There is still a chance that Alex Smith will not be the first pick in this weekend's NFL draft but four league sources, all involved to varying degrees in the selection process, confirmed on Monday afternoon that the standout Utah quarterback is first in the hearts of the San Francisco 49ers.
Officials from the 49ers, who won the dubious distinction of having the top choice by virtue of their 2-14 record in 2004, apprised the representatives for Aaron Rodgers over the weekend that they favored Smith by a small but definitive margin over the University of California quarterback.
Also, over the weekend, some San Francisco coaches insisted in the 49ers' draft meetings that the franchise needed to choose the best player, not the most "signable" one. Toward that end, the 49ers have ramped up negotiations with Tom Condon, the agent for Smith.
"Taking the money out of the equation, and just evaluating the football [elements], Smith is [the] preference," said one source.
It is believed that, while the San Francisco brain trust feels Rodgers would be a viable choice, they rate Smith as the superior all-around athlete, with better intangibles. Smith, who compiled a 21-1 record as the Utah starter, will not turn 21 until two weeks after the draft and possesses a solid football foundation.
Condon was in the Bay Area last Thursday and Friday to huddle with 49ers officials. The Monday discussions between the two sides were conducted by telephone and fax. There remain considerable differences between the negotiating positions of the two sides.
The 49ers are confident, sources said, that they can complete a contract agreement with Rodgers before the draft. Consummating an accord with Smith, though, might be tougher. Condon represented the first overall choice in the 2004 draft, quarterback Eli Manning, and is seeking a contract similar to that one.
After being traded from the San Diego Chargers to the New York Giants on draft day, Manning signed a six-year deal that is generally valued at $45 million, with the potential to earn an additional $9 million in incentives.
San Francisco officials will work hard on securing Smith for the next day or two, then face a potentially difficult decision, likely by mid-week. If there is no deal in place for Smith by then, the 49ers will have to determine whether they should still choose him, and work out the contract later, or turn their attention to Rodgers.
Manning did not sign last summer until the eve of the start of training camp, but the 49ers would prefer to strike a deal with the top pick before the draft begins Saturday at noon ET.
It will be interesting, if the 49ers do, indeed, take Smith, to see where Rodgers ends up. For whatever reason, Rodgers has not generated the same degree of interest as has Smith after the top overall pick. Several teams are interested in trying to trade up for Smith if the 49ers do not select him. Not all of those teams, however, covet Rodgers nearly as much.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.