Coach Chip Kelly on Tuesday said Colin Kaepernick remains one of his top two quarterbacks and the 49ers will decide on a Week 1 starter sometime after Thursday’s preseason finale against the San Diego Chargers.
Kelly said Kaepernick will play in San Diego but Blaine Gabbert will not. The reason, Kelly said, is Gabbert has taken 43 snaps in the preseason while Kaepernick has only 13.
When training camp began, Kelly intended to split the first-team snaps evenly between the two quarterbacks. Kaepernick’s fatigued throwing shoulder, however, restricted him in five practices and caused him to miss the first two preseason games.
That Kelly still sees Kaepernick as at least the second-best quarterback seems to suggest he will be on the opening-day roster. Because of issues involving Kaepernick, however, speculation is rampant the 49ers could release him before the 53-man roster is set Saturday.
Kaepernick will earn $11.9 million this year no matter what. But the 49ers would save $2 million in roster bonuses if he is not on the roster, and more significantly, they would not risk Kaepernick suffering a serious injury. If he were still hurt beyond April 1, the team would owe him $14.5 million next year.
Kaepernick’s national anthem protest – he sat while the anthem was performed at the first three preseason games – also may be viewed as a distraction. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, a White House spokesman, police, civil rights leaders and nearly every NFL coach has commented on the matter since it became public late Friday night.
Kelly said he hasn’t felt mounting pressure because of Kaepernick’s actions.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “And I think when you talk to our players, they are focused on the 2016 season and how good a team the San Francisco 49ers can be. I think, like we’ve said all along, we recognize his right to express his feelings, but that doesn’t affect what we do when we get here at 8:15 in the morning until we leave here at 8 o’clock at night.”
Kelly also insisted there’s been no discussion about the final roster yet. The coach noted that while he will have a voice in the matter, he doesn’t choose the final 53-man lineup. That responsibility falls to general manager Trent Baalke, whose relationship with Kaepernick – the two recently had their first sit-down discussion of the year – remains strained.
“The final say is Trent’s and that’s the way it should be,” Kelly said. “But it’s not like I can say, ‘Hey, I like these eight guys,’ and he’s like, ‘I don’t care about those eight guys. We’re going this way.’ We’ve got a really cooperative relationship as we’re handling the team and moving forward, and I think the one thing about it is we see things the same way in terms of how to build a football team.”
Kelly said he and his staff have not set the lineup for Thursday. But it appears as if few would-be starters will be on the field for long, if at all. For instance, Kelly said Kaepernick will not operate behind the first-team offensive line as he did Friday against the Green Bay Packers.
Kelly also noted Kaepernick is not yet at full strength following his three recent surgeries, which kept him out of the weight room and left him lighter than he was before the procedures.
“He’s not the same size he was when he played,” Kelly said. “I don’t know the exact playing weight he was at, because I wasn’t here before. But he’ll be the first to tell you that, that’s he’s not where he was before.”
Asked if Kaepernick is a greater injury risk because he’s not yet back to full size and strength, Kelly said, “I think that’s with any player. Whether it’s Glenn Dorsey or L.J. McCray or Colin Kaepernick, any player coming off an injury, that’s a concern.”
Kaepernick has been on a vegan diet for the past nine months. However, he said Tuesday that hasn’t affected his ability to gain weight and he feels healthier now than he did before he changed diets.