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San Francisco 49ers QB Controversy: Carson Palmer, Blaine Gabbert and Who Else?

Wiley BirkhoferContributor IFebruary 3, 2011

San Francisco 49ers QB Controversy: Carson Palmer, Blaine Gabbert and Who Else?

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    In a perfect world, the 49ers would draft Andrew Luck and sign Michael Vick.  Every rookie needs a backup, right?

    In a world where Mike Nolan wasn't San Francisco's head coach in 2005, Aaron Rodgers would be playing this year's Super Bowl in a different uniform.

    We wouldn't be debating Blaine Gabbert versus Ryan Mallett versus Cam Newton because the 32nd pick in the draft doesn't have that luxury.

    In my third and final fantasy—a more realistic one—Nolan doesn't select Alex Smith or Aaron Rodgers in the 2005 draft.  He can squander the first overall pick in whatever way chooses, so long as he doesn't draft a quarterback.

    Because if he doesn't, the entire trajectory of 49ers history is altered.  Tim Rattay remains an interim quarterback until a long-term solution is identified.

    A long-term solution like the one San Francisco is desperately seeking this offseason—like the one I'm convinced Alex Smith is not.

    Like the one in which the 49ers must either draft, sign, trade for or promote.  We likely won't know until draft day, but until then, we can rank the Niners' worst and best options at quarterback for 2011 and beyond...

15. Not An Option: Alex Smith

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    It's upsetting this issue hasn't been put to rest.  Like four years ago. Alex Smith has no future in San Francisco.

    The fans boo his every "throw." 

    Cumulative record: 22-32

    QB Rating: 72.1

    128 sacks, 16 fumbles lost, and 53 interceptions in 54 games.

    His interceptions per game inflates to at least one when you consider that Alex rarely lasts entire games because of impromptu benchings by [insert frustrated coach here].

    Jim Harbaugh is too competitive to let himself become that frustrated coach.  Alex Smith's career as a starting quarterback is over.  If Harbaugh can't see that, maybe he shouldn't rank so high on the 49ers All-Time Coaching List.

14. Not An Option, Part 2: Troy Smith

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Troy Smith provided quite the spark midseason, but ultimately he was re-subordinated to No. 2 on the depth chart.

    Alex Smith's backups do not have a place in Jim Harbaugh's starting lineup.

    Especially one that will be expected to execute an impeccably timed West Coast system.  Despite his moments, Smith is too skittish and unskilled.

    In 2006, Smith won the Heisman by the largest margin in history.  He received a whopping 87 percent of the vote.

    In 2010, he finished the season with three wins, three losses and a QB rating of 77.8.

    Mr. and Ms. Smith...you are hereby banished from San Francisco.

13. Not An Option, Part 3: David Carr

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Alex Smith and David Carr have eerily similar histories.

    Both were No. 1 overall draft picks turned sour.  Both bordered closely enough on mediocre that their careers as starters lasted longer than they should have.  Both still have starter potential, according to fans under the spell of their increasingly stale "first overall pick" mystique.

    Fans of Alex Smith's next team will foster the same hope that some delusional 49ers have about David Carr.

    There's a reason Troy Smith is ahead of Carr on the depth chart. It's the same reason Alex Smith re-replaced Troy Smith when the Troy Smith experiment failed.  Carr is 31 years old with a 71-65 career INT-to-TD ratio.

    No thank you.

12. Pat Devlin, Delaware

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    In this past year, Devlin threw an unprecedented two interceptions (and 22 touchdowns) in 350 attempts.

    That's one interception every 175 throws. A significant upgrade from Alex Smith, right?  Could the Niners just run Frank Gore all but 174 times the entire season and post zero turnovers?

    Not with Ted Ginn Jr. as our punt returner, but Devlin is still worth a look in this draft.

    But is he NFL-ready?  This same concern surrounds every 49ers draft option.  San Francisco needs a starter now.  Do they sign a veteran to start until Harbaugh's protege is ready?  Or do they throw a rookie into the fire?  It worked for Peyton Manning. He went 3-13 his first year, 13-3 his second and he's been invincible ever since.

    Devlin is heady and accurate, but he played in the same spread offense at Delaware that tricked us into drafting Alex Smith.  Some project Devlin to be the next Joe Flacco (also a Delaware product).

    Projected round: 4

    Position rank: 7

11. Colin Kaepernick, Nevada

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    According to Fox Sports' Adam Caplan, Kaepernick was "easily the best performer" of any Senior Bowl quarterback. This include UW's Jake Locker, TCU's Andy Dalton and FSU's Christian Ponder.  If other NFL teams are late to the party, the Niners could have the exclusive rights to Colin's "tremendous accuracy and power" for a mere third round pick.

    Kaepernick has thrown for 2,000 yards in all four of his years as a starter at Nevada.  He is also coming off back-to-back seasons with 1,000 yards rushing.

    While Harbaugh isn't necessarily seeking this sort of athleticism from his quarterback, Kaepernick's consistency will certainly appeal to him.  Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and Kaepernick are the only players in FBS history to have rushed and passed for 20 touchdowns in a single season.

    Projected round: 3

    Positional rank: 6

10. Christian Ponder, Florida State

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Before Ryan Mallett and Blaine Gabbert burst onto the scene, Christian Ponder and Jake Locker were the apples of many NFL teams' eyes.  Debate over who is the better senior prospect is still raging.

    Locker is a better runner, but Ponder scored a 34 on the Wonderlic and is currently working on his second master's degree.

    Harbaugh's one hesitation might be that Ponder's coach, Jimbo Fisher, helped hype Jamarcus Russell into a first overall pick and we all know how that turned out.

    Will sizzurp hurt Ponder's draft stock?  No.  But chronic elbow injuries during his 2010 season just might. His best season was, by far and away, his only under Jimbo Fisher.

    Projected round: 2-3

    Postion rank: 5

9. Vince Young, Tennessee Titans

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    News that Jeff Fisher will be leaving Tennessee changes the tone of all Vince Young trade speculation.  It was widely thought that Tennessee would choose between the two. 

    On January 30th, however, Adam Schefter reported that Jeff Fisher's departure won't affect the Titans' desire to wash their hands of the controversial Young.

    In Week 11 of this season, Young threw his pads into the stands after being benched following a thumb injury.  The thumb injury sidelined him for the rest of the season, but not before a heated locker room dispute with Fisher in front of the entire team.

    In all honesty, Kerry Collins is a better fit for the Harbuagh's offense, but Young has undeniable talent.  He has gone 30-17 in his five seasons with the Titans and insists: "Definitely I am still a starting quarterback."

    His dominant Texas years are a distant memory, but expect the Niners to take a long, hard look if the price is right.

8. Matt Hasselbeck, Seattle Seahawks

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    Yes, Matt Hasselbeck is so old that he and Trent Dilfer share a sense of humor.

    Matt: Rogaine for Super Bowl ring?

    Trent: No deal.

    What funnier a joke for Hasselbeck to comeback with than: "I'm going to sell the Seahawks' secrets to a division rival for a fat contract!"

    It seems far-fetched, but there's a legitimate possibility.  Hasselbeck is a free agent and the Seahawks clearly want Charlie Whitehurst (or Jake Locker?) as the future face of Pete Carroll's franchise.

    Hasselbeck has led the Seahawks to six playoff appearances and one Super Bowl since becoming a starter in 2003.  That's only two more years of starter experience than Alex Smith and a whole lot more postseason.  Though 35 years old, Hasselbeck is a known quantity and could feasibly garner a few division championships before passing on the reigns to the Niners' next big thing.

    If Kurt Warner can stab his home team in the back and live to take his new team to the Super Bowl, so can Hasselbeck.  Welcome to the dark side, Matt.

7. Donovan McNabb, Washington Redskins

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    For how hated McNabb is in Philadelphia and how poorly he played this season in Washington, Donovan is a well-accomplished quarterback.

    One must remember that McNabb's offensive coordinator in Washington was 28-year-old Kyle Shanahan.  Ever since McNabb was benched in Week 14, it's been assumed he will play elsewhere in 2011. McNabb "hasn't talked" with the organization, but is on his way out despite having a few years left on his contract. Source

    In Philadelphia, McNabb led the Eagles to four consecutive NFC East Championships, five NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl.  He is the Eagles' all-time leader in wins, completions, yards and touchdowns.

    Since 2005, McNabb record against the 49ers has been 42-3, 40-26, 38-24, and 27-13.  In his 42-3 performance, he threw for five touchdowns and 355 yards.

    I think it's safe to say the Niners would be happy to have the tables turned in 2011 when they face Philly on the road.

6. Carson Palmer, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    In even more recent news, Carson Palmer is threatening to retire if he is not traded from the Cincinnati Bengals.

    Palmer's agent released this statement on January 24, insisting that a split would be of mutual interest.  He left out that it would also keenly interest the Niners.  In science, this relationship is commonly referred to as a "win-win-win." The organization is sticking to its guns for now, but a trade is still the likely outcome.

    Palmer was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 draft and has flashed moments of both bust and brilliance.

    Despite Alex Smith comparisons, Alex Smith did not, from 2005-2008, hover around 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns per season.  Alex Smith's quarterback rating over that span was not 93.9, nor did he have any playoff appearances.

    Carson's knee injury and his declined performance ever since are a concern, but he would be a more than serviceable option in a red-and-white uniform.

5. Jake Locker, Washington

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Jake Locker was the Andrew Luck of last year. 

    "A sure thing." "NFL-ready." "A 20-year old guaranteed to make more money and man crushes than any 20-year-old would know what to do with."

    Chris Mortensen called him "a bigger, taller, right-handed version of Steve Young."

    Flash forward to now: Locker is plenty mature to deal with full-bearded NFL fans, but the beards no longer fancy him.  They've taped Cam Newton and Blaine Gabbert posters up in their figurative "locker."  Some previously enamored draft experts don't even have Locker going in the first round anymore.

    Yet, the Niners will still monitor Locker in the NFL Scouting Combine and on draft day.  If Locker drops to the second round, and Harbaugh decides Jake's minor slump in 2010 makes no difference, the Niners could very well luck into the next "Steve Young."

    Projected round: 1-2

    Position rank: 4

4. Ryan Mallett, Arkansas

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Ryan Mallett's declaration for the NFL Draft this year came as somewhat of a surprise.  Arkansas' 10-2 regular season and near loss to Ohio State in the All-State Sugar Bowl may have played a part in Mallett's decision.

    It may also have had something to do with Mallett's record-breaking 3,869 yard and 32 touchdown season.  The tall, strong-armed Mallett is considered by many to be this year's strongest candidate for NFL success.

    He's less proven than the 49ers' veteran options, and even many of his fellow underclassmen, but Mallett has the distinct smell of a quarterback Harbaugh could turn into a champion.  SF could take a leap of faith here...

    Projected round: 1

    Positional rank: 3

3. Cam Newton, Auburn

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Ah, the center of every college fan's attention.  The epitome of a college quarterback: arm, legs, SEC, recruitment scandal and national championship.  Vince Young in a big, burly nutshell.

    But has he attracted so much as a glance from Jim Harbaugh?  Just because he outran Casey Mathews doesn't mean he will be able to outrun Clay Matthews.

    And just because he outscored Andrew Luck doesn't mean he can become Harbaugh's favorite.

    Luck and Newton offer skill sets that are respectively well-suited and ill-suited for the West Coast offense.  Newton will have very few opportunities to scramble playing for Jim Harbaugh.  Instead, he'll be asked to time routes and fit balls into tight windows—something he and Tim Tebow are completely capable of, but not suited for.

    Newton's athleticism earned him a spot on this list, but it might ultimately cost him the job.  Is he worth the first round pick that will be required to get him?

    Projected round: 1

    Positional rank: 2

2. Blaine Gabbert, Missouri

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Surprised not to see him at No. 1?  Here's why...

    Before Andrew Luck decided to stay another year at Stanford, Blaine Gabbert was but a blip on the NFL's radar.

    Love 'em or hate 'em, quarterbacks receive the most attention of any position and the draft is no exception.

    When Andrew Luck withdrew his name, draft speculators had to divert their attention to someone, and Gabbert happened to become their target.

    I don't doubt that he is the No. 1 quarterback prospect—although there are those who do—but I do question whether Gabbert is worth a first round investment.  The seventh overall pick ought to be used on a franchise player, not someone who may or may not become a trusted quarterback.

    On the flip side of the coin, the 49ers might not have Andrew Luck as an option next season. The Niners hopefully won't have Andrew Luck as an option next year.

    So although Blaine isn't perfect, he is the 49ers' best draft option for 2011.

    Projected round: top 10 overall

    Positional rank: 1

1. Kevin Kolb, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    Notice I didn't say Blaine Gabbert is the 49ers' best overall option for 2011.

    That honor goes to Kevin Kolb.  Kolb can start right away and has the potential to last for years to come.  He has all the upside of Blaine Gabbert and none of the risk.  Don't believe me?

    Kolb is the only quarterback in history to throw for 300 yards in each of his first two starts.  Kolb was drafted in the second round of the 2007 draft out of Houston, where he was a three-year starter and earned Conference USA's Most Valuable Player award his senior year.

    In his four starts this year, Kolb averaged a 92.5 quarterback rating and would have continued to start had Michael Vick left the Eagles with any choice.

    But he didn't, and they've since tagged him as their franchise player.  The Niners would be silly not to trade an arm and a leg to get Kolb.  Alex Smith and Joe Nedney would be a small price to pay. And if Philadelphia doesn't appreciate the Niners' arm-leg joke, then extra fourth, sixth, and seventh round picks from San Diego, Seattle and Detroit will hopefully tilt the scales.

    Harbaugh's reputation and the malnourished hopes and dreams of an entire city are on the line.  Make us proud and fulfilled, Jim.

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