Where There is Smoke; Fire Follows

As league and team officials returned home from last week's NFL Owners' meeting, discussions turned from rules and bargaining agreements back to what will happen with the No. 1 overall spot in the draft held by the San Francisco 49ers.

Despite denials to the contrary and a bellowing smokescreen of conflicting comments from the team's staff, NFLDraftScout.com and Next Level Scouting are reporting that the 49ers have either taken or solicited offers for their top overall pick.

While most debate has been over which quarterback the 49ers might take in the draft -- Cal's Aaron Rodgers or Utah's Alex Smith -- there are now other possibilities in the form of San Diego's Philip Rivers or Drew Brees.

For the record, 49ers coach Mike Nolan and his VP of football operations Scot McCloughlin insist they have not talked with the Chargers about such a deal. And San Diego team officials say they have not contacted the 49ers.

Of course, such denials are common and expected under these circumstances.

Regardless, other sources in the NFL are sure that in this case there is some fire behind the smoke.

Rivers was considered more NFL-ready when he came out in last year's draft than either Smith or Rodgers are this year. However, Rivers held out of camp long enough for Brees to hold onto his starting job and then produce a Pro Bowl season.

This leaves the Chargers with an embarrassment of riches at quarterback as well as a brewing financial burden because Brees will become a free agent after the 2005 season. Last year Rivers signed a seven-year, $22.4 million contract that included a $14.2 million signing bonus. If they trade Rivers, they would immediately take a hit on their salary cap of approximately $9 million.

The Chargers franchised Brees this year at the cost of $8.078 million, the one-year tender price tag for quarterbacks. And if they want to keep him out of the free agent market next season, they will either have to sign him to a new contract or use the franchise tag again.

San Diego's decision on what to do with the quarterback situation is further complicated because team officials would prefer to keep Rivers, whom they believe is better for the future of the organization.

But this franchise must be especially careful what it does at the quarterback position after finally regaining credibility and fan support last year with Brees at the helm. That quelled griping about persistent problems at quarterback that go back even before the infamous decision to take Ryan Leaf in the same 1998 draft that featured a guy named Peyton Manning.

So, in an era when it is virtually impossible to keep two high-priced quarterbacks, the Chargers appear faced with a choice -- trade Rivers and take a hit now, or defer the decision and figure out how to keep Brees again next year. While the Chargers have no guarantees that they would keep Brees in a free agent auction next year, they could make him their franchise player again, but it would cost them approximately $10 million to do that as the tender price will go up, as usual.

The Chargers also have three picks in the first two rounds of the draft -- overall numbers 12, 28 and 61.

One scenario would have the Chargers trading some combination of one of their quarterbacks -- Rivers would be the 49ers' choice -- and draft picks to the 49ers and then taking Michigan wide receiver Braylon Edwards with the first overall pick.

The 49ers would benefit by acquiring a more highly prized quarterback than either of the top two draft prospects at that position, possibly an extra pick in the first two rounds and a better situation for their salary cap. If they took Rivers, for example, the hit on the 49ers' salary cap number would essentially be his salary -- $305,000 this year and $615,000 in 2006. They wouldn't incur the hit of a signing bonus necessary to sign a drafted quarterback.

During the meetings in Maui, Nolan suggested it would take three years for Smith to get up to speed on his techniques and timing after playing as a shotgun quarterback at Utah, but he made sure to say Smith had superior athletic skills. He also praised Rodgers' great workout at Cal, saying he had a strong arm and could throw all the passes.

Others close to the 49ers have indicated, variously, that the decision is made and that Smith is the choice, the decision is made and that Rodgers is the choice, and that there are five options pending -- selecting Smith, Rodgers, Edwards, a running back -- either Ronnie Brown or Cedric Benson -- or trading down.

So until a deal is made or a player is drafted, expect the 49ers to sound unclear as to whether they prefer to stay on the draft clock or scour the trading block.

Such dissemination of misinformation should be expected as the 49ers seek a way to leverage the best possible result from their position atop the 2005 draft board.

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