San Francisco 49ers

Not the offseason to look for Kaepernick’s replacement

The upcoming draft doesn’t appear to have an abundance of quarterbacks with starter potential.
The upcoming draft doesn’t appear to have an abundance of quarterbacks with starter potential. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Jim Tomsula last week at least tapped the brakes on the notion that the 49ers will rely on Colin Kaepernick’s legs far more heavily than they have in the past. After all, it wasn’t as if Kaepernick was nailed to the floor in 2014. He ran more times for more yards and with a higher average than he did the year prior.

“We want to utilize the total package that Colin has,” Tomsula said. “That’s what we want to do. Does that mean Colin Kaepernick is going to be the leading rusher every week? No. No plans on that at all. But let’s use everything he has – like we have done.”

The 49ers clearly will head into the season with Kaepernick as their starting quarterback. Beyond this year, however, is fuzzy.

His contract allows the 49ers to part ways with him – relatively painlessly as it pertains to the salary cap – each offseason through the life of the deal. That means each season has the potential to be a sink-or-swim year for the 49ers’ starting quarterback.

Of course, the 49ers would need a legitimate successor in place before they would oust Kaepernick, in the same way Kaepernick’s sudden emergence in 2012 prompted the team to trade Alex Smith after the season.

Kaepernick is the 49ers’ only quarterback signed for 2015, and it will be very interesting – and telling – to see how the team rounds out the roster at the position.

But it’s hard to see them bringing in a true challenger in the coming months.

Free agency appears full of middling quarterbacks, many of them passers from Kaepernick’s own 2011 draft class – Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker and Christian Ponder, for example – who have not had as much success early in their careers.

Then there’s the draft. The four weakest positions are believed to be safety, cornerback, tight end and ... wait for it ... quarterback. So it’s not a great offseason for supplanting your starter.

On the opposite end of the draft spectrum is wide receiver. The 2015 class promises to be strong for the second consecutive season with perhaps 15 to 18 receivers likely to be selected in the first three rounds.

No. 1 on the list? Most teams likely have West Virginia’s Kevin White ahead of Alabama’s Amari Cooper after White’s combine performance. At 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, he pumped out 23 bench-press repetitions of 225 pounds and then ran his 40-yard dash in 4.35 seconds. He also aced his interviews, coming off as mature, driven and otherwise very impressive.

Many prognosticators have him heading to Northern California in May, but to the Raiders at No. 4 rather than the 49ers at No. 15. Is he out of the 49ers’ reach? Last year, San Francisco contemplated jumping up in the draft for a receiver, Odell Beckham Jr., who ended up leading all rookies in receiving yards with 1,305 despite playing just 12 games. General manager Trent Baalke said the asking price was too steep.

“Are you willing to give up Carlos Hyde, Jimmie Ward and Chris Borland, which was the minimum you’d have had to give up to get up there to take that one player?” Baalke said last week. “Those are three pretty good players in our opinion. Is one great player better than three really good players? That’s always a debatable question.”

This year, three receivers are viewed as consensus, first-round selections – White, Cooper and Louisville’s DeVante Parker. The problem for San Francisco is that all three may be gone before the 15th pick.

Can the 49ers afford to wait until Day 2 of the draft? If the current class of wide receivers truly measures up to last year’s, perhaps.

Ten wideouts were selected in either the second or third rounds last May. Six of them finished with at least 444 receiving yards, which would have ranked third among 49ers pass catchers last season.

The 49ers are among the teams that met with White in Indianapolis. They also had interviews with Ohio State’s Devin Smith and, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, Oklahoma’s Dorial Green-Beckham and Miami’s Phillip Dorsett. All of them are speedy – Dorsett ran his 40-yard dash in a dizzying 4.33 seconds – and all are expected to be taken anywhere from the late first round through the third.

Also, Tomsula said he purposely has avoided asking Justin Smith, who has been working out at the 49ers facility in Santa Clara, whether he plans to return for a 15th season. The weighty question, however, will be broached in the coming weeks, and Tomsula doesn’t expect a lot of hemming and hawing from the veteran defensive lineman.

“He’s not going to beat around the bush,” he said. “He’s not a beat-around-the-bush guy.”

Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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