Follow the new leaders

Charles Robinson

More draft coverage: Notebook: Who's picking whom? | The best athlete | The top QB prospect | Impact offensive players | Impact defensive players | Scout.com

If Galileo was right – if doubt truly is the father of invention – then the 2005 NFL draft should produce the league's Manhattan Project. Because, for the first time in league history, the teams with the top three selections are engineered by men who have never been NFL head coaches.

Not once since the creation of the AFL in 1960 have the top three draft choices rested with teams with new head coaches. And because of this offseason's lack of a consensus on talent, those three franchises and their coaches – the San Francisco 49ers' Mike Nolan, the Miami Dolphins' Nick Saban and the Cleveland Browns' Romeo Crennel – are the wild cards with the potential to shape the 2005 draft, not to mention their own teams.

Not surprisingly, each has remarkably similar problems. All three have doubts about their current quarterbacks, are undergoing roster overhauls, and are installing some form of a 3-4 defense (though Miami only plans to use it occasionally). And of course, all three are franchises attempting to restore some sort of legacy.

Crennel could have been speaking for Nolan and Saban, too, when he summed up the state of his own team last month: "I wouldn't be here if it was good," he said.

While free agency has been a major component of rebuilding for all three teams, the draft offers something far trickier for each – the first major decision for failure. It's something that seems to loom larger than ever in a draft that may lack even a single "can't-miss" player, and it's a reality highlighted by quarterbacks like Cal's Aaron Rodgers and Utah's Alex Smith, who each have a wealth of supporters balanced against staunch critics.

As Saban noted, "The history of drafting [successful] quarterbacks in the first round is a 30-percent hit. I don't know what the odds are on a craps table in Vegas, but I know that one [is better]."

While the odds aren't exactly in their favor, the 49ers are expected to grab either Rodgers or Smith with the No. 1 pick, as Nolan begins what should be a massive retooling. Yet for all his problems, Nolan has been the optimist among the three coaches. While both Saban and Crennel have harped on patience and rebuilding, it's Nolan who has been unafraid to raise expectations.

"When you take into consideration if the injuries were not there [last season], plus the opportunity to turn things around with the 11 draft picks we have, as well as free agency, I think we have an opportunity to get turned around fairly quickly," Nolan said.

That's a surprisingly bright outlook for a team that finished 2-14 in 2004 and then saw co-owner John York sweep everyone out the door but himself. But that's precisely what Nolan has returned to the 49ers – a certain positive invigoration that was absent under the ousted regime of general manager Terry Donahue and coach Dennis Erickson.

In turn, San Francisco is spending money in free agency once again, landing an anchor left tackle in Jonas Jennings and a solid defensive end in Marques Douglas. Now Nolan needs a centerpiece on offense, and most believe it will be Rodgers. While San Francisco has also opened negotiations with three other players (Smith, Miami cornerback Antrel Rolle and Michigan wide receiver Braylon Edwards), Rodgers seems to have what Nolan has been looking for.

"I'm very confident there's going to be a guy that fits," Nolan said. "Each day it gets stronger and stronger."

While San Francisco's role at the top of the draft has seemed to solidify over the last month, the blueprints for Miami and Cleveland have seemed to become even foggier. While Crennel has been a behind-the-scenes influence on the Browns' draft plans, Saban has repeatedly put himself at center stage.

An NFC source who attended the workout of Michigan's Braylon Edwards noted Saban's attendance and remarked, "It's like [Where's] Waldo. If someone is working [out], he's in the crowd somewhere."

Indeed, Saban has taken a far more commanding role over his team than either Nolan or Crennel. He's reshaped the team's media policy, restricted fan access to offseason workouts and tirelessly crisscrossed the country scouting, interviewing or dining with top prospects.

It's a micromanaging routine that smacks of mentor and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick – whose draft approach Saban also is mimicking. Although he made stop-gap signings like defensive end Vonnie Holiday, quarterback Gus Frerotte and offensive tackle Stockar McDougle, Saban doesn't plan on following that ideology in the long term. Instead, he wants fiscal responsibility and a team built through the draft, not one that signs whoppers in free agency hoping for shake-and-bake results.

"I don't operate with expectations," Saban said. "I operate with the discipline to a systematic approach to try and create a dominant team, long-term, that can win with consistency. Bill didn't win in his first year and nobody banished him from the face of the Earth. So I don't fear banishment."

Saban's measured steps are appropriate considering he doesn't have the ammunition he would like, with only five picks in the draft. That's part of what makes his No. 2 selection such an influential part of the draft. While most think Saban has settled on Auburn running back Ronnie Brown, Saban has been overly thorough with Edwards and Utah's Smith. Some believe he is interested in moving down a few spots to acquire more draft choices.

That mirrors the thoughts about Belichick's other new NFL seed, Cleveland's Crennel. While he's not making the final decision on draft day (general manager Phil Savage gets that honor), Crennel should have plenty of influence on what the Browns do with the No. 3 overall pick. And right now, what Crennel sees is a team that has more immediate needs than a quarterback.

Already, he's putting his stamp on the Browns by totally overhauling the defense and switching to a 3-4 scheme. He and Savage have also obliterated an underachieving defensive line and brought in Reuben Droughns to give another power complement to running back Lee Suggs.

Now it makes sense that Savage would pluck Utah's Smith with the third pick, giving him a young quarterback to groom behind Trent Dilfer – and one with more talent than current backup Luke McCown. But it also makes sense that Cleveland – like Miami – will go to the very last moment seeking to trade down a few spots, in an effort to add to their seven selections and fill more holes.

"We're starting from a pretty low point, you know, when you only win four games [in 2004]," Crennel said. "There's some talent on this team. What we're going to try to do is channel the talent here, add to it, and put the best product on the field.

"It's a work in progress."

For now, as much could be said about the 2005 draft. With all of its uncertainty, it's the most uncertain men of all at the controls.