In an age driven by the passing game, an NFL team goes nowhere without stability and reliability at the quarterback position. Luckily for the San Francisco 49ers, they have one of the brightest stars at the position in Colin Kaepernick.
Kaepernick is entering his second training camp ever as an NFL starting quarterback, one-and-a-half years removed from supplanting incumbent starter Alex Smith midseason. Despite some obvious growing pains from his first full season as the starter, Kaepernick has proven that his combination of explosive playmaking on the ground and downfield passing is conducive to success for the Niners.
He has drawn rave reviews from his coaching staff and onlookers in training camp thus far this season and with a wealth of new weapons at his disposal, Kaepernick looks primed to take the leap into the NFL’s upper echelon of quarterbacks.
The 49ers are fortunate that their starting quarterback provides such a dynamic element to their offense. At times last season, his biggest weakness was his indecision in the pocket. While his pocket presence was faulty, much of that indecision had to do with his abhorrent lack of receiving options outside of Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis.
With Michael Crabtree and Quinton Patton back in the fold and new additions Stevie Johnson, Bruce Ellington, and Brandon Lloyd ready to contribute, Kaepernick suddenly has one of the deepest groups of receivers in the league. Expect a sizable increase in his production this season as a result.
Behind Kaepernick, however, there is uncertainty at quarterback. The 49ers acquired Blaine Gabbert from the Jacksonville Jaguars in the offseason for a sixth round pick. Gabbert was selected in the same draft as Kaepernick; the Jags selected him with their first round pick. Despite his lofty draft status, Gabbert was never able to put it all together in Jacksonville and has since carried the “Bust” label over his head.
So far in training camp, Gabbert has reportedly been excellent. He has supposedly been highly accurate and has developed good chemistry with second string receivers Johnson and Lloyd.
To me, his training camp success up to this point is completely irrelevant. Gabbert’s biggest weaknesses in his career thus far have been his lack of good decision-making and his lack of pocket awareness. While he might be firing rockets with pinpoint accuracy during practice, he is doing it with little pass rush and pressure. During a game, he’ll have to get rid of the ball in half the time he does in practice.
Until Gabbert has sustained success during the preseason, he must be looked at as the same quarterback who busted in Jacksonville. The coaches likely know this, which is why we should expect to see Gabbert get plenty of opportunities during preseason games to solidify himself as the Niners’ top backup quarterback option.
After releasing undrafted rookie Kory Faulkner, the 49ers currently have two other quarterbacks at training camp – practice squad member McLeod Bethel-Thompson and former Harbaugh disciple Josh Johnson. Neither has proven himself as a viable NFL player up until this point. Johnson has been bouncing around the league for the last few years and has been unable to stick on a roster. He is almost guaranteed to be cut.
Bethel-Thompson’s fate is likely tied to Gabbert. If Gabbert proves during the preseason that he can be a top-notch backup, the Niners will cut Bethel-Thompson due to the intense competition at other positions. If Gabbert falters during preseason play, then the Niners will be forced to keep two backup quarterbacks on the roster in the unthinkable situation that Kaepernick is forced to miss time.
Kaepernick is one of the brightest young stars in the NFL. Having just signed a seven-year extension to stay in San Francisco, it is all but assured he will be a 49er for the duration of his career. If he continues on his current path, there’s no reason not to expect him to enter top-five conversations in the coming years with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady aging. God help San Francisco if he gets injured during the season.