The first round of the 2005 NFL draft progressed past the halfway mark and ESPN started to focus its attention on the highly rated player making a free fall.

The victim on this occasion was Aaron Rodgers, a quarterback from California.

There had been weeks of speculation as to whether San Francisco would use the No. 1 selection on Rodgers or Utah's Alex Smith to take a shot at the most daunting job in professional sports:

Franchise Quarterback.

The 49ers went with Smith. Rodgers went tumbling downward until Ted Thompson, the Green Bay football boss, decided he could not pass at No. 24.

This was not a positive development financially for Rodgers. He received a five-year contract that included roughly $5 million in guaranteed money. Smith signed a six-year contract with $24 million guaranteed.

Smith was starting for a bad 49ers team by the fifth game of the 2005 season. It was a 28-3 loss to Indianapolis in which he put up a passer rating of 8.5.

He had a season of some promise in 2006, and then a combination of ineptitude and injury turned him into the whipping boy for 49ers fans. Fired coach Mike Nolan would later say that a major regret was not going to Shaun Hill (over Smith) earlier in the 2007 season.

Smith missed 2008 because of a shoulder injury, then was 8-12 in 20 games as a starter the past two seasons. On Tuesday, he agreed to a one-year, $5 million deal to return to the 49ers.

There are several categories for failed quarterbacks who went extra-high in the draft. There are those who didn't care (JaMarcus Russell and Ryan Leaf) and those who couldn't play (Joey Harrington and Tim Couch), and there are more who were ruined by being forced to play much too soon.

David Carr was one of those; some talent, but quickly battered into submission by opposing defenses and mounting criticism.

Smith appears to be a similar casualty. And it should leave Rodgers, as he opens practice this week with the defending Super Bowl champions, to look westward to that Golden Gate and say:

"There but for the grace of the NFL Draft go I."

Rodgers didn't have to play for three years with the Packers. He threw only 59 passes in relief of Brett Favre in those first three seasons. This was the same period in which Smith was earning the disdain of his coaches and the wrath of 49ers followers.

You would've had to be a wild-eyed Packers optimist to look at Rodgers during his brief play (or exhibitions) from 2005 through '07 and say, "Boy, this guy deserves a chance to play."

I'm guessing that Rodgers -- if he had been forced to play every game in his second season with a bad team -- wouldn't have equaled Smith's 2006 numbers in San Francisco: 257 of 442 (58.1 percent), 2,890 yards, 16 TDs and 16 interceptions.

The Packers didn't have to push Rodgers into the lineup, which means he didn't have to fail miserably. By 2008, he was ready to play, and the Packers could stop the annual pleading with Favre to return.

That lack of pleading hurt the Grey Ego's feelings, of course, and he harrumphed off to the Jets, and then the Vikings. Meanwhile, Green Bay was completing its measured development of Rodgers with a Super Bowl title.

The Packers showed their belief in Rodgers in the middle of his first season as a starter in 2008:

They ripped up the original contract and gave him a six-year deal through 2014. There was $20 million guaranteed and an annual salary of $11 million -- meaning his bank account continues to gain on Alex Smith's.

Rodgers is 27 and at this moment you would take him over any quarterback in the NFL. Smith is 27 and this is his last shot to establish himself as a quality quarterback.

Some folks in Purple Land are suggesting the Vikings' decision to trade for veteran Donovan McNabb will hinder the development of Christian Ponder, the alleged quarterback of the future.

Look at the cases of Smith and Aaron Rodgers, and bringing in McNabb to start for this season and perhaps next will give Ponder a much better chance to avoid failure and eventually fill that imposing task:

Franchise Quarterback.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500ESPN. •