NFL: The Top 15 Options at Quarterback for the 2011 San Francisco 49ers

Drew KerrContributor IIIMarch 8, 2011

NFL: The Top 15 Options at Quarterback for the 2011 San Francisco 49ers

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    The Two Legends
    The Two LegendsGeorge Rose/Getty Images

    The shadows left behind of San Francisco 49ers quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young have been monumental.

    Jeff Garcia was a prime example of that. Even though he had his stellar moments, the shoes left behind of both were just too big to fill.

    There's a chance they may never be filled, and quite frankly, they shouldn't.

    49ers fans back in the 80's and 90's, were very spoiled, having so many dynamic teams to watch year in and year out. Sure, there was some disappointment along the way, but that's just the way the cookie crumbles sometimes—ask Charlie Sheen.

    In any case, something most fans have to do, particularly the older ones, is let it go.

    There's never going to be another Montana, and there will never be another Young.

    Today's game has changed and evolved so much that it's likely we'll never see the fantastic things we all have etched in our memories ever again.

    But there's still hope.

    There's hope that San Francisco may find a once-in-a-decade type of quarterback. There's hope that they may find someone to hold down the fort and take the 49ers to the promised land.  It's going to take a player with passion, it's going to take a guy who plays the game with fire and most of all, it's going to take someone who has a super-human work ethic.

    In looking for that next guy, there are options.

    Some folks may call that player a stop-gap. The term "stop-gap" typically refers to a quarterback who will manage games for a year or two.

    Even some game managers have the ability though to take their teams to the Super Bowl. The 2000 Ravens piggy-backed their way to the big dance on the shoulders of game-managing Trent Dilfer. And the Carolina Panthers nearly pulled off a Super Bowl victory in 2004 with quarterback Jake Delhomme; yes, Jake Delhomme (that pesky Adam Vinateri ruined everything).

    This all alludes to the fact that professional football is the ultimate team sport. However, without the presence of a field general (also known as a quarterback), the chances of etching more glory day memories will be consistently slim.

    There could be some good options in the selection process for the 2011 San Francisco 49ers' field-general. Let's take a look at some of the candidates.

15: Bruce Gradkowski

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    OAKLAND, CA - NOVEMBER 28:  Bruce Gradkowski #5 of the Oakland Raiders in action against the Miami Dolphins at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on November 28, 2010 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Bruce Gradkowski had a few rough years; first in Tampa Bay and then Cleveland, neither of which did he look like he would amount to much.

    However, once the Raiders brought him to the Bay Area, it seemed to have breathed some life into his career.

    Many people have compared the Oakland quarterback to the likes of players such as Jeff Garcia and Doug Flutie. Gradkowski is one of those players who plays the game with his emotions firmly attached in sight to his sleeve.

    Many of those who remember Garcia probably remember that he played the game a lot like Steve Young, in the sense that he used his feet to extend plays. This is where Gradkowski is earning those comparisons.

    In Week 13 of the 2009 season, the Raiders quarterback pulled off a brilliant three-touchdown, fourth quarter comeback against the reigning Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. It was unrivaled as the best comeback game of the year.

    While the free-agent market is stuck in limbo, it's looking more and more like things will be as normal as they ever were here soon. In taking a deep look at Gradkowski, it seems as though it could be a short trip across the Bay for him to continue his success, considering that Jason Campbell will most likely be the guy in Oakland again.

    It's obviously uncertain what the 49ers will do for this specific position, but one has to assume that the Raiders' former starter may be on the radar.

14: Josh Johnson

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    TAMPA, FL - AUGUST 28:  Quarterback Josh Johnson #11 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looks for an open receiver against the Jacksonville Jaguars during a preseason game at Raymond James Stadium on August 28, 2010 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by J. Meric/Getty I
    J. Meric/Getty Images

    Some Niners fans may already know that Josh Johnson was connected to new head coach Jim Harbaugh when he coached at the University of San Diego (2004-2006). Whether that means anything or not remains to be seen.

    Johnson has seen the field in limited action for the Bucs as starters in front of him have been injured. The 6'3", 205-pound, nimble quarterback has been a hit-or-miss player. The Bucs up until last year had really struggled though, and one of the main areas they struggled in (and still do) was protecting their quarterbacks.

    Some folks may look at Johnson and think he's a poor man's Vince Young. But if you look at the tangibles, it seems like Johnson's mechanics in throwing the ball are leagues beyond Young's. He may not possess the bazooka Vince does, but he gets the ball there with plenty of velocity.

    There is plenty of optimism that whatever quarterback Harbaugh gets his hands on, he is going to magically turn him into a phenomenal player.

    However, there is a thing called "reality."

    Harbaugh can only take a player as far as their ceiling will allow. He's not going to take a player like Curtis Painter and turn him in to Bart Starr overnight. But Johnson has worked with Harbaugh before, and if Harbaugh saw any kind of potential while at the University of San Diego, then there's a chance for a trade there.

    With the upside the backup in Tampa possesses, it's certainly possible that they give him some strong consideration.

    So the next question to the fanbase is if Harbaugh made the trade for Johnson, what are your thoughts? 

13: Cam Newton

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    The Icon and Entertainer
    The Icon and EntertainerKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    A majority of folks out there may scoff at the idea of bringing on Cameron Newton.

    But imagine this.

    Imagine Newton's ceiling is higher than that of a Dante Culpepper-type of player, or Ben Roethlisberger even.

    Imagine that he actually is an "Icon and Entertainer."

    There may not be much interest for most people, considering that he is undoubtedly the biggest "boom-or-bust" quarterback in this draft. Some may argue that Ryan Mallett is giving him a run for his money, but there's high probability that Mallett will be selected somewhere in the second round and not even start immediately.

    Newton does have plenty of issues, but after his pro day, he could jump right back into the discussions of being a top 10 selection.

    The Auburn Tigers didn't exactly give him the best resume in terms of passing in how they ran their offense, so it's really hard with such a small sample size to gauge how well his game will translate at the next level. But much like Tim Tebow last year, it's only going to take one team with an infatuation of his athletic and iconic abilities to take him early on.

    What was that? Sorry, I thought I heard Al Davis in the background.

    Let's say for argument's sake that Newton is on the 49ers' radar. In fact, they interviewed him at the combine, so there is flat-out interest.

    It basically all boils down to how well the 49ers think he would fit with what they are going to do. It's also quite possible that there is enough division in the front office and coaching staff with their views on Newton that they would steer clear.

    But prepare yourselves, because it could materialize.

12: Jake Locker

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    TUCSON, AZ - OCTOBER 23:  Quarterback Jake Locker #10 of the Washington Huskies drops back to pass during the college football game against the Arizona Wildcats at Arizona Stadium on October 23, 2010 in Tucson, Arizona. The Wildcats defeated the Huskies 4
    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Jake Locker's biggest problem throughout his collegiate career was his footwork; the short steps and over-extensions led to a low completion percentage.

    When Locker stepped on the field a week or so ago, his footwork had taken on a major overhaul. His steps and footwork were nearly flawless from the way they had been the last few years at Washington. If scouts and coaches took notice, there's no question he'll be a first rounder, like he had been slotted the previous year. The throws at the combine were night and day compared to before in the accuracy department.

    In staying at Washington another year, it really set Locker back though.

    There is still hope for him, and there's still a good shot he will turn into that franchise quarterback folks thought he was last year.

    If there's one guy Harbaugh would love to get his hands on and work with, the assumption has to go with Locker. Whether he could have him ready to go Week 1 or not, is a bit of a stretch though. But it wouldn't shock most fans to see him in there going at it like a pro by mid-season or so.

    The ceiling on Locker has to be pretty high, especially in seeing that he has worked diligently on fixing his footwork and mechanics as a quarterback.

    I've always been curious as to how people would react to a guy whose locker just said, "Locker." Anyway... 

11: Matt Flynn

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    FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 19:  Quarterback Matt Flynn #10 of the Green Bay Packers looks to pass during the third quarter of the game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on December 19, 2010 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. The Patriots won the ga
    Elsa/Getty Images

    Who? Why?


    Although there is such a small sample size, it's likely that Matt Flynn would continue to play as good as he did filling in for Aaron Rodgers while he recovered from his concussion.

    But some may ask, how can one possibly base future success on two games?

    It's simple, Matt Flynn was a very good college quarterback as well. How much different would it be than having a rookie start, or a guy like Tony Romo, who never thought he'd step foot as a starter, on a iconic team like the Cowboys?

    The bottom line is sometimes stars emerge out of nowhere. People have to acknowledge potential no matter how big a sample size.

    The other thing to consider is that it probably wouldn't take much in a trade to obtain Flynn. Although, there's always the possibility that the Packers want to keep that insurance policy and keep that pine warm just in case.

    That game he played against New England was simply brilliant. Despite being sacked five times in that game, including the final play, Flynn showed perseverance against adversity. His team lost, but it cannot be put on the shoulders of Flynn. He did everything he possibly could to help the team win, but the offensive line clearly did not give him even a half a second to get the ball anywhere.

    So with that, would it be worth giving up a mid-to-late round pick to get him?

10: Vince Young

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    MIAMI - NOVEMBER 14:  Quarterback Vince Young #10 of the Tennessee Titans throws against the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium on November 14, 2010 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
    Marc Serota/Getty Images

    Sure, he's a head case. Sure, he gets in bar fights over someone flashing upside-down horns to him with their hands. Sure, he picks fights with defensive backs in practice. Sure, he makes cries for help by threatening to off himself.

    But, he sure is one helluva football player.

    Most teams would want to steer clear of that sort of mess. One thing is for sure though, Vince Young leads his team to wins, and his teammates seem to love the guy for the most part.

    But how neat would it be to hear Young to Rice (Sidney) again? Not neat enough? I didn't think so...

    It's a mystery to know whether or not Young will be able to pull it together. Most likely, he and his agent are going to want something long term, and there may be a team like Miami, Minnesota or Cleveland that would chance it. With all of the 49ers' woes at the quarterback position, it would be hard to see them making such a long-term commitment like that.

    The biggest question would be regarding how well he would fit in the West-Coast offense. What could possibly suggest that he wouldn't be successful in it though? It doesn't seem like there are too many factors that allude to him not being able to thrive in it.

    He was 30-2 at the University of Texas, after all.

    Since Young has been drafted, the Titans have been 11-15 without him. His team was ranked fourth in winning percentage with him as the starter since he's come to the league. 

    Wins are not a quarterback stat, they're are a team stat.

    However, the team wins when Vince Young is at the helm.

9: Matt Hasselbeck

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    CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 16:  Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck #8 of the Seattle Seahawks looks to throw the ball during pregame before taking on the Chicago Bears in the 2011 NFC divisional playoff game at Soldier Field on January 16, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois.
    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Chances are Matt Hasselbeck will stay in Seattle. He is pretty old to have to start over, learn a new offense, adapt, etc.

    But who knows? Maybe the 'Hawks draft a rookie quarterback, and maybe in drafting that rookie quarterback, Hasselbeck says good-bye. How nice would it be to have deep inside knowledge of a division opponent that the 49ers play twice a year?

    Hasselbeck is a veteran quarterback. He doesn't have a ton of years left in him and may be best suited as a one or two-year stop-gap. There's no question he would find value in knowing that he doesn't have to see the likes of Patrick Willis twice a year. That in and of itself, may be enough to get him to make the flight south for winter.

    Hasselbeck knows the playoffs just like Bo knows Nike commercials. He's been there, done that and the Niners haven't in way too long.

    Some folks may not want to go here, but really, would it be so bad? Would it be the end of the world? Or is it the temporary glue that the 49ers need to hold everything together for a couple of years?

    Regardless of your thoughts on this option, it's still an option. And the 49ers need to consider as many options as are out there.

    Matt Hasselbeck? Meh, maybe...

8: Alex Smith

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    SAN FRANCISCO - DECEMBER 12:  Alex Smith #11 of the San Francisco 49ers passes against the Seattle Seahawks during an NFL game at Candlestick Park on December 12, 2010 in San Francisco, California.(Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
    Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    ...Uhhh, wait a second...

    Didn't the 49ers... uh, well...

    The answer is no, they haven't given up on him.

    But why? Why after five years of watching the same miserable performances would they even consider it?

    Here's why...

    “'So excited, yeah, I’m going to say it, I’ve been studying Alex Smith and watching him and I believe that Alex Smith can be a winning quarterback in the National Football League,'” Harbaugh said on Sports 1140 AM in Sacramento via Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.  “'I’m excited to work with him, get to know him.'”

    Is it because he actually believes that? Or is it because he needs Alex to believe that due to a lack of options out there?

    Well, there are 15 options or more, evidently.

    There's no question it would be risky heading into the 2011 season with Smith being the only egg in the basket, especially considering that it's a cracked egg.

    But there's hope that all Harbaugh's king's horses, and all the king's men can put Alex Dumpty back together again.

    Smith knows his teammates better than any option out there. But even so, there could be seven more options that may be a better fit...

7: Dennis Dixon

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    PITTSBURGH - SEPTEMBER 12:  Dennis Dixon #10 of the Pittsburgh Steelers warms up prior to the NFL season opener game against the Atlanta Falcons on September 12, 2010 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
    Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    Is that Kordell St—oh, for a second there...

    Anyway, Dennis Dixon has done exceptional job filling in for Roethlisberger. Dixon may be the most underrated player that will be a consideration heading into next season.

    The former Oregon Duck has been a dual-threat since before he was a dual-threat. But the good thing about that equation is that he is almost always a quarterback first before he jets out of the pocket.

    The potential for him to be a successful full-time starting quarterback in the NFL is there. Potential doesn't mean anything until a player actually lives up to it though. A team will need to give him the opportunity for him to ever live up to it.

    Everything is sound: his mechanics, his studying of the game and his knack to take his team downfield on a methodical drive.

    The major hang-up for Dixon is going to be the tear he had to his ACL. Even though it's possible for a player to come back from an injury like that, it could limit some of what Dixon can do. It also raises the flag that it could be potentially reoccurring.

    But if he can return to form, Dennis Dixon is the modern day Steamin' Willie Beamen. But who would you rather have leading your team, Willie Beamen or Cap Rooney? That is an important question. 

6: Marc Bulger

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    SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 13:  Quarterback Marc Bulger #10 of the St. Louis Rams moves to pass the ball during the game against the Seattle Seahawks on September 13, 2009 at Qwest Field in Seattle, Washington. The Seahawks defeated the Rams 28-0. (Photo by
    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Marc Bulger spent eight seasons with the St. Louis Rams before getting shipped over to Baltimore to play a back-up role there.

    The Harbaugh brothers were seen sitting together quite a bit at the combine. It peaks the curiosity as to how much and what exactly they were talking about. Was Jim telling John he'd give him the turkey legs at their next family Thanksgiving if he gave him Marc Bulger at a discounted price to start the season? One can only wonder.

    Bulger, while with the Rams, was an on-and-off starter plagued with nagging injuries throughout his career, but in his first 5 seasons, there may not have been a more accurate quarterback in the league. He has now had a season of rest to get healthy again.

    Considering that, plus the fact that the West Coast offense is predicated on precision, accuracy, the comprehension of timing routes and getting the ball there exactly when it needs to be, then Bulger seems to make a ton of sense; especially if he can return to his top form. 

    But that's the biggest kicker—if he can.

    After being a 49ers fan for so long, it would be strange to see Bulger in the red and gold. However, if he was winning, the memories of him wearing blue and yellow would evaporate like spit in the Sahara.

    Bulger has thrown 123 touchdowns in his career, so he knows how to score points. He's only thrown 93 interceptions and has a career completion percentage of 62.1 percent.

    In looking at his history (minus the injuries), he seems like a rock-solid option to go with and for relatively cheap. 

5: Kevin Kolb

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    CINCINNATI - AUGUST 20:  Kevin Kolb #4 of the Philadelphia Eagles runs with the ball during the NFL preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on August 20, 2010 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Kevin Kolb is West Coast-ready to go.

    He has done quite well in Andy Reid's offense in the time he has played. However, the biggest argument you will see is that Kolb has not had a large enough sample size to tell what he is all about.

    The one thing that can be said for Kolb is that he appears on the surface to be pretty accurate with his tosses. He has good zip on his passes and can thread the needle very nicely.

    But there is the concern of the risk versus reward factor. The Eagles more than likely aren't going to be severing ties with Kolb for anything less than a first-rounder.

    Is Kolb worth that?

    If a team like the Niners are willing to spend that, they better hope so. There are always future picks to trade in that equation. So if the Eagles went for a future first, and the 49ers rode Kolb into the playoffs, would it be worth it?

    Reid's version of the West Coast offense is going to be relatively similar to Jim Harbaugh's. Maybe not as many shotgun plays, but almost as many roll-out and motion types of plays.

    Kolb has been fantastic on roll-out plays. He sees the entire field very well, and quarterback vision/recognition is the key element to having success in that specific type of offense.

    With the resources available, the Kolb-on-the-cob option seems as though it would quench most 49ers fans hunger for a quarterback who has been waiting in the hanger for a couple years ready to take flight.

    Do you think Andy Lee would relinquish his jersey number though?  

4: Blaine Gabbert

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    COLUMBIA, MO - NOVEMBER 13:  Quarterback Blaine Gabbert #11 of the Missouri Tigers carries the ball during the game against the Kansas State Wildcats on November 13, 2010 at Faurot Field/Memorial Stadium in Columbia, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Gett
    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Blaine Gabbert is a very intriguing draft prospect, sparking so much interest and media attention in recent weeks.

    He declared for the draft early riding on a fairly good season at Missouri. The biggest victory came in an upset of the then-No. 1 ranked Oklahoma Sooners. It was the first time since 1998 Missouri had beaten the highly-ranked Sooners, and it marked only the fourth time in school history that the Tigers had beaten Oklahoma.

    It was then, after that nationally-televised game, that Gabbert began receiving all of the attention.

    On certain drives in that game, Gabbert looked almost Joe Cool-esque in how methodical he was.

    There's plenty of concern in that the Missouri quarterback is coming from a spread offense. Spread offenses sometimes get a lot of negative attention due to the fact that the majority do not translate well to pro-style offenses.

    But there are exceptions to the rule, and Gabbert could very well be one.

    He has got a big arm, and the tangibles are there, coupled with the intangibles. Gabbert does not hide his emotions and is one of the more fiery quarterbacks coming out this year.

    It must be the hair. The more he grew his hair out in attempts to look like Tom Brady, the better his play got during the season. Where's those myth buster guys when you need 'em?

    Of course it's quite possible that a couple teams before the 49ers could select Gabbert, but if he falls, do they pick him at No. 7?

    It could at the very least be worth a long, hard look at. With the offensive line starting to gel a bit more toward the end of the year, and Eric Heitmann returning to captain them, it would not nearly be as bad a situation as Alex Smith was thrown into in 2005.

    2011 rookie Gabbert, or 2012 rookie and another season of potential chaos?

3: Kyle Orton

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    GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 12:  Quarterback Kyle Orton #8 of the Denver Broncos drops back to pass during the NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at the University of Phoenix Stadium on December 12, 2010 in Glendale, Arizona.  The Cardinals defeated the B
    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Recently, the Broncos' new head coach John Fox mentioned that Kyle Orton would be their starting quarterback heading into 2011.

    Whether it was for positioning in selling Orton, or it was because he doesn't believe in Tim Tebow, is a bit of a Scooby-Doo mystery.

    One thing is for sure, the Broncos have quarterbacks (with the exception of Brady Quinn) that are potential starters. 

    How would Orton fit in to the West Coast offense? 

    Would he be capable to start for multiple years?

    What exactly would the 49ers have to give up for him?

    How much money would he demand on a new contract?

    Those are all questions that are legitimate concerns. If the 49ers go after a player like Orton, what are the consequences, and how promising is Orton exactly? Just three years ago, he struggled with the Bears. 

    In looking at the stat lines though, Orton seems to have pulled it together. It just goes to show that a change of scenery can sometimes turn it around for a guy. But then again, it seems like post-Elway, Denver has been a good place to go for that (see also: Jake Plummer).

    In what I have seen, the fanbase has been split on the concept of Orton coming to town. Vernon Davis openly invited the Broncos quarterback to come on down like the price is right.

    Out of the 15 options listed here, Orton seemed to fit well at No. 3.

2: Donovan McNabb

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    EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 05:  Donovan McNabb #5 of the Washington Redskins passes the  ball against the New York Giants during their game on December 5, 2010 at The New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Im
    Al Bello/Getty Images

    It's no secret that Mike Shanahan and Donovan McNabb get along about as well as Rosie O'Donnell and Donald Trump, and there's little doubt that before next season, McNabb will be out of D.C.

    Andy Reid coached Donovan for several years in the West Coast-driven Eagles' offense. The concepts and terminology would come first-hand for McNabb if he were to come to San Francisco. He has one of the most diverse comprehensions of football in the league, and most pundits still consider him to be elite.

    If Harbaugh can get McNabb to do something Shanahan failed at,—getting him on the treadmill to get his fourth-quarter endurance up—then everything would be hunky-dory.

    McNabb is going to be 35 years old come mid-season, so he probably only has a couple of good years left in him. He has four more years on his current contract, but it would buy the 49ers two years of quality service while looking and possibly grooming the quarterback of the future (ala Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers).

    Some fans may not be as interested as others, but whichever side of the equation you're on, you can't deny that he is certainly an option that the Niners' front office and coaching staff will look at if the price and terms are right.

    Donovan McNabb will more than likely be a first ballot Hall-of-Famer, there's little argument there. His Hall-of-Fame play may be behind him, but then again, maybe not. 

1: Carson Palmer

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    CINCINNATI, OH - DECEMBER 19:  Quarterback Carson Palmer #9 of the Cincinnati Bengals rolls out of the pocket while playing the Cleveland Browns at Paul Brown Stadium on December 19, 2010 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    The Bengals have a decision to make: pride over value, or get something out of the whole, "trade me or I retire" mantra that Carson Palmer and his agent have taken on?

    Specifically, Mike Brown has some decisions to make.

    Carson Palmer loves California, he has openly admitted so. His wife is originally from the Bay Area, and he misses his days in Southern California at USC. If there were some way to get back there, then maybe, just maybe, the 49ers would make sense.

    Palmer is only 31 years old, which means he probably has four or five quality years left in him. Although his production has dropped off the last few years, the situation in Cincinnati seems like it's been in turmoil for about that same amount of time.

    Both, (yes, those two) Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco have said things confirming the coaching and front office are pretty fouled up. Palmer's wanting out even further confirms the point that maybe his fall in production has a little something to do with the organization as a whole. Sound familiar?

    The 49ers have a bunch of surrounding pieces in place to make a strong run at the playoffs. However, some fans were truly convinced that last year would be the end of the drought. With a Jimmy Raye-led offensive scheme, and a former menacing linebacker as the head coach, it seemed like it was a coin toss heading into 2010 for the rest.

    The 49ers called, "heads" and landed hard on their tails.

    But it's different this year. There is true optimism rather than skeptical optimism. The 49ers went out and hired a coach who understands his roles and the roles of his supporting staff. He understands how to motivate players rather than degrade them, and most of all, he understands the quarterback position, which happens to be the most important position on the field.

    With that said, Carson Palmer may just be the 49ers' best option as...

    ...the next field-general.