Time to make 49ers draft history

The Moment of Truth has arrived for the Team That Needs Everything, and the 49ers will go on the clock at high noon in New York still holding close to the chest that well-kept secret of what they plan to do with the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft. It could get real crazy in the 15-or-so minutes after that, but coach Mike Nolan says he already knows who he'll pick if a solid trade offer doesn't materialize, just as he well knows that's not the only essential decision he must make this weekend.

Nolan has added to the drama of one of the most unpredictable draft openings in recent memory this week by keeping a straight face and doing a great job of not letting on about the team's intentions with the top pick, except to say it will be Michigan receiver Braylon Edwards, Utah quarterback Alex Smith or Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

But then, Nolan could have told you that a month ago.

Other than that, he's not telling anything, taking his secret into the start of today's first round, where some other team still can have the No. 1 pick if they are willing to pay what Nolan feels it is worth.

And, believe it, Nolan has raised the worth of that pick with his non-committals and non-denials this week, which is driving a lot of top-level NFL chiefs crazy, and even has reputed pundits changing their stance day by day on whom the Niners will grab at No. 1.

As the Niners enter the final hours before the draft without an acceptable trade offer in place, it becomes more likely they will have to use it themselves, and as you read this there still is division within the organization on who that pick should be.

It's going to be Nolan's call, and like he told team beat writers Thursday, he already knows who that will be – but only he knows. He hasn't even shared that information with insiders on his own team. Heck, he hasn't even told owner John York – someone who presumably would want to know – or his wife, Kathy.

"I know there is pressure that goes along with the pick, but I don't think about it or feel it because I am confident," Nolan said.

Nolan is confident in himself, in his 19 years of NFL experience, in his lifetime of being around and absorbing the game. But he also was referring to his confidence in personnel chief Scot McCloughan, the team's scouts and other personnel evaluators, and everyone else who has input in grading the players the 49ers will select over a 30-hour period that will chart the new course of the organization.

So who will be the No. 1? It will be Smith or Rodgers. Who should it be? That's a question that requires a long and involved answer.

In the eyes of many, Smith is the better prospect, and he has flown to the top of many draft boards this week while Rodgers has seen his stock slide, in some cases dramatically.

We doubt the Niners are paying much attention to any of that, except for the possible trade ramifications that might result.

They've already made their choice, and the belief here is it will be – and should be – Rodgers, because he is the sort of individual that the Nolan regime is looking for, not to mention a quarterback who has the skills and potential to lead the 49ers back to the top.

It's a tough call. Smith is an intriguing prospect, and the scary downside of Rodgers is that he might already be a developed product who doesn't have much room to grow and improve at the NFL level.

The feeling here is that both Smith and Rodgers will be good NFL quarterbacks, so the Niners really can't go wrong by picking either one. That said, this draft is all about the 49ers getting it right – and getting the right guy for them.

Rodgers is it. While Smith has fanciful upside, there's this feeling inside that he may never transform what he did against weak college competition to the pro level. He definitely isn't as ready as Rodgers to help immediately, but that really doesn't factor into the equation. The worry here is that he ultimately might not be able to help at all, turning into another David Klingler.

But turn your attention now away from the No. 1 pick. It's just one player, and one golden opportunity to get the quality quarterback Nolan and Co. need to begin their resurrection of the franchise.

What the Niners do with their next 11 picks will be more important.

The Niners need to find starters – and we're talking 2005 starters – with each selection they make on Saturday, and maybe even with that top pick to open the fourth round Sunday, since they'll have all Saturday night to determine the best player left on the board.

They need to hit on several of their nine second-day picks also, because that's where they will be finding the depth that last year's team didn't have. Privately, the new Niners expect all 12 of this weekend's draft picks to make the team as the Nolan regime gradually builds a new team with its own players.

"Being 2-14, as you know, we are targeting players that can come in and help this football team right away," Nolan said. "That first day, in all of our picks, we're looking for them to either start or compete for that position, 'cause whether they get the position, they'll make that guy in front of them that much better. In time, certainly, we want those guys to be our starters.

"That first pick on the second day will be an important pick for us, too. I would like to think that we certainly will create a lot of competition on the second day. We have (nine) selections on that second day, and I am looking for all those guys to compete."

Meanwhile, Nolan will be looking to make history with this draft – the kind that people will remember as a seminal moment in team lore – while avoiding the kind that could come back to haunt him and his new team.


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