What if 49ers drafted Aaron Rodgers, not Alex Smith?

Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers (Photo by Mark Konezny/Getty Images)
Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers (Photo by Mark Konezny/Getty Images) /

With the 49ers hosting the Packers in Week 3, there will inevitably be some discussion on San Francisco passing on Aaron Rodgers in the 2005 NFL Draft.

It’s too bad the oddsmakers over at WynnBET aren’t setting an over/under for the number of times the Sunday Night Football Week 3 broadcast of the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers mentions how the Niners passed up on quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the 2005 NFL Draft.

Since it’s not a bet, let’s set the over/under at two.

You know the history. The former Cal product from Chico, California, who grew up a San Francisco fan, could have gone No. 1 overall to the 49ers that year in what would have been a dream scenario for Rodgers.

Instead, then-head coach Mike Nolan elected to go with Utah quarterback Alex Smith.

Rodgers eventually told his side of the story on how it all went down, while Smith took years to work himself out from under the “bust” moniker and eventually into the level of admiration and respect he now commands from the Faithful.

Still, those same fans probably wonder what would have happened if Nolan went with Rodgers, not Smith.

49ers likely would have still struggled with Aaron Rodgers in late 2000s

Revisionist history, with all its “what ifs?”, is still a silly exercise. Rodgers was never drafted by the 49ers, Smith was. And how things played out is fact, not conjecture.

Yet it’s important to remember just how awful those Niners were under Nolan, particularly in 2005 in what was essentially the first season of a long, painful rebuild that would eventually see three different head coaches, a myriad of offensive coordinators, a shortage of offensive talent and more before head coach Jim Harbaugh came into the fray in 2011, finally giving Smith his long-awaited footing.

Would Rodgers have won more games between 2005 and 2010 than Smith’s 19 wins during that timeframe? Probably. But it’s a massive reach to suggest Rodgers would have been the difference-maker for San Francisco right out of the gate.

And there’s a strong chance Rodgers’ career wouldn’t have turned into what it is now, had he been thrust into what Smith eventually determined was a dysfunctional 49ers franchise the year he was drafted. No, instead, Rodgers got to sit behind a future Hall of Famer, Brett Favre, before finally assuming starting duties on a Packers team that was built for repeated postseason success.

Instead, Smith became the victim of one of the NFL’s worst contexts at the time.

Maybe 49ers missing out on Aaron Rodgers was a partial blessing

Let’s say “partial” here because few Niners fans would choose Smith over Rodgers if a time machine was built to take decision-makers back to the spring of 2005.

Yet Rodgers certainly would have helped engineer a few more wins between 2005 and 2010, probably pushing San Francisco out of top-10 NFL Draft range for most of that otherwise dreadful five-year span.

But losing does have its benefits. From 2005 through 2011, the 49ers had either a top-10 draft pick or two first-round picks six times. And a good deal of those picks eventually turned into cornerstone stalwarts like linebacker Patrick Willis, left tackle Joe Staley and tight end Vernon Davis.

Had Rodgers entered the fray instead of Smith, there’s an awfully good chance the Niners miss out on all three of those players.

Perhaps more importantly, though, San Francisco found a way to set itself up for the Harbaugh years, boasting a talented roster beforehand but just lacking the proper head coaching.

Back in 2013, then-Bleacher Report featured columnist Dylan DeSimone wrote a piece on how the 49ers became the team to beat under Harbaugh in the early portions of last decade (one of my favorite “revisionist” pieces to date, for what it’s worth).

DeSimone’s conclusion was an easy one to understand:

"First and foremost, if Mike Nolan does not take Alex Smith at No. 1 overall in 2005, there is a high probability the 49ers do not wind up with this pristine roster. The potential selection of Aaron Rodgers would have forever altered history in San Francisco.This was the decision that set forth a domino effect, ultimately resulting in one of the most talent-laden rosters in the league.If Rodgers landed in San Francisco and was even two-thirds the player he is now, the 49ers would’ve won more games and had later draft picks. And in all likelihood, high first-rounders like Michael Crabtree, Patrick Willis and Vernon Davis might not be in the Bay Area."

Harbaugh, too, likely wouldn’t have landed in with the Niners. And while Rodgers may have eventually become the centerpiece in San Francisco, it’s wildly unclear how the context would have impacted his development.

Either way, it never happened. And yet it’ll still be talked about over 15 years later.

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