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TOP QUARTERBACKS POSE PROBLEM FOR NINERS
ARE SMITH, RODGERS WORTH A NO. 1 PICK?

This is the second in a seven-part series previewing the NFL draft. Today's installment looks at quarterbacks.

The San Francisco 49ers have a dilemma with the top pick in the NFL draft.

They need a franchise quarterback, but the top two college passers available probably would not have cracked the top 10 in some previous drafts.

Is either Utah's Alex Smith or California's Aaron Rodgers worthy of being No. 1 overall? It's certain neither would have been taken ahead of last year's top three -- Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger.

"I'd like to think we'll never pick here again, and because of that, if the opportunity is there to get the right guy, I think you have to do it," said new Niners coach Mike Nolan at the NFL owners meetings. "I think both those guys are going to play and play well. I'm confident of that. Is either one of them the best player in the draft? That's what I really want to be convinced if it is true."

The decision may come down to which player is easier to sign to a long-term contract. The Niners are expected to have whomever they select under contract by the start of the draft, at noon April 23.

Smith and Rodgers played in wide-open offenses and benefited from passer-friendly systems.

Smith, who is only 20, is considered by some to have the best potential. He has better size (at 6-foot-4) and is more athletic than Rodgers, who is 6-2. Rodgers has better arm strength and is more polished. Rodgers played under Cal coach Jeff Tedford, who helped develop Trent Dilfer, David Carr, Akili Smith, Joey Harrington and Kyle Boller. Smith played mostly out of the shotgun for the Utes.

"Aaron is certainly ahead of Alex because of the style of offense he ran," Nolan said. "Alex was doing a lot of things in his (pro-day) workout that he really hadn't done for two or three years. . . . The mechanics of coming out from beneath the center and setting and throwing is not as good. Both of them are very accurate.

"To me, the intangible things are really critical. All my years in coaching, those were the guys that were tough to beat, the guys that were good leaders."

"I see Rodgers running a diverse ship," said Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden. "He throws wide flares, he throws down the field, and he's making key decisions. He's a very astute player, he's got size, and he's a winner. Smith is a genius. I don't know if genius is a good word, but he's pretty damn smart."

Smith scored 40 on the Wonderlic intelligence exam at the scouting combine, the second-highest score among this year's draft class.

Likely to go in the second round is Auburn's Jason Campbell, who is the best athlete among the top QBs and who showed much improved accuracy as a senior.

Akron's Charlie Frye appears to have risen to second-round status as well by a number of teams. Packers aides actually compared him to Brett Favre after his pro-day workout. He threw for 11,049 yards and 64 touchdowns for the Zips and started 44 games. He's an excellent leader with better-than-average mobility.

Kyle Orton started fast for Purdue but faded down the stretch, partly due to a hip injury. He has a quick release and a good arm. He's not very athletic and is another guy who thrived in an excellent system.

The wild card is Adrian McPherson, the Arena League player who got kicked out of Florida State due to a gambling scandal. Some teams won't have him on their draft boards, but someone will take him in a middle round.

"He laid down on a bench press and racked it 30 times," Gruden said. "Very athletic guy. Where you take him, I don't know."
Next: Running backs.

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com