The 49ers, who began training camp with the NFL’s most closely watched quarterback battle, found themselves Tuesday looking for a healthy arm to get through practice.
The team signed former first-round pick Christian Ponder, who last year spent training camp with the Raiders, to a one-year deal. Earlier Tuesday, the 49ers went through a short, sloppy practice with Blaine Gabbert and rookie Jeff Driskel as the only healthy quarterbacks.
Thad Lewis tore his ACL in Sunday’s preseason loss to the Houston Texans and is out for the season, and Colin Kaepernick is dealing with a fatigued throwing arm and has not attempted a pass in practice in a week. It’s unknown if Kaepernick will be able to participate fully in Wednesday’s or Thursday’s scrimmages against the Denver Broncos in Englewood, Colo., or if he’ll play in Saturday’s preseason game against the Broncos.
Ponder, 28, is part of the same 2011 draft class as Gabbert and Kaepernick. He was taken 12th by the Minnesota Vikings but struggled as Minnesota’s starter. He had a 59.8 completion percentage in four years, with 38 touchdowns, 36 interceptions and a 75.9 passer rating.
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Ponder, 6 foot 2 and 230 pounds, joined the Raiders before the 2015 season, but Matt McGloin beat him out for a roster spot. Ponder briefly joined the Broncos last year when Peyton Manning was injured.
Kaepernick’s last pass in practice was at Kezar Stadium on Wednesday, when his throws seemed to lack their usual velocity. He went through most of the team’s spring sessions without attempting a pass as he recovered from three surgeries, and he said last week his arm simply hadn’t been used to the number of throws – as many as 102 per practice – coach Chip Kelly requires of his quarterbacks.
The 49ers gave Kaepernick an MRI to rule out a more severe issue. Kaepernick has been participating in recent practices but has been limited to handoffs and quarterback keepers.
He said he dealt with arm fatigue as a high school pitcher and usually bounced back quickly from that soreness. Kaepernick said he wanted to get on top of the problem now so it does not linger into the season.
“We’re in preseason practice,” he said. “We don’t play a game for about another month, so we want to make sure we stay ahead of this before we get to the season.”
His condition has left Gabbert as the only quarterback operating the 49ers’ first-team offense.
Gabbert received all the snaps of would-be starters over the last three practices and started Sunday’s game against Houston. He completed 4 of 10 passes for 63 yards and a touchdown in what Kelly called an “up-and-down” performance. On Tuesday, Gabbert completed just two passes in team drills during a practice marked by drops, false starts and encroachment penalties.
After Sunday’s game, Kelly denied Gabbert was now leading what the coach previously billed as an even quarterback competition.
“I don’t look at it as a leg up because we’re going to judge them on their opportunities to get in there and go,” Kelly said. “So if Colin gets in there and does a great job when he gets in there, I’m not going to say, ‘Well, he didn’t get as many snaps as Blaine.’ It’s still going to be judged on who moves our offensive football team the best, who protects the football the best and gives us an opportunity to win games.”
Since November, Kaepernick has had surgeries on his left (non-throwing) shoulder, his right thumb and left knee. All of the procedures were performed at the Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colo., a two-hour drive from where the 49ers and Broncos will practice this week.
It’s not known if Dr. Peter Millett, the lead surgeon for the surgery and recovery, will examine Kaepernick this week. The clinic is affiliated with the Broncos.
Kaepernick spent several months rehabilitating in Vail. During that time, the 49ers and Broncos discussed a trade involving Kaepernick, and the quarterback met with Broncos general manager John Elway. The deal ultimately fell through because Denver wanted Kaepernick to take a significant pay cut.