For combine quarterbacks, character will count

For Jim Harbaugh, strong character is more important than a strong arm.

When asked to tick off the qualities he seeks in a quarterback since his hiring, the 49ers coach has never failed to mention leadership. A laser limb? Still waiting for Harbaugh to mention a Howitzer as a top priority.

With that in mind, the NFL Combine is an extremely useful tool in evaluating quarterbacks – even if they never throw a pass or run a 40 during their visit in Indianapolis. As teams meet with all players, but particularly the quarterbacks, they try to get a handle on those hard-to-measure intangibles – maturity, poise, leadership.

On Thursday, Harbaugh said such qualities were vital in his evaluations after he got “knee-to-knee and eyeball-to-eyeball” with prospects.

“(You try to understand) do they love football?” Harbaugh said. “Do they like to work at the game? How much do they understand the game? Will they be a fit for our team? Those are all critical evaluations.”

In assessing a quarterback’s leadership, general manager Trent Baalke said the research extends back to his high school days. Baalke assesses everything from their poise on the field to how they handle postgame interviews.

The NFL Network’s Michael Lombardi said it’s vital that a quarterback leads the way in sweat equity. Colossal bust JaMarcus Russell is perhaps the most famous example of a huge talent being doomed by a lack of drive.

“If your quarterback isn’t the hardest working player on the team, you really can’t be successful,” Lombardi said. “We just saw the Super Bowl. Aaron Rodgers has made himself … When Aaron Rodgers, whether he slipped in the draft or went later in the draft, his arm strength wasn’t to where it is today. He really worked at his craft when he was sitting out. I think the time you spend with the players here and learn their work ethic and who you’re bringing in to your locker room. That guy’s going to be the face of your franchise if you pick him in the top 10, you better make sure he works hard, you better make sure he does all the things necessary.”

Given this as a backdrop, it’s worth noting that two quarterbacks expected to go in the first round – Auburn’s Cam Newton and Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett – arrive here with question marks.

Newton was, at the very least, on the periphery of a pay-for-play scandal involving his father in college. Then, this week, Newton termed himself an “entertainer and icon” – a sound bite that might have launched 32 red flags. Mallett arrives with both a public intoxication charge in his past and a can-he-pass-his-drug-test buzz presently surrounding him. Not good.

Both Harbaugh and Baalke are self-described grinders – in praising Baalke on Thursday, Harbaugh noted that the GM often beats him to work in the morning. More so than most, character figures to count with the Niners’ duo as they visit with quarterbacks this week.

The quarterbacks will meet the media today in Indianapolis and they, of course, have been coached up by agents and advisers for weeks on the importance of presenting a strong image.

If they don’t put their best foot forward, they realize, their arms may not matter.

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