49ers exercising caution with their rookie QB

Of the six quarterbacks selected in the first two rounds of the NFL draft five months ago, all are expected to start at some point in their respective rookie campaigns, but four stayed completely tethered to the sideline for their teams' openers. And for 49ers' Colin Kaepernick, it could be that way for a while – and maybe his entire rookie season.


Expect the designation "DNP," or at least "did not start," to remain attached to their names for a little while longer, in Kaepernick's case maybe a whole lot longer.

Two of the rookies, top overall pick Cam Newton of Carolina and Cincinnati second-rounder Andy Dalton, started in the opener. Newton, of course, performed at a record level, throwing for 442 yards, the most ever by a rookie in his first regular-season start.

Dalton played only a half before suffering a forearm injury and, even though it was Bengals backup Bruce Gradkowski who threw a winning touchdown pass versus Cleveland, the rookie is 1-0 in the league's record books.

Kaepernick, Jake Locker (Titans), Blaine Gabbert (Jaguars) and Christian Ponder (Vikings) combined for a goose-egg. And it might not be until the second month of the season, if even then, before any of the four hatches a start.

One of the overarching themes of the lockout-riddled offseason was the speculation about how quickly some of the league's "young guns" might play. For now, though, the six-shooters are mostly holstered.

Consider the circumstances:

--- Despite throwing for an anemic 39 yards and compiling a 47.9 rating that barely registered as a blip on the passer radar screen, Donovan McNabb was only a part of the systematic problem with the paltry Minnesota offense. McNabb, who completed only two second-half passes in a loss at San Diego, spent much of the day running for his life behind a porous Vikings offensive line. First-year coach Leslie Frazier might not want to subject Ponder to such potential abuse. Said Frazier: "We had a lot more problems than just (McNabb)."

--- Although Tennessee dropped its opener, Matt Hasselbeck played within the system orchestrated by new offensive coordinator Chris Palmer, and rang up a respectable 93.1 rating while throwing for 263 yards. Locker possesses extraordinary athleticism, but steadiness appears to be the operative word for the Titans.

--- In defeating the Titans, journeyman Luke McCown of Jacksonville was anything but spectacular, but Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio isn't exactly a big-splash guy and is more results-oriented than high profile. Plus, the eight-year veteran coach might need to win to extend his tenure, and the door is ajar in the division with the absence of nemesis Peyton Manning from Indianapolis. Gabbert demonstrated promise and some poise in the preseason, but that might not be enough to wrest the job in the short-term from McCown, who had a 91.5 passer rating and followed the script.

--- Alex Smith notched just 124 yards passing, but he completed 15 of 20 passes and had a 90.4 rating in San Francisco's 33-17 victory over Seattle. There hasn't been so much as a public chink in the confidence rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh has demonstrated in Smith, the much-criticized former No. 1 overall pick. The shortcomings of Smith aside, the feisty Kaepernick was ragged at times in preseason play.

Make that, very ragged.

Kaepernick, getting the bulk of preseason action among San Francisco quarterbacks, came out of the exhibition season with a horrible 23.9 passer rating. He completed just 48 percent of his throws, averaged just 5.1 yards per pass attempt and threw five interceptions without a throwing a touchdown pass. He also was sacked eight times for 48 yards in losses.

Harbaugh has said he is comfortable with Kaepernick as Smith's backup, but with undrafted rookie Scott Tolzien as the third quarterback on the roster, the 49ers are likely keeping an eye on the veteran quarterbacks out there who are available for hire.

Quarterback-needy teams were anxious to choose their presumptive field generals of the future in the draft, with four quarterbacks off the board in the first dozen picks, and six in the top 36. Kaepernick was the sixth QB taken with the fourth pick of the second round.

Those teams, however, might not be so eager to play them, which appears to be the case with the 49ers.

"You can't just make a knee-jerk (reaction)," said one offensive assistant coach from one of the teams that chose a rookie quarterback in the first two rounds.

It wasn't until the third week of the season in 2010 that a coach made a switch at the starting quarterback spot that was based on performance, and not attrition. Coaches have not been as loathe the past three or four seasons to engineer such changes as they were in previous years – there were 11 non-injury related switches at starting quarterback, for instance, in 2010 – but turning to a rookie is a dicey undertaking.

Especially a rookie as raw as Kaepernick, in the 49ers' case.

And there is this element as well: All four of the franchises cited above don't have their bye weeks, arguably the optimum time to make a change, until after five weeks of the season. Two of the clubs don't have byes until right around the mid-point of the campaign. The 49ers' bye comes on Oct. 23, after San Francisco has played its first six games.

In a league where coaches are under pressure to win, and the weekly scrutiny is more intense than ever, the old adage "the future is now" is truer than ever. But that doesn't mean it applies to rookie quarterbacks.

It might be wise for the starters in Tennessee, Jacksonville, Minnesota and San Francisco to keep looking over their shoulders. But it certainly looks a little early to put their heads on a swivel.


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