QBs will define NFC West drafts in absentia

Patrick Peterson (left) and Aldon Smith were the safe picks for Arizona and San Francisco. US Presswire

RENTON, Wash. -- Teams with John Skelton and David Carr topping mid-April depth charts shrugged at the available quarterbacks early in the 2011 NFL draft.

The Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers had no use for Jake Locker (eighth to Tennessee). They couldn't make room for Blaine Gabbert (10th to Jacksonville). Christian Ponder (12th to Minnesota) wasn't in their plans, either.

I can't blame them.

The quarterbacks in this draft came with question marks. There was never any consensus where any of them might land after Cam Newton went to Carolina at No. 1. That was telling.

Arizona snapped up LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson fifth. San Francisco took Missouri defensive end/outside linebacker Aldon Smith seventh.

Even the Seattle Seahawks, with Charlie Whitehurst atop their depth chart and Matt Hasselbeck unsigned, decided against rolling the dice on quarterbacks Andy Dalton or Colin Kaepernick at No. 25.

“These teams feel like they can get veteran quarterbacks through free agency or trade,” draft analyst Rob Rang said from Seahawks headquarters. “They took advantage of the talent falling down to them rather than reaching to fill a need at quarterback.”

That came as little surprise to those following the NFC West closely. The Cardinals all but declared themselves out of the running for a quarterback at No. 5, while the 49ers were known to covet pass-rush help. They also could have taken Peterson, had he been available.

The Cardinals owe no explanations to anyone after landing arguably the highest-rated player in the draft. Peterson will start from Day 1, pair nicely with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and likely flourish with Ray Horton as his defensive coordinator. The Cardinals plan to use him in the return game, too, freeing LaRod Stephens-Howling to play more on offense.

“We wanted a player that we felt could make an impact for us, especially someone now, not someone we had to develop,” Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt told reporters. “Are we going to have other opportunities in this draft to address the quarterback position? Definitely that’s something that we’ll look at."

Give the Cardinals credit. They could have won the post-draft news conference by selecting Gabbert and “solving” their quarterback dilemma. But if they weren’t sold on him as a top-five talent, they would have been taking an undue risk. If we’re going to criticize Arizona for making a need-based pick in selecting tackle Levi Brown fifth overall over running back Adrian Peterson in 2007, it’s only fair to acknowledge them siding with value this time.

Of course, Brown was an immediate starter, just like Peterson, while Peterson might have eased into the role behind a still-productive Edgerrin James.

"We just feel like at a point when you’re picking No. 5, you’ve got to have a player that’s going to make an impact on your football team, especially where we are as a team, and we felt like Patrick was the best fit for us," Whisenhunt said.

As for the 49ers? Smith, just 20 years old, projects as an outside linebacker and more under new coordinator Vic Fangio.

"He’s going to have to learn how to play on his feet in certain situations, but we feel very confident that he can learn to do that,” 49ers general manager Trent Baalke told KNBR radio. "The unique thing he brings to the table is the ability to line up at various positions, whether it’s on his feet, 5-technique, move down into the 3-technique position at times -- just a lot of flexibility and versatility."

Peterson and Carpenter were safe selections. Smith faces an adjustment period and more scrutiny given how early the 49ers selected him, and how many players they passed over.

"I would have taken Gabbert and potentially Robert Quinn over Aldon Smith at seven," Rang said.

Quinn went to St. Louis at No. 14.

"To have Chris Long on one side as your base end and then have Robert Quinn's explosiveness on the other side, I mean, he reminds me a little bit of Leonard Little, but bigger," Rang said. "You watch, Robert Quinn is going to be a better player for the Rams at 14 than Aldon Smith will be for the 49ers at seven."

Passing over Gabbert at No. 7 makes re-signing Alex Smith easier. The 49ers will have other options for veteran quarterbacks once the trading period opens.

There's still time.

Carr and Skelton will not head into the regular season as starters.

Carr, the only quarterback under contract to the 49ers, is not expected back. San Francisco could still re-sign Smith, draft another quarterback Friday or pursue a veteran by trade/free agency. Skelton remains in the Cardinals' plans and showed promise at times last season, making it less likely, in my view, that Arizona will select a quarterback later in this draft. We should expect the Cardinals to go after Marc Bulger or another veteran.

But if Locker, Gabbert or Ponder blossoms into a franchise quarterback while the Cardinals, and especially the 49ers, continue to flounder at the position, look out. Aaron Rodgers will have company among the quarterbacks that could have been for San Francisco.