The San Francisco 49ers and their fans might want to think outside the box as the organization tries to find a quarterback (or two, or three) to play for head coach Jim Harbaugh in 2011.
They should consider that there's not a proven NFL quarterback available in the draft. They're all college stars who, apparently, have skills that might translate to success in the NFL. So why focus only on this year's crop of draft-eligible quarterbacks? Perhaps the 49ers should consider a larger pool of passers who came out of college drawing rave reviews from draft analysts.
The same NFL draft geeks who are praising quarterbacks like Missouri's Blaine Gabbert and Auburn Cam Newton were raving about about Brady Quinn when he was coming out of Notre Dame.
NFL insiders who love Arkansas' Ryan Mallet and Washington's Jake Locker were once predicting that USC's Matt Leinart would be the clear No. 1 overall pick—until Leinart opted to stay in school for an extra season. The following spring, however, the same insiders were still as high on Leinart as they are on any of the crop of 2011 draft quarterback prospects.
When the 49ers had the first pick in the draft in 2005, those draft experts were agreeing with the organization as then head coach Mike Nolan waded through the process trying to determine whether to pick Utah quarterback Alex Smith or Cal passer Aaron Rodgers No. 1.
There weren't any draft analysts predicting that Smith would be a bust or that Rodgers would be one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL by 2010.
The jury is still out on whether or not Tim Tebow will be a productive NFL quarterback. He was drafted in the first round by the Denver Broncos in 2010, though, and did play his way into the starting spot. If he can start and play reasonably well in his rookie season, it's hard to understand how Broncos team president John Elway can now insist that they desperately need a quarterback like Gabbert in this year's draft.
Mel Kiper Jr., Todd McShay and Peter King are loved some or all of the aforementioned young quarterbacks when they were eligible for the NFL draft. The reality for Smith, Quinn, Rodgers, Leinart and Tebow:
- Smith has rarely played well for the 49ers.
- Quinn was judged a failure in Cleveland and is now the third-string passer in Denver.
- Rodgers is, arguably, the best quarterback in the NFL after leading the Green Bay Packers to the Super Bowl title.
- Leinart had stops and starts in Arizona before being released, then spending 2010 as the third quarterback in Houston.
- Tebow started three games at the end of 2010, passing for 651 yards and three touchdowns. He ran for 199 yards and three scores—all against NFL defenses.
The 49ers might be well served to consider getting their hands on one of the still young, still largely untested former NFL draft darlings like Quinn, Leinart, Tebow or Smith. (Note: The 49ers are reportedly going to offer the free agent Smith a one-year contract when the NFL labor dispute is finally settled.)
Quinn played sparingly for some of the worst teams in Cleveland Browns' history. He was praised for all that he learned playing in former Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weiss' NFL-style, pass offense. Yet, Quinn was never given extended run in Cleveland, let alone surrounded by anything but anything approaching reasonable talent.
Quinn's still big, strong and athletic. His arm strength is more proven versus NFL competition than that of Gabbert or Newton or Locker. The newbies haven't taken a single NFL snap, right?
Leinart led USC to the national championship. Like Quinn, he wasn't drafted nearly as high as was anticipated. He did earn the starting job for the Arizona Cardinals and led head coach Ken Whisenhunt's club to some impressive wins. Whisenhunt didn't like Leinart, then found much to love about veteran Kurt Warner. Leinart fell so far from grace in Arizona that he couldn't win the starting job over Derek Anderson in 2010—because Whisenhunt proved, finally, that he wanted nothing to do with Leinart.
Leinart has won games in the NFL. Unlike the wannabes coming out of college, Leinart's career hangs in the balance the next time he takes a snap. Critics say he doesn't work hard enough? Maybe the 49ers should see how hard he'll work to save his NFL career?
Smith? Hey, 49ers fans know all they ever need to know about him. He is the youngest and most athletic free agent quarterback in a weak crop of free agent passers who'll be courted by all sorts of teams when the labor fracas ends.
Tebow has won games in the NFL. He has proven he works as hard, or harder, than any quarterback around. The guy reworked his throwing motion between the time he left college and arrived in the NFL. Those big hits that he wasn't supposed to be able to take in the NFL didn't leave him flat on his back late last season after all.
49ers' head coach Jim Harbaugh wants a hard-working, versatile, athletic quarterback. Elways wants anybody except Tebow. That seems to be the making of a trade, doesn't it?
The 49ers have 12 draft picks this spring and it wouldn't take much to pry Quinn, Leinart or Tebow free. Two third-string quarterbacks and quarterback nobody in Denver seems to want playing for the Broncos.
Why not use a fourth-round pick, toss in a seventh-rounder and bring to 49ers' training camp quarterbacks who did everything and more than Gabbert and the rest did in college? Rather than think about what Locker might do, or what TCU's Andy Dalton could do once he adjusts to the NFL, maybe trade for Quinn or Leinart and see what they can do when they're trying to salvage their NFL career.
A guy fighting to save his football career will be a great deal more motivated, and educated, than a kid trying to prove he's ready to start his pro football career.
(Ted Sillanpaa can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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