SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Five minutes before commissioner Paul Tagliabue made the announcement, Alex Smith got the call he had been anticipating for weeks. The San Francisco 49ers had decided he was No. 1.
After nearly four months of evaluations, trade talks and one wacky workout in Salt Lake City, the 49ers selected Smith with the top pick in Saturday's draft. Though coach Mike Nolan didn't rule out the possibility of trading the rights to the still-unsigned Utah quarterback, both Smith and the 49ers were excited by the probable end of an exhausting process.
"Every time I've ever met with anybody from the 49ers, I've
felt this was the place for me," Smith said from New York. "I
have to justify this pick, because it's going to be associated with
my name for the rest of my life."
True to his predictions, Nolan didn't reveal his choice among Smith, Aaron Rodgers and Braylon Edwards until Tagliabue took the podium. The 49ers held trade discussions with much of the league, including three teams -- Miami, Cleveland and Tampa Bay -- who thought about trading up to snatch Smith, but none of the offers impressed Nolan enough to give up the top selection.
Instead, San Francisco will install Smith as soon as possible in
its new version of the West Coast offense as the club rebuilds from
its franchise-worst 2-14 season. Nolan expects Smith to compete
with Tim Rattay for the starting job when the 49ers hold their next
minicamp in two weeks.
"We felt that Alex was the one that most fit what we want our
team to look like," Nolan said. "He brings discipline,
competitiveness and intelligence to the table. He is off the charts
in all three areas."
The 49ers' opinions about Smith were cemented by a private
workout in Utah last month. Despite a strong wind off the Wasatch
Mountains, Smith looked fairly good while throwing to San Francisco
receivers Brandon Lloyd and Arnaz Battle.
But he really sold Nolan when he went through a series of strange drills without a complaint. Jumping rope, doing agility drills, passing a football between his legs as many times as possible -- whatever the Niners wanted, Smith did it.
"It was awkward, very strange," Smith recalled. "I think they
wanted to take me out of my comfort zone. I kind of kept my mouth
shut and just went to work. It was kind of frustrating, but after
it was over, I got an idea what it's worth."
Smith declared himself eligible for the draft after leading the Utes to an undefeated season, capped by a Fiesta Bowl victory for the first non-BCS conference team in a BCS game. The junior was nearly flawless as the leader of coach Urban Meyer's creative offense, going 21-1 as a starter over the last two seasons.
Smith was the Mountain West Conference's offensive player of the year, and he became the first Heisman Trophy finalist from Utah after passing for 2,952 yards with 32 touchdowns and just four interceptions.
When asked about Smith's possible limitations coming out of a so-called gimmick offense, Nolan cited Chad Pennington, Byron Leftwich, Daunte Culpepper and Steve McNair as quarterbacks who emerged from shotgun-heavy schemes to become solid pros.
The 49ers still must sign Smith, and it might not be easy. His
agent, Tom Condon, is thought to want more than the $20 million
signing bonus given to top pick Eli Manning by the New York Giants
last year -- and because Nolan wanted to disguise the 49ers'
intentions as long as possible, they were unable to reach an
agreement before the draft.
Nolan was dismissive of the possible problems, choosing to focus
on the possibilities created by the arrival of the top college
quarterback prospect to his rebuilding club.
"It will get done, as all contracts do," Nolan said.