SANTA CLARA -- Blaine Gabbert will begin the 2016 season like he ended 2015: Starting a game against the Rams.
Chip Kelly announced that Gabbert had won the 49ers' quarterback competition and that the player he was competing against, Colin Kaepernick, would be the backup Sept. 12 against Los Angeles.
Gabbert replaced Kepernick after eight games last season. While Kaepernick was recovering from shoulder, knee and thumb surgeries in the spring -- and a sore throwing shoulder last month -- Gabbert has run the team's first-string offense. That constancy, Kelly said, helped earn Gabbert the starting role.
“I think the whole body of work, from April until today,” Kelly said. “I think his grasp and command of what we’re doing. He’s a good fit for what we want to get accomplished. And I have a lot of confidence in what he can give to us offensively.”
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Christian Ponder, who was painting his house when the 49ers called last month, also won a roster spot, although Kelly indicated Ponder would be inactive in Week 1. Rookie Jeff Driskel was released Saturday but could wind up back with the team when the practice squad is created Sunday.
“I’ve always kept three (quarterbacks), I think you need to have three in this league with the injury rate of quarterbacks,” Kelly said. “I’ve never been comfortable with -- and I know people do it -- but I’ve never been comfortable with keeping two. I think you need to have three.”
Kelly also praised Ponder’s performance in the preseason. Short on passers due to Kaepernick’s sore shoulder, the 49ers signed Ponder on Aug. 16. Four days later, he threw a touchdown pass in a preseason game against Denver. He had two rushing touchdowns in Thursday’s preseason finale against San Diego.
Gabbert finished with the team’s highest passer rating of the preseason, 90. 3. Ponder was second at 85.1
Kelly said he felt that while Kaepernick has been cleared medically to play, he still is not back to full strength after three surgeries kept him out of most practices this spring. “He still has some work to do,” Kelly said. “He’s not up to the playing weight that he was when he was successful here. And he’ll continue to work on that.”
Still, that Kelly would pledge to have Kaepernick in uniform -- at least early on -- is significant.
The quarterback already is guaranteed $12.3 million this season. He could earn another $2 million if he is on the active roster for all 16 games. More than that, he would be guaranteed another $14.5 million next year if he suffers a significant injury this season and is still hurt on April 1.
Washington went through a similar scenario last year with its quarterback, Robert Griffin III, making him inactive during the season instead of exposing him to an injury.
Kelly also reiterated that Kaepernick's protest during the national anthem, which has been a week-long national story, has not been a distraction to the 49ers. Kaepernick has not stood during the anthem this preseason to draw attention to racial issues, including police brutality, in this country.
Most recently, the police union for officers who work 49ers games in Santa Clara said its members could boycott the team's games if the 49ers don't discipline Kaepernick for what he's said about police.
"When he's here … he's all about football and all about work, and that's what I've seen since he's been here," Kelly said. "He continues to display that every day he's in this building. How he's handled himself and how he's been with us -- I have no issues with Kap at all."
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