Can the 49ers find a QB to push Kaepernick?

During his time playing quarterback with the 49ers, Alex Smith always had somebody breathing down his neck. At various points, Smith was beaten out for the starting job by the likes of Tim Rattay, Shaun Hill and J.T. O'Sullivan, but the competition made him better and shaped him into a capable QB. But with Smith gone, who'll do that for Colin Kaepernick while also giving the 49ers a viable backup?

It won't be as easy as you might think for the Niners to find some legitimate competition for Kaepernick, unless you consider holdover Scott Tolzien a guy who can seriously push him at the position.

But as of now, there appears to be quite a gap between Kaepernick and Tolzien, who has yet to throw a regular-season pass in his first two years in the NFL while serving as San Francisco's No. 3 quarterback.

On the San Francisco roster today, with the second week of NFL free agency coming to a close, Tolzien stands not only as Kaepernick's backup for 2013 but also as the team's only other quarterback after the Niners traded Smith to Kansas City earlier this month for draft picks.

It was a given that the Niners would get what they could for Smith and send him elsewhere, because even though it would have been attractive to have Smith back as an elite backup, that would unlikely be a healthy situation for the team with Smith still in the prime of his career and wanting to prove himself as a starter.

But counting on Tolzien as the backup and the top competition for Kaepernick entering training camp also could be unhealthy for the Niners, particularly if something should go awry with Kaepernick's health and the 49ers find themselves forced to put another quarterback on the field.

Tolzien displayed some legitimate skills in the pocket to move the offense during training camp and the preseason last year, and the Niners kept him as their third QB after a challenge from Josh Johnson, who had previous NFL starting experience with Tampa Bay.

But Tolzien doesn't have the kind of skill set that fits with the offense the 49ers are evolving toward with Kaepernick at the controls. The Niners obviously would like to find somebody with those skills, but the current crop of NFL veterans available in free agency doesn't offer many attractive names.

Derek Anderson, Rex Grossman and Byron Leftwich are the top veterans available with proven NFL starting experience, but it's difficult to see any of those guys fitting in with 49ers and what they are looking for at the position. The same goes for once-promising retreads Brady Quinn and Matt Leinart.

Players such as Bruce Gradkowski, Tyler Thigpen and Luke McCown might be the more athletic veteran QB the 49ers are looking for, and there is backup potential among that group. Though he looked good playing for them last summer, the 49ers showed no interest this past month in bringing back Johnson, and he recently signed with the Cincinnati Bengals.

That leaves the Niners looking at other options. And given that their offense is trending toward more inclusion of read-option looks featuring Kaepernick, the need for a backup with similar skills becomes much more consequential.

That's one reason the 49ers had former West Virginia quarterback Pat White in for a workout at their Santa Clara facility this week. White, a college star who was a second-round draft pick by the Miami Dolphins in 2009, was a bust with the Dolphins and lasted only one season with the team, rushing 21 times for 81 yards and failing to complete any of his five passes as a rookie. He was cut in training camp the next summer and hasn't played in the NFL since.

White, 27, worked out for NFL talent evaluators following West Virginia's pro day on March 14 in an attempt to drum up interest for a possible return to the league. The 49ers were one of several teams that had representatives at that event, then had White in for a personal look of their own.

But several observers are skeptical that White can ever play the position at a NFL level after his washout with the Dolphins. That means the Niners may have to look to the college ranks to find a Kaepernick-like prospect to mold for the future and perhaps even back up the 25-year-old Kaepernick now.

It's not a good year for quarterback prospects in the draft – starting-caliber or otherwise – but with 14 picks, the 49ers certainly will have an opportunity to bring in one or more prospects that could run the kind of offense they are building with Kaepernick.

The 49ers are unlikely to have a shot at West Virginia's Geno Smith, an athletic quarterback that can do things that Kaepernick does and may be the first QB selected in the draft. But it becomes a crapshoot after Smith and USC product Matt Barkley, and guys such as Florida State's E.J. Manuel, Miami-Ohio's Zac Dysert, Arizona's Matt Scott and Kansas State's Collin Klein are athletic types that figure to be available to the Niners at some point in the draft – some of them sooner and some of them later.

So that's what it looks like for the 49ers as they embark on determining their new pecking order at quarterback. While the Niners will upgrade the position over the next few months and Tolzien offers some potential, the guy left pushing Kaepernick this season could wind up having to be Kaepernick himself.


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