Quarterback sneak peeks

STEVE MacFARLANE -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:13 AM ET

Quarterbacks are the cornerstones of any good offence.

So it's not surprising six of the NFL's last seven first-overall draft picks have been pivots. In fact, the last four names called out first on draft day have been QBs.

Early rumblings indicate there's a good chance that streak will stay alive.

But the onus is on potential number ones Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith -- both underclassmen who passed up their senior year -- to ace interviews at this weekend's combine in Indianapolis.

A strong presence, both physically and mentally, can push any player's stock to the top of a scout's big board.

A fumbled first impression can have the opposite effect.

The San Francisco 49ers own the top slot in April's draft and it's no secret new coach Mike Nolan wants to find a young star to lead his offence.

"Obviously, when you are 2-14, you've got a lot of holes to fill," Nolan said during a conference call this week. "I would say some of the real focus, or most of the focus, will be on the offensive side of the ball."

Since taking over in January, the coach has yet to speak with Niners quarterback Tim Rattay -- although he claims it's on his to-do list -- and the fact Nolan will first meet face-to-face with both Cal prospect Rodgers and Utah pivot Smith doesn't bode well for the incumbent.

When USC's Matt Leinart decided to return to college for his senior year, Rodgers inherited the title of best quarterback available in the 2005 draft. The 6-ft. 1-in., 220-pounder has a great arm and accuracy.

His size is a concern to some scouts but Rodgers seems to be driven to succeed and has a reputation of being a hard worker. The only real knock on Rodgers is his average athleticism.

No one will mistake him for Mike Vick or Donovan McNabb on the field.

Smith has great height at 6-ft. 4-in. He needs to pack on a few pounds to play in the NFL but is a great decision-maker and his intelligence is unrivaled among this year's eligibles.

The Utah Utes star's potential outweighs his average arm strength and a good interview at the combine combined with an impressive showing at future private workouts could shoot Smith past Rodgers come draft day.

But, as the deodorant commercials claim, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

And that's what the combine is all about.

"I think the follow-up with the campus visits we do in the weeks to come will have an awful lot to do with what our selection is," said Nolan. "But I think the combine is going to be very valuable from standpoint of just getting an introduction to each guy and getting familiar with them.

"I'm looking forward to meeting them face to face. It's a lot different than when you just see them on film all those times."

Sports agent Mike Sullivan, who represents Rodgers, said he won't worry too much about the workout aspect of the combine.

Most participants sweat every second of their vertical and broad-jump tests, bench press and 40-yard dash.

Not quarterbacks.

"It's one piece of an overall evaluation," said Sullivan, who views private workouts as the true test for a QB. "While I think it's important, I think that it's more of a fine tuning for a quarterback than it is a huge issue, like for a receiver in terms of their 40 times.

As for the rest of the first-round hopefuls -- the running backs, receivers, defensive backs, linebackers and defensive lineman -- the combine workouts are crucial to their draft-day dreams.

Even offensive linemen can make a play for the No. 1 spot with a killer time in the 40. Just ask Oakland Raiders tackle Robert Gallery, who went second overall last year after running his dash in less than five seconds.

Running backs Cedrick Benson (Texas), Auburn's Ronnie Brown and Carnell (Cadillac) Williams are all expected to get picked up early. How high they are drafted depends greatly on how fast they run, how high they jump and how much they lift.

Considered the gridiron workhorses, running backs really are jockeying for position this weekend.

Benson has been compared to Ricky Williams, minus the drug habit, and recently shaved his dreadlocks to distance himself from that distinction. On the field, though, the 6-ft., 220-lb. bruiser has the potential to exceed Williams' accomplishments.

Brown (6-ft. 1-in., 225-lb.) is similar in stature but has great speed. Tigers' teammate Cadillac Williams is the most elusive of the top three running backs available in this year's draft. He's only 5-ft. 11-in., 205-lb., but breaks tackles with ease and can cut back with the best in the NFL.

Whoever most impresses scouts this weekend could find themselves filling Williams' shoes in Miami come April.

A pair of top-10 receivers, Michigan's Braylon Edwards and former USC star Mike Williams, will try to grab the attention of Chicago scouts. The Bears own the No. 4 spot and are desperate for a franchise receiver.

Williams was declared ineligible for his junior year with the Trojans in 2004 because he followed Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett's lead and unsuccessfully attempted to jump to the NFL last year as a sophomore.

Clarett lost his court battle against the league's draft rules and spent a year on the sidelines but, like Williams, has returned to the combine with the hope his skills haven't been affected by the lost season.

Both Williams and Clarett reportedly showed up in Indianapolis in great physical condition.

If any one of this year's offensive prospects -- or a defensive standout such as cornerback Antrel Rolle or Adam (Pac-Man) Jones, linebacker Derrick Johnson or a handful of speedy rushing ends -- ups his value enough, you could see Nolan part ways with No. 1.

"The thing I'm excited about is the further we get into the process of evaluating the guys, I'm very certain that there is going to be value at that pick," said Nolan. "I'm getting more confident with each day that the pick is going to have great value."


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