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The No. 1 Question

Who will the 49ers take with the first pick in the NFL draft? At the scouting combine nothing was obvious. SI slots the top four from a pool devoid of can't-miss players
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With the arrival of March the fun begins for NFL draftniks. And every year at this time they either know who the No. 1 pick will be (Jeff George, Michael Vick, Carson Palmer) or the pool of quality candidates is so rich (David Carr and Julius Peppers, Eli Manning and Robert Gallery) that the team selecting first is certain to get a cornerstone player. ¶ That's why the upcoming draft is so weird--and why the San Francisco 49ers and their new coach, Mike Nolan, are in a tough spot. There isn't a can't-miss player on the board. "I don't remember a year like this," Buffalo Bills president Tom Donahoe said last week at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. "I've talked to 10 people, and I've gotten 10 different answers on who they like at the top. It makes it hard on San Francisco. If the 49ers don't want the pick, it might be hard for them to trade it."

A year ago who would have thought that the names being bandied about at the top of the draft would be Ronnie Brown, Braylon Edwards, Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith? At the same time who would have thought that the biggest power brokers in this draft would be Nolan, Scot McCloughan, Nick Saban, Romeo Crennel and Phil Savage? And what would the odds have been that the most famous player in the draft, Maurice Clarett, wouldn't be selected?

That's the 2005 draft in a nutshell. It's like The Gates. You're not sure what to make of it, but you know you haven't seen anything like it.

With the draft set for April 23 and 24, here's how SI sees the top four picks:

• San Francisco exhausts all attempts to trade down, then reaches around the corner for Rodgers, the Cal quarterback.

• Assuming he doesn't get a running back through free agency or in a trade, Saban, the Miami Dolphins' new coach, selects Brown, who split time with Carnell (Cadillac) Williams at Auburn. Brown has very good speed (4.47 seconds in the 40) for a 233-pound back.

• The Cleveland Browns aren't in love with this quarterback crop, but Crennel, the former New England Patriots defensive coordinator, has to have a passer. It'll be the mobile Smith, out of Utah.

• If any player is a lock to be among the first four picks, it's Edwards, the Michigan wideout. "He's probably the best player in the draft," Nolan says. The pick is held by the Chicago Bears, but last Saturday they signed free-agent All-Pro wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad to a six-year deal. The Bears will trade the pick.

"YOU'RE ON the clock," a reporter said to Nolan in Indianapolis last week.

"That's pretty cool," he said.

The 46-year-old Nolan, who was Baltimore's defensive coordinator the last three seasons, was the surprise choice of Niners owner John York to resurrect a once-proud franchise that sank to a league-worst 2--14 last season. Nolan has never been a head coach at any level, and he's never worked as a personnel man in a front office, but he will have the final say in the San Francisco draft room. The bookish Nolan may not look the part, but he's a bulldog. Working in the coaches' booth during a game against the New York Jets last season, Nolan got upset at Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis for showing disgust at his play calls. Nolan phoned down to inside linebackers coach Mike Singletary and barked, "You tell Ray to stop giving me an attitude. That impacts the other guys. That's not going to help us win." Lewis dropped the attitude.

York has gotten the lion's share of the criticism for the 49ers' demise, and Nolan spent part of his interview with the owner pressing him for answers on why the team went south so fast. After Nolan got the job in January, he recalls, York told him, "You're the only [candidate] who attacked me. I liked that."

Likewise, Nolan's choice to be his top personnel aide, the 33-year-old McCloughan, who was the Seattle Seahawks' director of college scouting, caught everyone by surprise. Nolan spent just 30 minutes with McCloughan before hiring him. "He was a complete stranger," Nolan says, "and he's going to make or break me. But he came very highly recommended, and I knew he was the guy when I asked him what he looked for in football players, and he said, 'Passion, football intelligence and being a playmaker.' That's what I look for."

Beyond the notion that San Francisco will draft a quarterback first, the Nolan-McCloughan draft board is a mystery. The Niners' starting signal-caller, Tim Rattay, a seventh-round pick in 2000, has been mostly ineffective and plagued by injury during his 11/2 seasons in the lineup. The 49ers' options were narrowed after Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart announced in January that he would return to Southern Cal for his senior season. Now Rodgers and Smith, both of whom had a year of eligibility left, will get long looks from Nolan and McCloughan. Barring a lucrative offer from a team looking to move up to take Edwards or a running back, one of those quarterbacks is about to hit the lottery. "It looks like it's down to me and Aaron," Smith said at the combine.

Both rose out of college football obscurity and California towns. Smith, from LaMesa, is a wiry (6'4", 217) kid who's probably the most intelligent player in the draft. Still only 20, he got his economics degree in two years. As a sophomore he capitalized on an injury to the Utes' incumbent in the second game of the season and never gave the job back. In two seasons as a starter he rushed for 1,072 yards, completed 66.3% of his passes, went 21--1 and had a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 47 to 8. The book on his arm: excellent touch on short and intermediate passes, throws an average deep ball that sometimes flutters. "I think what separates me from other quarterbacks," Smith says, "is my athleticism, leadership and intelligence."

What separates Rodgers, who grew up in Chico, is his confidence. In high school he refused to believe the college scouts who said he wasn't Division I material; he went to junior college for two years, then signed with Cal and went 17--5 as a starter. Unlike other Jeff Tedford--coached quarterbacks, Rodgers is an accurate passer (63.8% completion rate) who isn't hesitant about making any throw. "I think I'm a guy you can build a franchise around," he says. But he'll have to overcome the reputation of other Tedford-coached quarterbacks--Trent Dilfer at Fresno State, Akili Smith and Joey Harrington at Oregon, and Kyle Boller at Cal--who after putting up impressive college numbers have been far less successful in the pros. "When I interviewed with the Packers," says Rodgers, "they killed me on that stuff. They asked me, 'How are you different from Harrington?' And, 'Are you just a Tedford product?' It's frustrating. I think I'm the most accurate quarterback Coach Tedford ever had."

The 49ers interviewed Rodgers and Smith at the combine. "I liked them both a lot," says Nolan. "Aaron doesn't ride the fence on anything, which I like. People don't follow fence-sitters. Alex is very smart, very capable. He sees the target and knows what he has to do. My job is to figure out if he can be a great one."

Saban and Crennel, who worked under the secretive Bill Belichick in Cleveland and New England, respectively, won't be offering clues on which way they're leaning with the second and third picks. Brown's speed and squeaky-clean image would seem to give him an edge as the Dolphins' running back choice over Williams and Texas' Cedric Benson (both of whom should go in the top 10). Though they need a quarterback, Crennel and Savage, the former Ravens director of player personnel who is now the Browns' general manager, may choose the best player (Edwards) or an impact defensive player (Wisconsin pass rusher Erasmus James or West Virginia cornerback Adam Jones). After all, Crennel has seen firsthand how a passer drafted in the sixth round, Tom Brady, can be molded into a champion.

finally there's Clarett, who hasn't played in a game in 26 months, after dropping out of Ohio State and losing his bid to have NFL draft rules overturned in court. He participated in last year's combine before an appeals court ruled in favor of the NFL. This year he returned to Indianapolis far more fit, his body fat down from 17.0% last year to 11.4%. But then he ran tight-end-like 40 times of 4.72 and 4.82. Three seasons ago, when Clarett was tearing up the Big Ten during a freshman year in which he scored 16 touchdowns, it would have been ridiculous to suggest he would someday be a sixth-round draft choice. Now, that's probably a best-case scenario.

Before his Saturday workout he said, "This is the date I've had circled on my calendar for a long time." After running poorly, he was so crushed that he pulled out of the rest of the running back drills, further diminishing his worth. Asked about his dismal 40 times, Clarett said, "I can't explain it."

That's goes for the rest of the 2005 draft.

No Rush to Invest In a Bad Act

When the Vikings had finally had their fill of Randy Moss, they found few teams willing to discuss a trade for the troublesome wideout

ONE BY ONE over the past month, potential partners in a trade with the Minnesota Vikings for wideout Randy Moss turned their backs to the opportunity. The New York Jets, who pursued a deal for Moss in 2003, no longer had interest in the game's most controversial superstar. Atlanta needs a deep threat for quarterback Michael Vick, but the Falcons wanted nothing to do with Moss. Even the receiver-poor Baltimore Ravens, who last March thought they had swung a trade for outspoken wideout Terrell Owens, refused Minnesota's demand for one of two Pro Bowl players, pass rusher Terrell Suggs or safety Ed Reed, as part of a deal for Moss.

In the end there was only one club seriously interested in the explosive Moss, a seven-year veteran who scored more touchdowns before his 28th birthday (90) than any other receiver in NFL history but was an equally disruptive force in Minnesota. The Oakland Raiders gave the Vikings their first-round draft pick (No. 7 overall), starting linebacker Napoleon Harris and a seventh-round pick. Barring an unlikely last-minute roadblock, that deal was to become official on Wednesday, the first day of the league's trading period. Moss was one step from joining an organization that not only loves the deep passing game but also is notorious for collecting renegades.

For Minnesota no amount of kowtowing to Moss could prevent his insubordination, much of which occurred publicly--such as when he left the field before the end of the Vikings' loss at Washington on Jan. 2--but also included more subtle acts of defiance that hurt the team. For instance, after Moss dropped a touchdown pass against the Chicago Bears on Dec. 5, quarterback Daunte Culpepper hooked up with wideout Nate Burleson for a score. "Randy felt snubbed," recalls one Viking. "He came to the sideline, threw his helmet down, and his negative energy hit everyone on the team. He pouted the rest of the game. He was useless." Moss finished with four catches for 31 yards, and the Bears pulled off a 24--14 upset.

Minnesota authority figures, from owner Red McCombs to coaches Dennis Green and then Mike Tice, had become enablers rather than disciplinarians. Even when Moss tried to right a wrong, he screwed up. He privately apologized to the embattled Tice for his early departure in Washington and told the coach he'd apologize again later in the week in front of the media. Instead, later that week Moss told ESPN he wasn't sure if Tice was the right coach for the Vikings, saying, "I don't know if it's a good fit for him to be here."

Minnesota didn't hit the jackpot in making the trade, but the Raiders took another big step in rebuilding their offense. They already had one fleet wideout, Jerry Porter, who will keep opponents from keying on Moss, and last year they picked up a strong-armed quarterback, Kerry Collins. Now Oakland will either draft a running back or sign a free agent to boost a ground game that ranked last in the league in 2004. With Moss and Porter in the lineup, defenses will have to keep one or two safeties in deep coverage, which should open up the field for the rushing attack.

All the Raiders expect from Moss are numbers comparable to his average over seven seasons: 82 catches, 1,306 yards, 13 touchdowns. Even if the trade doesn't change his behavior one bit, at least he's with the NFL franchise that has the best track record with misfits. --P.K.

"I don't remember a year like this. I've talked to 10 people, and I've gotten 10 DIFFERENT ANSWERS about

who they like at the top," said the Bills' Tom Donahoe.

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Photograph by Peter Read Miller

THIRD DEGREE

Rodgers (8, last season) was (from left) timed, interviewed (by the 49ers) and tested for flexibility as he went through the rigors of the scouting combine.

THREE COLOR PHOTOS

TODD ROSENBERG (3)

  [See caption above]

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TODD ROSENBERG

SETBACK

Clarett showed up in better shape than he did in '04, but his stock fell after he turned in 40 times more befitting a tight end.

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TOM DAHLIN/WIREIMAGE.COM

BLACK-AND-SILVER LINING

Moss wound up with the Raiders, the one team that might be a perfect fit.