Quality backups available if 49ers interested

The 49ers appear likely to go forward at quarterback this year with Alex Smith, but now that they're a serious contender again, can they be satisfied to go into another season with two inexperienced youngsters behind him? Not a lot of teams will be looking for starting QBs during this offseason, but there will be a market for top backups, and several will be available if the Niners are interested.

The dynamics probably have changed a bit, but when it comes to the quarterback market in the NFL, the old model of supply and demand still holds.

Except there might now be this twist: In a league where the relatively small need for starters belies the perception of an overall lack of quality at the position, the supply might now actually surpass the demand.

Granted, for years, NFL observers have decried the dearth of quarterback excellence. But ask yourself: Looking ahead to 2012, how many franchises are really desperate for a new starter?

The 49ers – who would have fit into that category most of the past decade entering this past season – certainly don't. Not after the career season put forth in 2011 by Alex Smith, who finally fulfilled some of the potential that made him the No. 1 overall selection of the 2005 NFL draft.

Smith is a free agent this year, but it seems practically certain that he will return to the 49ers.

Coach Jim Harbaugh, who praised Smith throughout the year last season even when there were still doubters, already has said this year that the 49ers will continue to stick with Smith to see where he can take the team after San Francisco surprisingly advanced all the way to the NFC Championship game last season with Smith at the controls.

So chances are that the market for No. 2 quarterbacks this spring and summer will produce a lot more action than the moves for starters.

One reason, as noted, is there aren't that many teams that need starters, and there are only so many to go around. Another determinant is that the subset of potential backups is a deep one, and several teams will dip into the available talent pool.

Could the 49ers be one of them? They went the entire season last year with too rookies – Colin Kaepernick and Scott Tolzien – as the backups to Smith, who took every significant snap for the team during the season.

Now that they've established themselves as a true contender, the 49ers may consider the need for a veteran backup to give the position a little more experience while the team continues to groom Kaepernick as a viable starting option for the future.

But the Niners feel good about their two youngsters behind Smith and may just decide to continue with the same group of quarterbacks that played for the team last season.

Elsewhere, it's easy to suggest that Kansas City needs a change atop its depth chart, but the Chiefs have invested heavily in Matt Cassel and would like to have pending unrestricted free agent Kyle Orton back to battle him for the No. 1 job.

The critics aside, odds are pretty good that Tarvaris Jackson (Seattle), Christian Ponder (Minnesota) and Kevin Kolb (Arizona) all open next season as the starters for their respective franchises, even though the Seahawks and Cardinals, respectively, weren't exactly thrilled with the play of their new additions at quarterback last year.

So what's that leave, four maybe five teams, that might have changes, in part based on what occurs in Indianapolis with Peyton Manning?

One would think that Manning, either with the Colts or somewhere else, fills one of the openings, if he's healthy. Green Bay backup Matt Flynn appears attractive to a number of clubs as a starter. Orton could exit the Chiefs for a starting chance in another precinct.

As first noted by The Sports Xchange two weeks ago, and a theory that suddenly has gained some traction nationally, Jason Campbell of Oakland could be a short-term bridge solution somewhere. Even Vince Young, the caddy for Michael Vick last season with the Eagles, but a onetime No. 3 overall pick in the draft, could be an option for some team.

Factor in, too, that one of the two highly regarded prospects in the draft, either Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III, or maybe both, could start as rookies.

The upshot of the quarterback carousel: There figures to be more than the normal complement of decent backups available.

And we're not just talking exclusively about older, fallback-type guys who are in decline, such as Charlie Batch, Byron Leftwich, Mark Brunell, Jake Delhomme, David Carr, Sage Rosenfels, Derek Anderson and others.

The roulette wheel has already begun to spin, with Philadelphia on Thursday signing "street" free agent Trent Edwards, who didn't play in 2011, ostensibly to replace Young and serve as a safety net for young Mike Kafka, a two-year veteran the coaches like a lot.

There will be more to come.

"There are going to be people some (viable) people, for sure, for teams to look at," Denver coach John Fox, who probably will add to veterans to back up Tim Tebow, told The Sports Xchange. "The landscape could change some between now and the start (of free agency), but if you're looking, the situation isn't bad."

The odds that Young will land a starting spot are slim. But, at only 28, he offers some upside still, a veteran with 50 starts on his resume and a solid alternative who can play well in stretches, and is an intriguing change of pace.

The Miami Dolphins have already said they won't attempt to re-sign Chad Henne; and while he has pretty much had uneven results as a starter, the fact remains he is only 26 and might be an upgrade at the No. 2 spot for some club. Assuming Campbell doesn't win a starting job, his resume (69 starts) and relative youth (30) should command some suitors.

Prefer a younger backup-type to develop? How about Pittsburgh's Dennis Dixon, who has only three career starts but is just 27 and possesses terrific athleticism. If the Redskins don't keep free agent Rex Grossman, his experience (57 starts) could make him attractive as a backup.

Yeah, we know, it's Rex Grossman, for cripe's sake. But as a No. 2 guy, he would be an upgrade for many teams.

There are even some unusual alternatives and some unconventional ways for revamping the No. 2 spot on the depth chart.

How about a six-time Pro Bowl passer and former Super Bowl starter? If he is serious about resuming his career, and is willing to settle for a backup spot to do so, Donovan McNabb is a possibility. And this week, David Garrard told The Florida Times-Union and The Sports Xchange that he is healthy again after back surgery that sidelined him in 2011, and wants to play.

The bottom line, if history and projected needs offer any kinds of insights, is that somewhere between one-third and one-half of the franchises in the NFL will swap out their primary backups for 2012. And the pool of quarterbacks who might fill those spots is better than normal.

Said Chicago coach Lovie Smith, whose team was 1-5 after starter Jay Cutler was lost for the season to a thumb injury, and who vowed on Thursday at the Combine to be better prepared this time around: "(It's) not bad, really. Not bargain-basement shopping. There's a little something in just about any area where you might be looking. A few younger guys. Older guys. And some sort of in-between guys, too. A decent bunch. And, let's face it, you need a (backup)."

Last season, less than half the teams in the league, actually only 14 of the 32, used the same starter for all 16 games.

Quarterbacks regarded as backups started 116 games and registered an aggregate record of just 40-76, a winning percentage of just more than one-third. The numbers are skewed a bit by a few things: Orton began the season as the Denver starter, was released, and signed with the Chiefs, where he won two of three starts as a backup.

In Jacksonville, rookie Blaine Gabbert became the starter after only two contests, and his 14 starts are counted among those made by backups. Oakland's Carson Palmer was acquired via trade to be the starter after Campbell was injured, but he technically counted as a backup.

But even given those disclaimers, the cumulative record of backups wasn't pretty, and the chances of winning with a No. 2 quarterback weren't great. There were five legitimate backups who each started at least three games, and were winless. Only two backups with more than three starts posted winning records, and one of them was Tebow. In fact, just six backups, regardless of how many games they started, had winning marks in 2011.

"It's a hard, hard job," Cleveland backup Seneca Wallace, who was 0-3 after starter Colt McCoy went down with a concussion, told The Sports Xchange.

Hard as it may be, in 2012, teams will try to do better.

"Teams have to cover their (butts)," one league quarterbacks coach, who already has logged considerable time reviewing videotape of many of the veterans presumed to be available in free agency, told The Sports Xchange this week.

"And there are some (butt)-coverers who'll be out there this year."

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