During the 2005 season, 49ers quarterback Cody Pickett endeared himself to fans by making a tackle on the team’s punt-coverage unit and then immediately leading the offense to a game-winning drive.
A similar scenario is possible for rookie Jeff Driskel, a 49ers’ backup quarterback who has been moonlighting on special-teams coverage units. Driskel, a sixth-round pick, has appeared on kickoff-coverage teams and as one of the personal protectors for punter Bradley Pinion, which special-teams coordinator Derius Swinton said puts Driskel in position to take a snap on a fake punt.
“I mean, I look at the Los Angeles Rams and their punter (Johnny Hekker),” Swinton said. “(He) was an All-American quarterback going into college and now you look at him. So we want to put a little thing in the back of (opponents’) heads that if we throw him out there, what can you do now if we have our (personal protector) who can throw the ball, he can run the ball? Now maybe coach (Chip) Kelly has his whole offense at his disposal now because (he’s) a quarterback.”
When Pickett was quarterback, nearly every team’s 53-man roster included a starter, a backup and a developmental quarterback. Pickett got into the Week 8 game in 2005, a 15-10 win over Tampa Bay, after Alex Smith and Ken Dorsey were injured.
Recently, the NFL trend has been to keep only two quarterbacks on the active roster with a third on the practice squad, something the 49ers have done since the 2012 season.
Driskel’s size and athleticism – he’s 234 pounds and was the fastest quarterback at this year’s scouting combine – give the 49ers a third option: keeping a third quarterback on the active roster but giving him a role on special teams.
“For me, I’m playing the numbers game,” Swinton said. “I try to squeeze every little bit out of it. You have a guy like Thad Lewis, when I had him as a rookie (with the Rams in 2010), Thad will tell you he covered every kick for us on the practice squad. So if you have a quarterback that can do that, it pays dividends for us.”
Lewis has played quarterback with the 49ers’ second-team offense this spring; Driskel has worked with the third team. Both, however, likely will drop down the ranks when Colin Kaepernick is cleared for full practice in training camp next month.