- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Mike Nolan knew he was taking on more than just a coaching job when he was hired by the San Francisco 49ers.
Going slightly against a trend in which coach/general managers are losing their personnel duties, Nolan accepted the challenge of being the main decision-maker on everything. Like New England's Bill Belichick, he runs coaching and scouting. Not only is Nolan the face and spokesman for the organization, he's also the brain, the conscience.
There's more, however, and he's finding out about that as hours tick away toward this weekend's NFL draft. It goes beyond just making the first selection in the draft. His decision-making has to re-establish credibility for the organization, a much bigger task than just selecting Utah quarterback Alex Smith.
The 49ers, as a franchise, have fallen into the abyss. They are coming off a 2-14 season that cost coach Dennis Erickson and general manager Terry Donohue their jobs. Fairly or unfairly, owner John York gets criticized for not spending enough. Unlike the lavish days under Eddie DeBartolo, York established the team's first budget in more than two decades. To make matters worse, Donohue mismanaged the salary cap and the team couldn't spend last season, just four years after coming out of salary-cap purgatory.
That's why Saturday's first pick is so important, and Nolan is finding out it's not just making a pick in 15 minutes. Smith appears to be favored over Aaron Rodgers of California, but Nolan isn't tipping his hand. Scot McCloughan, the 49ers' vice president of personnel, said Monday he doesn't even know whom Nolan favors. Nolan insists signability won't be an issue in making the decision, but there already is a contract dispute.
Tom Condon, Smith's agent, wants more than the $7.5 million a year he negotiated for Eli Manning, who went to the Giants last year. Increases over the previous year's top pick are normal. However, in this instance the 49ers disagree, saying the increase from Carson Palmer's $6.7 million a year deal in 2003 to Manning's $7.5 million a year is too much. The Niners think the $20 million guarantee was out of line. Condon counters that Tim Couch received $6.9 million a year as the first pick in 1999 and that all the top quarterback contracts pay $24 million over the first four years, and that's what Smith would get.
Condon's take: What's the big deal? The increase is only $600,000 a year more than 1999. The 49ers counter with a 300-page analysis that says the percentage and guarantees jumped too much. Consider Nolan's predicament. If the 49ers draft Smith without a deal in place, there's potentially a long holdout and they could lose the value of Smith's first-year contribution. If Nolan chooses Rodgers, he'll be criticized for going on the cheap.
The current set of circumstances are new to Nolan. He made his living devising game plans to trap quarterbacks in the pocket. Now, he looks up and sees all these things coming at him with the speed of a blitz. It's not easy, but Nolan is trying to keep moving.
"I've got to stay open-minded up until the very end," Nolan said. "Staying open-minded is the only way our pick maintains its value though the process. Money will not be a factor. We will draft the guy we think is best."
As long as the player's terms are reasonable.
Explaining why the 49ers don't want to exceed or match Manning;s contract, Nolan said: "Tom understands last year's deal was completely out of whack compared to prior years. He had the Giants exactly where he wanted them. They had no negotiations prior to the draft, and after getting the first pick, the Giants had to get the deal done. He got a deal that was far above the rate of increase, and he got it because he had so much leverage."
Building up is a mini version of what happened last year with the Chargers and Manning, only without the fireworks and ultimatums. Manning's father, Archie, visited the Chargers before the draft and came back with a poor report for his son, questioning the longevity of general manager A.J. Smith and coach Marty Schottenheimer and the ability of the offensive line to keep Eli upright.
For the Chargers, the first pick became a test of wills. Manning wouldn't sign. Smith wouldn't make a trade unless it was on his terms. Eventually, both sides ended up getting their ways. San Diego drafted Manning No. 1 overall, traded him to the Giants for fellow quarterback Philip Rivers and got three additional picks including a first-rounder (2005). Subsequently, Manning got his lucrative contract.
Fast-forward to the Niners; Alex Smith is making no ultimatums. He's just a hot quarterback. The Dolphins, Browns and Bucs appear to want him, and Nolan knows that, which is why he's prolonging the decision until Saturday. Even if it means going on the clock, Nolan is promoting the possibility of a trade if the price is right. His role is that of A.J. Smith without the anger and negative comments.
Nolan and McCloughan have called the nine teams immediately below them to see if there is interest in a trade. The Vikings are considering moving up for Michigan receiver Braylon Edwards. The Bucs want to move up for Smith, but they might only come to the bargaining table carrying a third-rounder.
"We'll only get off the spot if somebody comes to us with what we think is value for the spot, not so much because we won't like the player we are going to get," Nolan said. "There are a lot of scenarios. Miami has talked to several teams, but teams can't come to them unless they know what we do. I'm keeping an open mind until the very end."
As far as the rest of the draft, the 49ers have several needs. Most outsiders don't believe Tim Rattay and Ken Dorsey are talented enough to make the 49ers winners, so Nolan must come out of this draft with a quarterback. He appears to be set at halfback with Kevan Barlow, who's coming off a bad season. He paid $36 million over seven years for left tackle Jonas Jennings, but still could use depth on the offensive line. And considering the team won only two games last year, there are other holes that need to be filled.
The 49ers have 11 draft choices and expect all 11 to make the team. They would like to get three potential starters with their first three selections and maybe a borderline first-year starter with the fourth-rounder.
On the positive side, Nolan feels pretty good about the switch from 4-3 to the 3-4, in part because it means shortening the defensive line by one starter. At Baltimore, he succeeded by not worrying about players fitting into certain size and speed dimensions. Ray Lewis was considered too short and not fast enough coming into the league. Ed Reed was considered not fast and strong enough. Lewis and Reed are among the best players in the league.
"For me on defense, I'm looking for playmakers," Nolan said. "I like to think the best players are also the best workers. If the guy is a playmaker and not a worker, we're not going to take him. I think right now the 49ers have more depth on defense. If we stayed in the 4-3, I'd be concerned because we might have needed a couple more linemen. We've got some good linebackers, but we need some depth because a couple of them have their contracts coming up next year."
Getting back to Alex Smith's contract, Nolan says he's comfortable drafting him, thinking that Condon eventually will be reasonable in getting a deal. If that means a holdout, Nolan is willing to stick with the company line so the organization can get the right deal.
"We control the cards to the draft, not Tom," Nolan said. "Players want to play. We can take the best player. When we take that player, that's the best we can do. For us to settle on the second-best guy because it's a better monetary deal wouldn't be right. You don't sit at the top pick with a chance to get the best guy and say we'll take the second-best guy because it's a better monetary deal. If that is the case, get off the spot."
Technically, Nolan isn't tipping his hand as far as who he thinks is best. He still has the ability to come back and say it's Rodgers or Edwards, not Smith. In his first draft, though, Nolan is getting an education on the complexities of being the 49ers' boss.
It sure involves more than just making a selection at the No. 1 spot.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.