2011 San Francisco 49ers: Ranking the Top 10 Near-Term QB Options, Pt. 2
When we left off, we had explored five viable, but largely unexciting options to lead the San Francisco 49ers offense at quarterback under Jim Harbaugh.
Alex Smith, Kerry Collins, Bruce Gradkowski, Matt Leinart, and Vince Young could all have legitimate upsides. Any one of them could prove a serviceable QB option for the 49ers for at least a couple seasons as they look for a better solution. Then again, each one comes with significant risks and none of them has truly shown the consistent ability to produce at the NFL level.
In short, there is a reason that few if any teams are beating down the doors of these men to try to obtain their services at QB. The first half of this list undoubtedly left readers somewhat unexcited. While the remaining options are certainly more palatable, it is important to note that none of them is a slam dunk. Whether the issue be cost, skills, age, or a combination of these factors, there is no universally obvious fix for the 49ers at QB, only a series of options to weigh.
And now, the exciting conclusion . . .
No. 5: Troy Smith, Pros
Troy Smith represents the best possible option for the 49ers if they wish to build from within. Smith emerged as a starter when Alex Smith went down with a shoulder injury in the Carolina Panthers game in Week 7 and David Carr proved utterly inept.
Smith was impressive early on, posting triple-digit passer ratings in his first two games against the Denver Broncos and St. Louis Rams, earning him the right to retain the starting role even after Alex Smith returned to health. His overall career numbers are favorable against most others on the list, with a passer rating of 77.8 in and a 4-4 record in eight career starts.
Smith was touted as a talented prospect out of Ohio State, having won the 2006 Heisman Trophy by a landslide and leading the Buckeyes to the 2007 BCS National Championship Game. Like Vince Young, Smith too was advertised as an improved version of Michael Vick, with a stronger arm and better accuracy. Smith has also shown better on-field and in-huddle leadership abilities than either Alex Smith or David Carr (though most would argue that is little to brag about).
Smith has shown flashes of his abilities, particularly in his first two starts of 2010, moving out of the pocket and extending plays, throwing the occasional deep ball with accuracy, and showing fair instincts when allowed to play to his strengths.
There is a reason he is No. 1 after all . . .
Troy Smith, Cons/Conclusion
There are also plenty of reasons for concern, however. His stats are quite favorable, but his limited sample size—just eight starts—raises questions over whether that it is a true indication of his capabilities or simply a short-term anomaly. While he played exceedingly well in his first two games of 2010, working from a drastically limited playbook to boot, his performance quickly curtailed and the 49ers eventually reverted back to Alex Smith as their starter (and then again to Troy in Week 16).
His size has been called into question as well. Standing just six feet tall, he has trouble at times seeing over his offensive line and finding open receivers. Ball security was an issue throughout his starts, as he regularly had the ball ripped loose by defensive linemen, though he did not lose all those fumbles.
People have also questioned his demeanor—stemming from a sideline shouting match with since-fired head coach Mike Singletary in the second half of the Week 16 game against the Rams. The altercation was caught by FOX TV cameras. This, however, can likely be explained away as nothing more than an instance of two very passionate men letting their emotions momentarily get the best of them.
Smith's skills and knowledge of the personnel make him a very good insurance option for the 49ers in the event the labor dispute costs the league the offseason and forces teams back into action with virtually no time to prepare. He could likely be persuaded to return to the 49ers for fairly reasonable terms, but at the same time, the 49ers probably will not be the only team interested in him.
Smith's size will likely preclude him from becoming much more than a stop-gap and perhaps eventual back-up solution, but Doug Flutie, Drew Brees, and now Michael Vick have proven that smaller QBs can succeed in the NFL. If for no other reason than work stoppage insurance, the 49ers should strongly consider bringing Smith back.
No. 4: Kevin Kolb, Pros
Current Philadelphia Eagles' No. 2 Kevin Kolb ranks at No. 4 on this list. Kolb has been a popular suggestion as a QB option for the 49ers throughout this season, ever since Michael Vick assumed the starting role and began a Pro Bowl and MVP-caliber campaign.
Kolb—unlike many on this list—actually has all the potential factors that could make him not just a short-term but potentially a long-term solution for the 49ers. He has size, strength, fundamentals, and—due to enter the 2011 season at just 27 years old—enough youth to be a legitimate option for at least another 10 years.
Kolb impressed head coach Andy Reid enough to trade Donovan McNabb at the end of last year and earn himself the inside track to the starting role in 2010. Despite strong competition from Michael Vick, Reid stuck with Kolb as his starter longer than many in Philadelphia thought was wise.
McNabb was drafted second overall by Andy Reid in 1999 and the two had been tied together at the hip for more than a decade before McNabb was dealt to the Washington Redskins. Reid obviously has some expertise in evaluating QB talent, having picked McNabb and worked with Brett Favre in Green Bay. In seven career starts, Kolb has thrown seven touchdowns and seven interceptions and posted a respectable 73.2 rating.
All that, plus there are other reasons to have a 49er QB wear No. 4. . .
Kevin Kolb, Cons/Conclusion
There are several drawbacks to Kolb, however—namely his inexperience, inability to retain the Eagles' starting role, and potential price.
Like Troy Smith, Kolb's track record in the NFL is extremely limited and gives would-be analysts little with which to judge his NFL abilities. Unlike others on the list who starred at major universities like USC and Texas, Kolb played his college ball at University of Houston—an emerging program in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision, but far from a BCS power.
Like Matt Leinart, Kolb was essentially given the keys to his franchise to start the 2010 season, and seemed to have the fullest confidence (perhaps overly so) from his head coach, but was unable to hold on to the starting job—surrendering it to a player who was brought in as a backup option. Granted, in Kolb's case it was an injury that opened the door for Michael Vick, and Vick's meteoric rise gave the Eagles little choice but to stick with the former league pariah, but even so, Vick now awaits the franchise tag in Philadelphia while Kolb is all but guaranteed to be dealt before the Eagles play another game.
The final snag with Kolb is the Eagles’ huge asking price. It is widely rumored that the Eagles will ask for two first round picks in exchange for Kolb, a king’s ransom for a player who has proven next to nothing to this point at the NFL level. If the Volkswagen Jetta is “Great for the Price of Good,” Kolb may be the opposite—“Good for the Price of Great.”
The 49ers certainly cannot afford to invest two first-round picks in any potential QB. While it would make slightly more sense than drafting Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, Ryan Mallett, or Cam Newton at No. 7, they have plenty of other needs to spend their first-round pick on, let alone losing next year’s.
It is quite possible that the price could drop, if the rest of the NFL scoffs at the Eagles’ price tag as they should. But the starting price suggests that even if the market sank, the 49ers would still be priced out. There is almost no way the 49ers could get away with acquiring Kolb without giving up this year’s first-round pick, unless a player of Vernon Davis or Patrick Willis’s caliber were offered (anyone who likes THAT idea, please start rooting for another team).
Kolb has a tremendous upside, but also substantial risk involved. If the 49ers could land him with a package which contained no higher than this year’s third-round pick and excluded Davis, Willis, and Frank Gore, he might be worth the risk, but that simply will not happen.
Even if it could, they would still need to draft a QB to leave themselves another option down the road. In the end, it would be really nice to get Kolb, but it simply is not worth surrendering what the Eagles are asking. Kolb might be higher on the list if not for the price.
No. 3: Donovan McNabb, Pros
49ers fans went crazy last offseason when the Philadelphia Eagles made it known they were interested in parting with their long-time signal caller. There was a wave of enthusiasm urging the 49ers to acquire the veteran to replace the vaunted Alex Smith.
The 49ers were confident in the tandem of Smith and Singletary, and decided to forego that approach. While hindsight is 20-20, even in light of Smith’s lack-luster 2010, they probably made the most reasonable choice at the time.
The 49ers may want to reconsider this offseason, however. The primary reason for not pursuing McNabb last year was maintaining continuity in a developing offense, which many hoped would yield growth in the promise Alex Smith had shown after replacing Shaun Hill in 2009. Despite Harbaugh’s recent radio comments, it would be a shock to see Smith’s tenure extended, and the offensive system is expected to undergo major renovation, so that motivation no longer exists.
McNabb is by far the most accomplished option on the QB market. Even at 34, he still has many of the factors teams seek in a reliable QB:
Pocket presence? Check.
A strong-enough arm to stretch the field? Check.
Couple that with a very impressive track record, and the savvy that can only come with having been a successful QB for more than a decade in the NFL, and you will begin to see why many are so interested in McNabb.
In his career, McNabb has thrown twice as many touchdowns as interceptions (something nobody else on the list can claim) and is 40 games over .500 (by far the best record of any option available). He led the Eagles to the playoffs seven times and appeared in four consecutive NFC Championship Games, winning the last in 2004 (January 2005) to advance to Super Bowl XXXIX.
McNabb has also suffered from a notable lack of supporting offensive weapons throughout his career, but still managed to post impressive, Pro Bowl-caliber numbers.
Of course, McNabb is not without issue, just like everyone else on the list.
Donovan McNabb, Cons/Conclusion
McNabb is 34 and will be 35 by the end of the 2011 season. At this age, he has certainly lost a step and one must question how much longer he will put up numbers to justify the veteran salary he will command. A player of McNabb’s pedigree will certainly command a high salary, which could prevent the 49ers from pursuing outside help at other positions of need—like cornerback and defensive line.
Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan was also very critical of McNabb this season, reportedly questioning his discipline, work ethic and conditioning, before ultimately benching him in favor of Rex Grossman late in the season. Shanahan is a multiple Super Bowl Champion coach, so his opinions should carry some weight, but it is important to note that Shanahan stuck with McNabb until the Redskins were eliminated for the playoffs—implying even he must have felt McNabb was the team’s best option.
This is also a man who—as 49ers offensive coordinator in 1994—had the stated goal of getting Steve Young 10 passing touchdowns in Super Bowl XXIX, so Shanahan can definitely be demanding of QBs.
The Redskins have yet to release McNabb, and with McNabb’s reasonable trade value, one should expect them to at least shop him around before cutting him (assuming the CBA is resolved in time). McNabb could well be available for something the neighborhood of a third-round pick, which would be a fair price for the 49ers to pay.
The 49ers would still have to draft a quarterback in April to develop, but McNabb should be more than capable of giving them three reasonable seasons to get the youngster ready for action. The 49ers could either target a QB later than the third round, or reposition themselves using some of the wealth of late-round picks they possess. All in all, McNabb is a very good option for the team, as long as the price stays reasonable.
No. 2: Kyle Orton, Pros
Former Chicago Bear and current Denver Bronco QB Kyle Orton stands to be the poor (or perhaps simply sane) man’s alternative to Kevin Kolb. Orton is slightly older, but much more experienced, with a solid track record and set of skills.
Prior to enduring a difficult 2010 season in Denver, Orton was 29-19 as a starter, spending three years with the Bears before joining the Broncos as part of a blockbuster deal for Jay Cutler. While Orton’s record suffered in 2010, his stats were still solid, throwing for over 3,600 yards and 20 touchdowns in just 13 games and posting a career-high 87.5 passer rating.
Prior to 2010, he had posted a winning record as a starter in four consecutive seasons. That is something the 49ers certainly have not seen in a while.
Orton has the size, skills and veteran poise to be a solid pocket passer, while possessing enough mobility to evade the rush and extend plays when needed. He is not a particularly dangerous threat to run, but neither are players like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. In a West Coast Offense scheme, this should not be a major issue.
Like Kolb, Orton is young enough to still become a longer term fix for the 49ers. Unlike Kolb, he has experience and past success to draw upon. The 49ers would still need a QB in the draft, but Orton would afford them the luxury to take a bigger risk if they wanted, as he could provide capable play for more than five plus years to come if needed.
Kyle Orton, Cons/Conclusion
Orton’s 3-10 record in 13 games this year is certainly concerning, especially for a player with such a winning history. While his career stats are favorable (12,774 yards, 71 touchdowns, 48 interceptions and a 79.6 passer rating in 62 games) they are not eye-popping, and if they do not translate into wins, they are of little good beyond one’s fantasy team.
Orton also underwent his share of criticism this year, finally being replaced in favor of rookie Tim Tebow for the last three games of the year.
However, he was not benched until head coach Josh McDaniels had already been fired and the Broncos were eliminated from the playoffs (similar to the circumstances surrounding Grossman’s replacement of McNabb).
The losing record could partly be placed on his shoulders. He turned the ball over once per game (9 interceptions and 4 fumbles lost) and made poor decisions at times—looking very average in a loss to the fledgling 49ers in London. Still, much of the blame for the Broncos woes must fall on the weak supporting cast, and McDaniels.
McDaniels began his treacherous reign in the offseason, ostracizing star wide receiver Brandon Marshall, and ultimately trading him to the Miami Dolphins, He then made what many agreed was a major overinvestment, trading back into the first round of the draft to select Tim Tebow.
Tebow served a strange niche role in the Broncos’ offense, acting more like a full back than QB for much of the year, limiting Orton’s potential red zone production and tipping the opposing defense off to the Broncos’ intent. Despite the tumultuous situation, Orton was able to break the 3,500-yard mark for the second consecutive season and turn former 49er WR Brandon Lloyd into a Pro Bowler, something no QB had ever done before.
Orton is reported to be on the block for a second-round pick. That is a little more than the 49ers ought to spend, needing to use their first two picks to bolster their defense. If, however, the 49ers were to package a third-round pick with the likes of Takeo Spikes, Manny Lawson, Parys Haralson, Josh Morgan, or maybe even Michael Crabtree, they could likely get the Broncos to bite.
Orton could be a fantastic addition to the 49ers, whether he ultimately became the No. 1 answer, or serves as a capable backup behind a prospect from the draft after a few seasons. There will be other interest in Orton, however, and the 49ers need to avoid a bidding war.
No. 1: Carson Palmer, Pros
Former Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer recently requested (or perhaps demanded) a trade. While the Cincinnati Bengals insist he is an integral part of their future, and not available on the trade market, many assume this is simply a ploy to bolster the potential offers and many experts expect him to be traded.
Palmer is 31 years old, has all the physical attributes and has proven the ability to be anywhere from effective to great at QB in the NFL. While he lacks the winning record of McNabb, much of that is due the teams he has played on, rather than a dearth of personal ability.
Palmer has consistently posted stats that have made him a sought-after fantasy football commodity, something the 49ers certainly cannot say about any of their recent QBs. He has never failed to throw for fewer than 20 touchdowns in any season where he has started every game. Despite the fairly weak supporting cast, Palmer led the Bengals to the playoffs 2005 and 2009, though they were unable to advance past the first round in each case.
Palmer is still fairly young and could provide at least another five years of reliable service to a team that picks him up. He has also been fairly durable throughout his career to date. He posted a streak of 51 consecutive starts between 2005 and 2008, before missing 12 games with a torn ligament in his throwing elbow. The only other time in his career where he failed to start all 16 games for the Bengals was 2004, his second year in the league, where he started 13 games in an 8-8 campaign (he did not see any action in 2003).
Carson Palmer, Cons/Conclusion
Acquiring Palmer is a controversial proposition because many would argue his stats mask an inability to win with consistency. Palmer has been maligned in the media as a QB who puts up big fantasy numbers only after a game has been decided.
Still the numbers do not lie and he was able to lead the Bengals to double-digit wins twice, netting a playoff appearance both times. One has to question how much Palmer’s relative lack of team success should rest on his shoulders.
A change of scenery and a stronger cast of characters could change his career record in a hurry. Palmer had offensive weapons at times in Cincinnati—TJ Houshmandzadeh and Chad Johnson/Ochocinco/Johnson in the passing game and Rudi Johnson in the running game, but has lacked a consistent complement of threats of the caliber the 49ers currently possess in Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, Frank Gore, and company (his career did not coincide with Corey Dillon’s tenure with the Bengals).
If Palmer and the 49ers found themselves together, it could be a great relationship for all involved.
As he is not “officially” on the market, there is little legitimate information about potential cost, but historical reference and basic logic suggest that he might fetch a price in the same range as McNabb. McNabb has a more illustrious career résumé, but Palmer is younger and has a better upside moving forward.
Weighing all factors, Palmer should be the prime target for the 49ers.
The Wrap Up
So there you have it: 10 men who could be the short-term answer to the 49ers’ long-standing QB woes. None of them are flawless choices, and some are certainly much more attractive than others, but any of them could be a reasonable fix in the right set of circumstances (expect maybe Alex Smith).
Nonetheless, none of these options constitute a sure-fire solution for the 49ers that would preclude the need to pursue a QB in the 2011 draft. While Kolb and Orton could become long-term answers, there are too many red flags to allow the team to rely solely on one of them. McNabb or Palmer would be more of an immediate sure thing, but neither is getting any younger.
The 49ers need to target a QB prospect in the 2011 Draft no matter what. Andrew Luck is out of the picture, but a variety of options remain. Like the veterans discussed in this list, each has unique pros and cons, but that is a discussion for another time.
One thing is sure, the 49ers cannot afford to drop the ball in choosing a QB again.
Stay tuned and Keep the Faith!