Updated: Mar 20, 2020
Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert are gone. Christian Ponder is gone. The 49ers aren’t reaching for Jay Cutler, Kirk Cousins, Tony Romo or bottom-feeding for Geno Smith, Ryan Fitzpatrick or Mark Sanchez. And as far as we know, they aren’t blowing up the Favre household.
It’s safe to say, at least for now, that Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley are the No. 1 and 2 quarterbacks in San Francisco for 2017.
That being the case, it’s at least time to evaluate what that means for the 49ers, especially since quarterback is the most important position in sports. And for a storied franchise like the 49ers, which has been struggling to lock a franchise player down at the spot, but now have offensive-mind and quarterback savant Kyle Shanahan as a first-time head coach.
What to make of the situation . . .
I imagine Brian Hoyer starting Week 1, even if the 49ers draft a quarterback in Round 1 or 2. "Earning it" is a timeless tradition in the NFL, particularly when it comes to who is going to be the face of the franchise. But the veteran always gets the upper hand. So, Hoyer will start, whether it’s over Deshaun Watson, DeShone Kizer, Patrick Mahomes or some other moderately projected arm.
And the modus operandi on Brian Hoyer, whether people want to admit it or not, is that he will likely perform well for 3-4 games early in the season, begin declining, perhaps sharply, and then get injured just before he’s about to be benched.
People want to like Hoyer though because there’s quality in his game.
I do think it’s notable he started his career in New England. I do think it’s notable that in 2014 he led the league in yards per pass completion, and he did it with Cleveland. I do think it’s notable that despite playing in five different systems in eight years, he threw 44 touchdowns to 26 interceptions and won more games than he lost with bottom-dwelling defenses most of the time.
It’s even worth noting that in his last two seasons with two different teams, Chicago and Houston, he had ratings of 91.4 and 98.0, throwing 369 times and 200 times, respectively. One of those teams is picking third overall in 2017 and the other barely made the playoffs in the AFC South.
I see quality in Hoyer. What I don’t see is a long-term solution because of his fragility and inconsistency.
Where does that leave the 49ers?
Well, this is why I believe they draft a quarterback, at least on one of the three days.
I wouldn’t count out Nathan Peterman or Davis Webb, even if the 49ers pass altogether on a quarterback in the first 3-5 rounds. They could skip it altogether, too, you never know. This is not a route that’s been talked about enough. 2018 could be the year they go hard after a player, no matter where they’re picking.
Next year is promising, and the 49ers will likely be selecting inside the top 15 again, at least.
That means Jake Browning, Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield, Mason Rudolph or someone else in that upper echelon group of passers. The fourth-best passer in that class could perhaps be a better long-term solution than the first quarterback off the board in 2017. That’s the short and sweet of it.
So, if the 49ers decide to ride with Hoyer—and then Barkley in the instance that QB1 potentially gets benched or goes down—they can use their first three picks on non-QB starters and potential building blocks. Say the team brings in Reuben Foster, Christian McCaffrey and Josh Reynolds with the first three picks. Or Malik Hooker, Jarrad Davis and Kevin King.
Would it really be a downer that they didn’t nab their quarterback?
Most can see this is a multi-year rebuild. The 49ers must invest big at several key positions. And if they grab a quarterback before they fix the rest of the team, they may waste that player altogether. Look at Indianapolis. Andrew Luck may never win a Super Bowl with the pace they’re on. He would probably have better luck winning a title by boldly demanding a trade or testing the market as an unrestricted free agent in 2022 when he’s 32 years old.
If the quarterback you draft is good, he’s good.
He’ll slot right in with the rest of the team and maybe take you to a title game, even in Year 1. Dak Prescott was close in 2017. Jamies Winston has been a hell of a player since first stepping onto the NFL gridiron. Marcus Mariota is aging like wine; you can even see it over the course of the season. He’s a phenomenal talent, and the Titans have Super Bowl potential if they can solidify the rest of the team.
Meanwhile, Russell Wilson and the Seahawks are the proven example of building around quarterback first.
Before Wilson arrived in 2012, Seattle already had a running back (Marshawn Lynch via Buffalo), a talented 23-year-old wide receiver (Doug Baldwin), two Pro Bowl safeties (Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor), one Pro Bowl cornerback (Brandon Browner), and an emerging young defender in Richard Sherman. Brandon Mebane, K.J. Wright and future Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith weren’t too bad either.
So, the defense and playmakers were in place before the quarterback.
Therefore, from a team-building perspective, it’s not the worst idea to build the rest of your team out before investing in quarterback, especially if you’re not certain he’s “the guy.” That’s the gripe with this class. Any one of them can easily be a bust. Nobody said the word “bust” when Winston, Mariota and Luck were coming out, and they’ve been very good.
But with Watson, Kizer, Mahomes, and Mitch Trubisky, there’s a lot of unknowns amongst the group.
So, what’s the plan?
I think the 49ers’ best course of action is to emphasize value, and to not reach for a quarterback.
They need playmakers and defenders, badly.
I’ve seen Mahomes as high as No. 2 to the 49ers. He’s often mocked to Cleveland at No. 12 overall. But that's a bit high given that he just started to garner serious early- and now first-round consideration in March.
This would be a terrific selection if San Francisco could make a pick second overall, and lock down a sure franchise player, likely a defender or Mike Williams, and then grab Mahomes in the late first by trading up. The 49ers under two different general managers have maneuvered for two first-round picks three times since 2007.
And it paid dividends twice (2007: Patrick Willis and Joe Staley; 2010: Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis). It’s still too early to tell on the 2016 grouping of DeForest Buckner and Joshua Garnett. But as big, tough players in the trenches, it’s easy to imagine once they find their footing as professional football players, they’ll be forces at their respective positions.
But even if it's picks No. 2 and 34, they're looking at potential franchise assets.
And I strongly believe the best player available at No. 2 and No. 34, and probably with their third- and fourth-round picks as well, will not be quarterbacks. So, I don’t think the 49ers should force the selection of a quarterback if that’s the case. If San Francisco, with Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch on their cushiony six-year deals, wants to wait for a quarterback in 2018 or even 2019, let it be.
They’ll build a beast of the team in the meantime, slot that final key piece in 2018 or 2019, and make dangerous runs back to back to back.
Hero image courtesy Predominantly Orange
Media courtesy Heisman Watch