Just as predicted, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck was the first player to come off the board of the 2011 NFL Draft. No, the NFL has not changed the rules and allowed the Carolina Panthers to take Luck three and half months early, nor has Luck reached an agreement in principle with the Panthers ahead of the draft.
Instead, Luck surprised nearly everyone by choosing to forego the 2011 NFL Draft and return to Stanford for his redshirt junior season.
Luck’s motivation in this decision is not entirely clear. In statements, he cited a desire to complete his degree and a fear of regretting leaving college early. That may be true, but one would have to question the soundness of the decision—from a financial standpoint at least.
By definition, Luck’s draft stock cannot improve from where it already is. While he may ultimately enter the draft as a better player and a more polished, NFL-ready QB, his overall draft position is likely to fall, and a there may well be a rookie salary cap in place by the time he comes out. Both of these factors may wind up costing Luck some guaranteed money when enters the league.
Expectations would probably have been equally unrealistic on Luck whether he returned to Stanford or entered the draft, so that likely had nothing to do with his decision. Ultimately he will make millions of dollars whenever he does leave college (barring something extremely untoward), so as long as he is at peace with a likely pay hit, his decision to complete his studies will give him more post-football options in the long run, as well as some insurance in the event of a career-shortening injury.
What should the 49ers do with the seventh pick?
While the decision may be bad news for the young star’s wallet, it is great news for the San Francisco 49ers.
Clearly the 49ers need to find and establish a long-term solution at the QB position, and Luck’s decision leaves the draft board with no more than four top-tier QBs. The 49ers pick seventh in 2011, with at least five teams ahead of them who could potentially be interested in drafting a franchise QB. That could mean there is nothing left for the 49ers by the time their slot comes up.
While all this is true, who said the 49ers had to draft a QB at No. 7?
The potential presence of Andrew Luck was only serving to cloud circumstances for the 49ers, creating a storm of idle chatter that was obscuring more logical approaches for the red and gold. Luck would have increased the likelihood that the 49ers could land Jake Locker, Ryan Mallett, Blaine Gabbert, or Cam Newton, and some more “free-thinking” fans were even devising ways the 49ers could trade up and acquire Luck himself.
Instead, the 49ers may now find themselves “stuck” with a much more reasonable and logical approach. With the likelihood of landing a franchise QB at No. 7 reduced, and no remaining temptation of mortgaging the future of the team to acquire Luck from Carolina, the 49ers should settle on the much more intelligent proposition of focusing on the secondary at No. 7—drafting someone like Nebraska’s Prince Amukamara or even trading down if a good option presents itself to do so.
With respect to the quarterback situation, the 49ers would then be left to pursue one or more much better avenues, such as selecting a less-flashy rookie in a later round (Pat Devlin, Greg McElroy), pursuing a trade or free agent (Donovan McNabb, Bruce Gradkowski, Matt Leinart, Vince Young), and/or building from within (Troy Smith, Nate Davis). How would this be better than drafting a Top 5 caliber QB?
Not only would using the No. 7 pick (or worse yet having to trade up) on a QB prevent the 49ers from a addressing a secondary deficiency which they largely ignored in last year’s draft and which plagued them all year, it could set that QB up for failure in much the same way as Alex Smith. If Locker, Mallet, Gabbert, or Newton joined the 49ers—unless the team also went out and acquired someone like McNabb—he would immediately become the best QB on the roster, and the temptation and fan demands to start him would be overwhelming. Getting both a Top 5 rookie and a veteran like McNabb is probably out of the team’s price range, and going high in the draft and starting throughout your rookie season is not a typical path to NFL QB success (with some notable recent exceptions).
The 49ers are much better off focusing on defense up front and pursuing other options at QB. With the offensive weapons they have, a good QB could become great given knowledge of the system, time to develop, and proper protection.
The Luck decision has possibly lifted the speculative fog that had been shielding the 49ers from finding the best path forward. Nonetheless, it could still have some negative effect.
If Luck’s decision to return to Stanford convinces Jim Harbaugh to follow suit, the 49ers could find themselves in a tough spot. As highlighted here, Harbaugh has been the nearly exclusive focus of the 49ers in their coaching search to date. There is no guarantee and in my opinion little reason to believe Harbaugh is certainly the best option for the 49ers, so missing on him in and of itself would not be the end of the world.
The issue lies in the fact that 49ers have spent precious little time assessing alternatives, though ESPN has claimed they have compiled an exhaustive list of candidates. Harbaugh made no commitment to the 49ers after meeting with them for several hours yesterday. Many are convinced he is bound for Miami, but the Dolphins need to comply with the NFL Rooney Rule before they can offer him a contract (oh yeah, and figure out what to do with Tony Sparano).
The 49ers seem to be offering significantly less money than the Dolphins—perhaps owing the fact that they still owe money to Mike Singletary—and seem unwilling to raise their terms. All this combined with Luck’s return to Stanford could give the Cardinal enough time to woo Harbaugh back. Suddenly it seems highly plausible.
If Harbaugh does follow Luck back to Stanford (or even takes the Dolphins job), the 49ers could wind up worse off by signing Josh McDaniels, Jon Gruden, or Norv Turner, or they could potentially be better off with the likes of Mike Holmgren or Brian Billick.
We will see how the issue works out, and can only hope for the best outcome at this point.
Keep the Faith!