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March 22, 2011
Harbaugh calls QB Newton "plutonium-grade raw material"

Jim Harbaugh likes athletic quarterbacks. That's not news, it's something that Harbaugh has listed atop his quarterback criteria list for months. But at the owners meeting in New Orleans today, Harbaugh went a step farther than he has before by discussing precisely what he is looking for in the next 49ers quarterback. And he also mentioned some specific names like Gabbert, Locker and Newton - especially Newton - for the first time.

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I was not in New Orleans but have a copy of the transcript. Here are some choice quotes from this morning's session:

Harbaugh said the "ability to make people miss as a quarterback is critical. Avoid. Being able to go with your legs. We've got some quarterbacks in this draft like Cam Newton and (Blaine) Gabbert in particular, and Jake Locker that not only will make people miss and avoid people, but they can run and keep defenses out of certain coverages, which is quite the trait to have. And they can pick up first downs with their legs, keep the chains moving.

"And Cam Newton - that's plutonium-grade raw material, you know? I haven't seen upside like with this guy in probably the last 10 years. " ***Note*** Harbaugh and the 49ers met with Newton at the combine and GM Trent Baalke attended his pro day. But the team has not yet set up a visit with him as have most of the other QB-needy teams picking in the Top 10.

Harbaugh said the "No. 1 thing for a quarterback is athletic instincts. That he possesses them and that he also has the spatial feel of the field like a point guard. Or the guy that can play center field. He can go do that - a good NFL quarterback can go start on the soccer team or catch fly balls, at least be the sixth man on the basketball team. Also accuracy. A guy that can throw a football accurately. Understands timing. Has the ability to make really good decisions. Is tough. Who has a sense of leadership through his own personality. Has a confidence about him. And there are other factors. But those are pretty much the main ones."

Q: Do you know them when you see them, as opposed to measurable athleticism?

A: "To me anyway, it's more watching it. Seeing it. I watch the tape. It's something you really need to watch the flow of the game, what's happening in the two-minute drill, is the team behind, is the team ahead? Critical third-down, who in the offense is getting the ball? Are they putting it in the quarterback's hands or are they giving it to the running back? That tells you a lot."

Q: Are players unfairly typecast if they come from a "system" offense, a spread?

A: "Yeah, but these guys are adjusting so fast. I'm just really looking at these guys in this draft and when you go watch their workouts and watch them throw live and see them spin it, take drops from center, see them go through the footwork and have to duplicate that at the NFL level, you're seeing that they can do it. You see it. Like a birdwatcher. You know it when you see it."

Q: One thing you can't see on film is the work ethic. How important, how do you sense that in a kid?"

A: "You get a feel for it just with your antenna. Just being around those guys for 15 minutes, which is how long the (combine) interview lasts - I don't know, but unless my instincts and antenna are really off, I met with all those quarterbacks and I got a good feeling for them. I think you trust that. You trust that instinct. We'll see how good it is."

Harbaugh also talked about Alex Smith, whom he spent time with prior to the lockout.

"That was reported," Harbaugh said. "It was 'reported' that I did that. But I had as many chats with Frank (Gore) as I did Alex. The guy who really likes to talk is Frank. He's not shy about coming by, saying hello, knocking on your door. Just popping his head in and saying what's up? My first impression is, we've got a lot of good guys.

Q: What's your greatest challenge going forward, especially at the QB position, without free agency? Does it change your focus on the draft?

A: "The philosophy was always to get the best quarterbacks on our team, keep the best ones and then all the other avenues that you have - draft, free agency, trade. There are a couple of those options that we haven't been able to use."

Q: Is it tempting to stick with familiarity (aka Alex Smith) because of the uncertainty of this offseason? Is that an avenue that's more attractive given the league's current situation?

A: "I've always said that Alex is an attractive guy for our football team and that has nothing to do with a lockout or familiarity. I'm not agreeing with what you're saying, but I'm agreeing that I do like Alex Smith as a football player. No more or less, given the situation."

The proposal to move kickoffs to the 35-yard line passed today, although touchbacks will remain at the 20 yard line. The 49ers were among the teams that voted in favor of the rule change.

-- Matt Barrows


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.


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