The San Francisco 49ers’ third-string quarterback carousel is back in full swing once again. With McLeod Bethel-Thompson and undrafted free agent Kory Faulkner already under contract, the team re-signed Josh Johnson.
Johnson is most famous in NFL circles for starting four games for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers between 2009 and 2011, and most famous in San Francisco circles either from his high school time at Oakland Tech, or from losing the battle for the third-string job for the 49ers back in 2012.
Johnson’s familiarity with coach Jim Harbaugh goes beyond that, however. Johnson was the starting quarterback at the University of San Diego when Harbaugh was the coach there, and he still holds most of the school’s passing records.
The signings of Johnson and Faulkner bring the total number of quarterbacks in the Harbaugh era to 13, with only three of them lasting a full year in San Francisco. Four quarterbacks have actually spent less than a month with the club.
It’s not unusual for a team to bring in several arms during training camp, but the 49ers have been cycling through reserve quarterbacks at an unusual rate.
The 49ers trotted out five quarterbacks during preseason in 2013: Colin Kaepernick, Colt McCoy, Scott Tolzien, B.J. Daniels and Seneca Wallace. That ties them with the Bills, Bears and Jets for most quarterbacks used.
Of those five, only Kaepernick remains on the roster today as Harbaugh continues to try to find a project quarterback to work with. They are only projects, as the backup quarterback slot has been pretty solidly set in each of Harbaugh’s seasons, from Kaepernick in 2011 and 2012 through Colt McCoy in 2013 to Blaine Gabbert now in 2014.
Once you get down to that third quarterback, however, and the 49ers can’t seem to settle on one, giving us yet another backup duel to watch during training camp and preseason.
You’d think Kory Faulkner would have the advantage, simply due to the fact that he’s never been cut by the team before. Bethel-Thompson was brought in in 2011, only to be waived in favor of Scott Tolzien before the regular season started. Johnson was brought in 2012, only to be waived in favor of, once again, Scott Tolzien.
Tolzien isn’t around anymore, sitting on Green Bay’s roster. That gives Bethel-Thompson and Johnson one more chance to make San Francisco’s lineup.
In the end, however, I don’t think it will come down to which of the three competitors plays the best, at least, not directly. The fate of the third quarterback position will in large part depend on how the second-string job pans out.
The 49ers sent a sixth-round pick to Jacksonville for the services of Blaine Gabbert. It’s interesting, because Gabbert was an option back in 2011 in the draft. The 49ers passed on him, instead choosing to take Kaepernick in the second round. It’s safe to say they made the right decision there.
Harbaugh has fairly high expectations for Gabbert, as he expressed at the NFL owners' meetings, per Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com:
I think he’s a very talented player and his career so far hasn’t gone on to be what he expected, and maybe others expected it to be...But I believe it can be a really powerful opportunity, powerful motivator for a player to say, ‘It wasn’t me, it was my situation.’ And now he has that opportunity.
If Gabbert shines in his new situation, the 49ers might be more willing to gamble on a pure developmental prospect, like Faulkner, down on the practice squad. If they’re sure in their backup quarterback, they can gamble a little deeper on the roster.
If, however, Gabbert struggles in San Francisco as much as he did in Jacksonville, the 49ers might decide to have someone with a bit more experience on the roster as a safety net. Johnson has NFL starting experience, while Bethel-Thompson has experience in San Francisco’s system. They’d be better options if the team thinks its third-stringer could theoretically enter a game in 2014.
Don’t sleep on the 49ers signing another quarterback before the season begins, however. Last season, the 49ers signed Seneca Wallace in mid-preseason, and then John Skelton in October. Whoever earns the job at the end of training camp certainly has no guarantee to hold on to the job through the 2014 season.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.