voices from inside the team indicate McCloughan favors Alex Smith, but his words tell a different story, particularly when you read between the lines.

Of course, it's a little difficult to believe anything top 49ers officials are saying these days as they send up billowing smokescreens as subterfuge for their best intentions with the first pick in the draft.

But McCloughan is a little young to be playing the game. He's not used to being pushed in front of the media to answer questions – yet – so his words have some face value when he gives impressions of available college talent.

In particular , quarterback talent.

By now, McCloughan has studied Utah's Smith and Cal's Aaron Rodgers inside out and outside in. He knows the intricacies of their games, the nuances of their deliveries, the swiftness in their steps, the grace and elegance of their respective styles. And when he indicates it's virtually a dead heat, you tend to believe him.

"In our opinion, it's not a huge difference," between Smith and Rodgers, McCloughan said.

Notice the use of "our." But, as much as McCloughan attempts to stay in the background, whether it's by organizational directive or personal choice, his individual opinion eventually seeps through.

When asked this week to give a breakdown of the differences that separate Smith and Rodgers, McCloughan began with generalities.

"You start with the offensive systems," McCloughan said, referring to the systems the two prospects played in during their two seasons each as college starters. "Besides that, they're similar. They're competitive guys. They've both been winners. They both made their team better. They control the game. They both have tremendous upside."

High praise from a guy whose prose is supposed to mean something. But McCloughan was just getting started.

"They're very intelligent kids that take care of themselves well on and off the field," he continued. "They understand football. From Alex's standpoint, he grew up around football, his dad being a coach. From Aaron's standpoint, being around one of the better quarterback coaches in college football in (Cal's Jeff) Tedford. Besides one guy being two inches taller, they're very similar."

But then, in perhaps an unguarded moment, McCloughan got specific.

The question was about arm strength, of which both Rodgers and Smith have received generally solid reviews from scouts.

"I'm not saying Alex Smith can't get it there," McCloughan said. "But Aaron has got a better arm."

Notice the use of "I'm." It's the only time McCloughan used that term when distributing his impressions.

Does it mean he's really in Rodgers' corner, as head coach Mike Nolan seems to be? Or is that just what they want people to believe, while they leak out source information that Smith will the choice?

Nobody really knows for sure.

But this is certain: Regardless of who holds an edge in physical attributes, the 49ers will draft a mature individual they feel can hold up to the onslaught of responsibilities that playing quarterback in the NFL entails.

"It's just such a different game on the NFL level for a quarterback to step in, not just the speed of the game, the physicalness of the game, but the off-the-field stuff you deal with," McCloughan said. "You are the center of attention and you're required to carry the team. Some people, either 23 or 24 years old, can't handle that."

Can Rodgers and Smith handle it? There's only one way to find out.

McCloughan, however, already was back into fine company-line character. When somebody mentioned other quarterbacks in the draft, that gave him his opening, and McCloughan quickly drifted away from specifics on the top two.

"There's depth at the quarterback position," he said, going against the opinion of some draft analysts. "Everybody just uses the names of Smith and Rodgers because they're the high-profile guys. But there are going to be guys taken the second day who will be pretty good NFL football players."

Really? Who? And are the Niners considering taking any of them?

McCloughan wasn't saying. He refused to be specific.

But he'll get real specific when the Niners – barring a trade for the pick in the next two days – ultimately make their choice between Rodgers and Smith. And when McCloughan casts his vote, it better count for something. If he has to change the mind of his head coach/franchise figurehead, then so be it.

After all, that's his job.


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