“We want Carr! We want Carr!”
That was the backdrop to Jim Harbaugh’s arrival with the 49ers in 2011. Harbaugh was a former quarterback, had an eye for quarterbacks, and if one thing was certain, the squad he took over that year needed a new starting quarterback.
Incumbent Alex Smith not only was scheduled to become a free agent in a couple of months, the former No. 1 overall pick underwhelmed to the point that frustrated fans preferred his backup, David Carr, and famously chanted Carr’s name during a nationally televised game in 2010. Smith was as good as gone.
Nearly every 49ers story that offseason mused about which rookie quarterback – Cam Newton? Blaine Gabbert? Jake Locker? – Harbaugh would grab with the seventh overall pick in the draft or which prominent veteran – Carson Palmer? Matt Hasselbeck? – the 49ers would acquire.
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In the end, the answer was “none of the above.” Harbaugh didn’t thrill everyone with an atomic-cannonball entrance into the quarterback pool. Instead, he convinced Smith to stay for another season and waited until the second round to draft a passer, Colin Kaepernick, who took only 20 mop-up snaps as a rookie. The quarterback Harbaugh got rid of in 2011? Carr.
Which brings us to this season. Kyle Shanahan has been on the job for a couple of weeks. John Lynch hasn’t even reached the one-month mark as an NFL general manager. They have no track record. No one knows what they’re going to do.
Despite a huge need at quarterback and Shanahan’s expertise at the position, however, don’t be surprised if there are no big splashes and the 49ers take the same sort of measured approach Harbaugh did six years ago.
The 49ers have been linked to two prominent veterans, Kirk Cousins and Jimmy Garoppolo. Both would require massive, long-term deals, which the 49ers could accommodate. They also might have to relinquish multiple, high-round draft picks to acquire either player, which should make them wary.
Washington is expected to place the franchise tag on Cousins, a favorite of Shanahan’s when he was with the Redskins and who is not yet signed for 2017. To get Cousins, the 49ers would have to make him the highest-paid quarterback in the league and send two first-round picks to Washington as compensation. There might be room to negotiate, but the 49ers would not be able to avoid a double blow – a huge salary as well as draft capital.
The same goes for Garoppolo, who could be available in a trade from New England. The compensation might not be as steep as that for Cousins, who has a far greater body of work. But with Tom Brady turning 40 in August, the Patriots aren’t going to say goodbye to 25-year-old Garoppolo without premium reimbursement.
The draft, meanwhile, has a bit of a Goldilocks feel: Clemson’s Deshaun Watson is too inconsistent, North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky is too inexperienced and Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer was too unsuccessful as a starter.
The 49ers also have many other needs. They could use a pass rusher, a linebacker, an offensive tackle (if they hadn’t drafted DeForest Buckner in the first round last season, they would have gone with tackle Ronnie Stanley) and especially a wide receiver. Without a significant investment in pass catchers, no quarterback the 49ers acquire will flourish.
“If there is a quarterback (early in the draft) that we believe can … be a franchise quarterback for us, of course, you don’t hesitate on that,” Shanahan said on KNBR radio last week. “But if you don’t see that and there are other good players – if there’s a pass rusher, a linebacker, if there’s an (offensive) lineman, whatever it is – you need to get the best player possible who can help your team for the next 10 years.”
Another option for 2017 is Kaepernick. There’s a good chance he enters free agency next month and finds a new team, and many fans feel if the 49ers truly are taking a clean-slate approach this season, it should be without Kaepernick. Asked in an informal online Bee poll last week whether they wanted Kaepernick back with the 49ers, 70 percent said no.
Still, Kaepernick is unlikely to have a robust market despite his progress in 2016. The 49ers, meanwhile, must fill four quarterback spots for the offseason, and in a couple of weeks, they may have zero quarterbacks on the roster. A 2017 union could be a marriage of convenience for both sides.
Yes, it’s hard to envision Kaepernick coming back to San Francisco at this point. Then again, no one saw Smith returning in 2011, either.