It may not be their most pressing need, but the San Francisco 49ers find themselves approaching free agency without a backup quarterback. Colt McCoy is an unrestricted free agent after appearing in only four games for the team this year, completing his only pass attempt and generally being a non-factor.
That leaves only starter Colin Kaepernick and developmental prospect McLeod Bethel-Thompson under contract for 2014. While Bethel-Thompson’s an intriguing player, he’s not the guy you want sitting behind Kaepernick on a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
The ideal backup quarterback would have some starting experience and be able to step in and keep the ship upright if Kaepernick goes down for a few games in the middle of the season. They’re not looking for someone to compete for the job, or someone who could lead the 49ers to the playoffs if Kaepernick misses the entire year—just a short-term emergency patch.
The 49ers scrounged through a number of quarterbacks last preseason before settling on McCoy, including Scott Tolzien, Seneca Wallace and B.J. Daniels. They may cycle through a number of targets this year, too. Here are some of the available free agents they may want to check out.
The simplest strategy may be to simply re-sign McCoy. After all, he already knows the playbook and has had a year in the system. He has some starting experience in Cleveland, though nothing to write home about—he’s only 6-15 as a starter, with 21 touchdowns to 20 interceptions.
McCoy didn’t exactly light up the preseason, however. He threw three interceptions to only one touchdown and only had one game where he completed more than 55 percent of his passes. He’s entirely non-thrilling—more of a warm body than a legitimate option as a starter. They tried to trade him this preseason and ended up forcing him to take a pay cut to remain with the roster.
McCoy’s likely just a fallback option—a choice if other names on this list end up pricing themselves out of contention.
Might as well start at the top of the list—McCown’s performance in Chicago is precisely what San Francisco would like to have off the bench. When Jay Cutler went down, McCown stepped in and played wonderfully. McCown led the Bears to a 3-2 record with a QB rating of over 100 while completing 66.5 percent of his passes.
There was some talk in Chicago about whether or not Cutler should have gotten his job back once healthy—that’s the level of play McCown brought to the table. It was leaps and bounds above what we saw the last time he had a regular starting job, in Oakland in 2007.
The main problem with McCown coming to San Francisco is that he was so good last season, a team might be willing to give him a chance at a starting job—the Raiders, for example, might be looking at bringing him back. Combine that with a relatively weak free-agent class at quarterback, and the bidding for McCown is liable to have him go way over the $580,000 cap hit he brought down last year.
If money were no object, McCown would be the name for the slot. Sadly, money is quite a significant object, so he’s likely out of the conversation.
The saga of Josh Freeman was one of the more bizarre storylines of 2013. Engaged in a power feud with ex-Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano, Freeman was released and ended up signing a one-year deal with Minnesota—an almost unprecedented situation for someone who began the season as a starting quarterback.
Freeman’s time in Minnesota was also a disaster, starting one game with almost no preparation and turning in one of the worst performances in NFL history before becoming a healthy scratch for most of the rest of the season. All in all, the season seriously damaged Freeman’s stock around the league.
It hasn’t been that long, however, since Freeman was one of the up-and-coming young quarterbacks in the NFL. He had a quarterback rating of 81.6 in 2012, starting every game of the season and throwing 27 touchdown passes. The year before that, he was an alternate for the Pro Bowl.
What Freeman needs is a stable situation to rebuild his career—and the 49ers would fit that bill. Coach Jim Harbaugh could help rebuild his confidence and skill set, and there’s definitely some interest there. It was reported that the 49ers were looking at Freeman just after he was released from Tampa Bay.
If Freeman doesn’t draw interest as a starter, he’d be a very intriguing prospect for a one-year deal to sit behind Kaepernick and rebuild his cache as an NFL quarterback. He certainly has the best historical production of any the available quarterbacks, and it would be worth gambling that last year was just a bizarre aberration.
Let’s think outside the box for a moment.
A team has 53 roster spots to play with on their regular-season roster. During game day, that number drops down even further, down to only 46 slots—the other players are listed as inactive and are thus unable to play.
Every roster spot is incredibly valuable.
Joe Webb was drafted by the Vikings as a quarterback out of Alabama-Birmingham but was moved to wide receiver this most recent season, where he caught only five passes for 33 yards.
As a receiver, Webb’s got size and strength, though a lack of experience. He also drew attention for his run-blocking skills. As a quarterback, Webb can run the read-option and hasn’t been a disaster throwing the ball.
With the 49ers in need of depth at wide receiver as well, they could sign Webb to a minimum contract and use him as a fourth receiver and backup quarterback. It’s not something that’s done generally, for good reasons, but it’s not entirely unprecedented—think Kordell Stewart with Pittsburgh at the beginning of his career.
This strategy would be an extremely risky one, especially for a team with Super Bowl aspirations—Webb doesn’t have the starting pedigree of many of the other options, and both training and playing the wide receiver position, he’d have less time preparing in case Kaepernick went down. It would also likely be coupled with a draft pick selecting a quarterback to develop as well.
It would have the advantage of being cheap, as Webb’s not likely to get more than a veteran’s minimum contract. If the 49ers find themselves bumping up against the salary cap, some outside-the-box thinking might be needed to fill the backup quarterback slot.
Webb would be interesting but, ultimately, not the best choice.
While Michael Vick is the biggest name out there, there’s no way he’s being signed as a cheap veteran backup quarterback. Shaun Hill is one of the top backups in the league and played with San Francisco from 2007 to 2009—he’ll be a name under some demand, but his 2013 contract is out of the 49ers’ price range, as are Chad Henne and Matt Cassel.
This leaves the likes of Matt Flynn, Tarvaris Jackson, Kellen Clemens, Dan Orlovsky, Derek Anderson, Luke McCown and Rex Grossman in that third rung of free-agent quarterbacks.
Given those options, they may just stick with McCoy.