San Francisco 49ers

On the 49ers: Who will be quarterback in 2016?

The rest of the 49ers’ 2015 season will be a de facto tryout for veteran quarterback Blaine Gabbert
The rest of the 49ers’ 2015 season will be a de facto tryout for veteran quarterback Blaine Gabbert The Bee

First the obvious observation: Quarterback Colin Kaepernick not only has been benched, he likely won’t play for the 49ers in 2016. The only scenario in which he is with the 49ers after April 1 is if Blaine Gabbert is terrible or gets hurt – which is plausible – allowing Kaepernick to re-enter the picture and rally the franchise – which is implausible given what he’s done thus far and given that his supporting cast is quickly deteriorating.

The real question is: What’s Gabbert’s role next season? He’s signed through 2016. The 49ers would love it if Gabbert succeeds or is at least solid over the last eight games. That would allow them to draft a quarterback early – and the 49ers should have their pick of several good prospects – and then announce the rookie must beat out Gabbert for the starting job. That, of course, is 2005 all over again. But that’s where the franchise has landed.

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The message the 49ers are leaking to national reporters is they gave Kaepernick plenty of chances to succeed and felt now was the best time to demote him. The 27-6 loss to the St. Louis Rams was the final straw.

But why make the change now instead of next week, which precedes the bye week? That’s when teams typically make big moves like this.

It’s interesting that their next opponent is the slumping Atlanta Falcons. They are 24th in pass defense and have 10 sacks, second fewest in the NFL. Kaepernick has been up and down all season. It’s much easier to replace him after a “down” game than an “up” one. Conversely, it gives Gabbert – who was terrible when pressured during his stint with the Jacksonville Jaguars – a chance to start on a strong note.

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The 49ers made Gabbert their reclamation project this offseason, and they were very pleased with how it worked out. He completed a sterling 82.1 percent of his passes in the preseason, didn’t throw an interception and had a 108.8 passer rating.

When the 49ers re-signed him in the spring, it raised eyebrows because he looked so bad in the 2014 preseason, when he finished with a 54.0 passer rating.

The 49ers liked Gabbert because he had starting experience and mirrored Kaepernick in arm strength and athleticism. They wouldn’t have to change the offense much if he had to play.

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Some backup quarterbacks champ at the bit so hard to get into games they undermine – subconsciously or otherwise – the starter. There is zero indication that happened with Gabbert.

Instead, he’s been very supportive of Kaepernick, never lobbying for snaps or walking to the sideline and taking some throws during games in which Kaepernick has struggled. That’s likely because Gabbert has been in Kaepernick’s shoes. The two quarterbacks are close and Gabbert is well liked in the locker room.

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So who are the draft-worthy quarterbacks the 49ers should consider?

More will be written on this topic – a lot more, loads more, a nauseating amount more – between now and May. But here are some names: Cal’s Jared Goff, Michigan State’s Connor Cook, Memphis’ Paxton Lynch, North Carolina State’s Jacoby Brissett and North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz.

Keep an eye on Wentz. He plays at a school where 49ers general manager Trent Baalke coached and – here’s the clincher – he is currently injured, which is something we know Baalke can’t resist. Wentz has a broken wrist but should be healthy for the combine, workouts, etc.

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Last note: At 26, Gabbert is two years younger than Kaepernick, whose birthday is Tuesday.

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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