Colin Kaepernick might not have to go far to meet his new teammates.
The 49ers quarterback, who has been rehabilitating in Vail, Colo., reportedly is on the Broncos’ radar after one Denver starter from the 2015 season, Peyton Manning, retired and another, Brock Osweiler, agreed to a free-agent deal with the Texans.
The NFL Network reported Wednesday that with Osweiler heading to Houston, Kaepernick becomes Denver’s top target at quarterback. The Broncos and 49ers would have to work out a trade; San Francisco’s long-held public stance is that they want Kaepernick on the roster this year, which is their only leverage in negotiations. Kaepernick’s agents requested permission to seek a trade last month.
Manning and the Broncos won the Super Bowl in Santa Clara in February. Now they’re apparently eyeing a quarterback who led his team to a Super Bowl three years ago, but who suffered a mighty fall since.
Kaepernick struggled in 2015 and, following national reports that he had become aloof inside the 49ers’ locker room, was benched after eight games. He was replaced by Blaine Gabbert, who could begin the 2016 season as the 49ers’ starter.
Kaepernick completed a career-low 59 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and five interceptions. Gabbert in his eight starts connected on 63 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
After he was benched, Kaepernick revealed the wear and tear that came from being the most prolific running quarterback in the NFL over the past three seasons.
He had surgeries to repair a tear in his left labrum (shoulder), a torn ligament in his right thumb and to remove “floating bodies” in his left knee. All of the procedures were performed in Vail, not 49ers-affiliated Stanford Hospital, one of several signs Kaepernick had become estranged from the team.
His mistrust of team officials also stems from his 2014 contract negotiation when he agreed to accept less guaranteed money so that the team could try to re-sign upcoming free agents such as Michael Crabtree, Mike Iupati and Frank Gore, all of whom moved on in free agency the following season.
In Denver, Kaepernick would find many similarities to how the 49ers were set up during their recent successful seasons.
The Broncos had the top-rated defense last season; San Francisco finished in the top five from 2011-14. They also have a coach, Gary Kubiak, who played quarterback in the NFL just as former 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh did. In addition, the Broncos’ general manager, John Elway, is a former quarterback.
Elway spoke fondly of Kaepernick when the teams scrimmaged this past summer.
“I’ve always liked Colin,” Elway said. “He’s very athletic and he can make a lot of big plays. He’s doing more within the pocket, which I think if he continues to do that, it’ll help him. But he’s a great athlete, and he’s got that big-play ability to avoid things and make things happen.”
Elway is close to 49ers general manager Trent Baalke. Not only did the teams scrimmage outside of Denver in the summer, they later worked out a trade deal that sent tight end Vernon Davis from the 49ers to the Broncos. Davis is now a free agent.
If Kaepernick is off their roster, the 49ers would have three quarterbacks signed for 2016: Gabbert, Dylan Thompson, an undrafted rookie last season, and Thaddeus Lewis, with whom the 49ers agreed to terms on a one-year deal Wednesday. Lewis was on coach Chip Kelly’s roster in Philadelphia last year.
There has been plenty of speculation the team could turn to former Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III, who was released this week and can sign with any team.
The 49ers also have the seventh pick in the draft where Cal quarterback Jared Goff might be available.