49ers Mailbag: The battles behind Alex Smith


49ers Mailbag: The battles behind Alex Smith

Alex Smith's starting position has not been a question in anybody's mind since his play on the practice field during the offseason ended any speculation that free-agent pickup Josh Johnson might have a chance to win the job.And in 13 training-camp practices, Smith has clearly distinguished himself as the 49ers' No. 1 quarterback and, arguably, their most irreplaceable player.That's because the gap between Smith and the next quarterback (whomever that might be) is significant -- in every way.
Colin Kaepernick has the lead for the No. 2 job, but his spot is not entirely secure. The competition for the second and third jobs should lead to some interesting competition over the next three exhibition games.Let's open up the 49ers Mailbag to find out what's on folks' minds . . . Q: Any chance the 49ers keep 4 QBs on the roster? (@robertlong)
I suppose it's possible, but it does not seem likely.After all, seven NFL teams ended last season with two quarterbacks on their 53-man roster. Two teams had four quarterbacks. Both of those teams (Oakland and St. Louis) had injuries to their starters, thus they had only three quarterbacks capable of playing.It does not make sense for teams to keep four quarterbacks because, generally, the No. 3 quarterback receives very little practice time.The starter takes virtually all of the practice snaps as the team prepares for the upcoming opponent. The second-string quarterback tries to stay sharp by running the opposition's plays. A lot of times, the No. 3 quarterback will line up at wide receiver and run pass routes on the scout-team offense. Or, he might play defensive back on the scout defense. That's all a No. 4 quarterback would do, too.So, as much as the 49ers like their four quarterbacks, for the overall roster strength, I think they're going to have to make a difficult decision.But here's why it could happen: There's no difference in keeping three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster and having another tucked away on the practice squad. Either way, it's four quarterbacks going out to practice.The 49ers would be able to retain a fourth quarterback at the beginning of the year. Then, if they get low on numbers at another position, they could make room by releasing the fourth quarterback at that point.It's not likely, but it's definitely an option.Q: It's early but best guess on 3 QB the team keeps? Scott or Josh? (@DTNCA)
I do believe you're correct in assuming Kaepernick is the front-runner for the No. 2 job. But his job is far from wrapped up.Scott Tolzien made a strong impression on me when I attended the NFL scouting combine in 2011. I thought he was terrific. The knock on him then was that he did not have great arm strength. His arm has gotten stronger since then. I think it's pretty noticeable.The thing I like about Tolzien over Johnson is that he can throw from different arm slots, his accuracy is better, and he does not appear to get rattled when there's chaos around him.The 49ers' coaching staff has done a commendable job of getting all four quarterbacks a
lot of repetitions. Every classroom session, every pre-snap read, every post-snap decision and every throw is evaluated.The 49ers awarded Johnson a 350,000 signing bonus as part of a two-year deal to move from Tampa Bay to the South Bay in March. They certainly did not fork over that kind of money with the intention of cutting him.Right now, I'd still place Johnson as the slim favorite -- but his margin is shrinking.Q: Chances Chris Owusu makes team? (@Es_Terible)
Unless there's an injury or two to the receiving corps, I do not believe Owusu has much of a chance at opening the season on the 49ers' 53-man roster.And that might explain the 49ers' approach with him during training camp. Owusu has been very quiet during camp. He has not gotten much action -- certainly less than the other undrafted rookie receivers, Nathan Palmer and Brian Tymes.Therefore, you haven't read much about Owusu during the practice sessions. And that means the other 31 NFL teams have not read much about Owusu, either. After Thursday's practice, the 49ers will close their workouts to the media. So, perhaps, Owusu will get more reps without "scribes, pundits and so-called experts" taking notes.Also, Owusu was an outstanding kickoff returner at Stanford. The 49ers do not even list Owusu on their depth chart at that spot. On Sunday, Jim Harbaugh said I had a valid point when I asked him why Owusu was not returning kicks.Is that because they do not want to put Owusu in a position to risk another concussion? Or is it because they don't want to give Owusu the opportunity to put a fantastic kick return on film for the other clubs to see? Or, simply, is it because they believe LaMichael James, A.J. Jenkins and Tyms are better?We might have our answer after the final cuts if Owusu clears waivers and the 49ers bring him back to the practice squad.

McDonald toasts Shanahan for communication of trade talks

McDonald toasts Shanahan for communication of trade talks

SANTA CLARA -- Tight end Vance McDonald became aware of a report the 49ers had engaged in trade talks involving him at his brother’s wedding in Austin, Texas.

But McDonald said he did not give it much thought because he had another immediate priority.

“I still had my best man’s speech to do,” McDonald said.

Later that evening during last month's draft, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan called McDonald to keep him in the loop. There was no trade, and McDonald returned to Santa Clara on Monday to continue participation in the 49ers’ offseason program.

“The first thing I told him was, ‘Man, there aren’t a lot of coaches that would do this,’” McDonald said of his talk with Shanahan. “He just wanted to fill me in.”

Nearly four weeks later, it is as if nothing ever happened.

“The only trade discussions we had was when another team asked us about Vance on draft day,” Shanahan said this week. “And after a team asked us about Vance then we asked other teams if they’d be interested in that same thing.”

McDonald said he completely understood why the 49ers would check with other teams around the league to see what they could acquire in a trade.

“Basically, it’s just like any other team in the NFL would do,” McDonald said. “If you’re a 2-14 team, obviously, there are a lot of things you can improve on, a lot of spots that need to be filled. There are a lot of things you need to improve upon in the offseason. So if teams are going to call and inquire about you, then obviously the next step is to … call around to every other team.

“So that’s exactly what happened to me. It isn’t like they don’t want me here. There was never a lack of communication on any level.”

Even before he knew his immediate future with the 49ers, McDonald said he tried to maintain the proper state of mind.

“I had the mindset this isn’t going to change anything,” McDonald said. “I’m going to end up where I end up and I’m just going to continue doing what I’m doing, which is do everything to be a better football player.”

McDonald enters the fifth year of his NFL career after signing a new deal in December that amounts to a three-year, $19.7 million extension. Three days later, the 49ers placed McDonald on injured reserve with a shoulder injury.

McDonald was on pace for his best season as a pass-catcher. In 11 games, he had 24 receptions for 391 yards and four touchdowns.

Now, he is competition for a spot in the 49ers’ offense, along with fifth-round draft pick George Kittle, undrafted rookie Cole Hikutini, and veterans Logan Paulsen, Garrett Celek and Blake Bell.

McDonald said he likes what Shanahan has brought to the 49ers, including added responsibilities of the tight end position.

“Last year, all we talked about was how fast our pace was,” McDonald said. “With Kyle, it’s insanely quick. He’s a very detailed guy. It’s interesting to hear him present information. You try to apply it and play with the same mindset that he has. It’s a task that we all enjoy doing.

“We (tight ends) are the end of the line. There’s communication with us and the wide receivers and running backs. We’re also in command with receiving corps. There are a lot of things on our plate. Hopefully, this doesn’t get back to the wide receivers, but we’re supposed to be smarter than them. It’s a fun job to have. We don’t try to rub it in too much.”

Chip Kelly returns to college football -- as analyst

Chip Kelly returns to college football -- as analyst

Chip Kelly is back in college football.

The former Oregon coach, who served as 49ers head coach last season, signed a multiyear deal as an ESPN analyst, the network announced Friday morning. He will work predominantly on pre-games, halftimes and in studio wraps each Saturday on ESPN2.

“Over the last 30 years, I have experienced football from one perspective – as a coach,” Kelly said in a statement. “Working in television will allow me to see the game from a different angle; simultaneously, I‘ll provide viewers an insight to the mindset of a coach and team while offering alternative views of various situations.

“Once I decided to make the move to TV, my familiarity with ESPN, combined with their high-quality production and vital role in college football, it was easily the best network suited for me.”

Kelly, 53, was fired on the evening of the 49ers’ season finale. The 49ers went 2-14 under Kelly and set the franchise record with 13 consecutive losses. Their only victories came against the Los Angeles Rams. Kelly also auditioned with FOX for the analyst job vacated when John Lynch became 49ers general manager, sources told NBC Sports Bay Area.

Kelly served as Oregon’s head coach from 2009 to ’12. His teams compiled a record of 46-7. Under Kelly, the Ducks advanced to the 2011 national championship game, losing to Auburn 22-19.

Kelly won the AP College Football Coach of the Year. He twice won the Pac-10 coach of the year. He left Oregon to become head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013. After his first two NFL teams went 10-6, Kelly was fired in 2015 with one game remaining in the season. The Eagles were 6-9 at the time of Kelly's firing.

“Chip is one of the most innovative football minds of our generation,” ESPN senior coordinating producer Lee Fitting said. “As a coach, he saw the game from a unique perspective, never afraid to take an unconventional approach. We want him to bring that mentality to our college football coverage each week, offering fans a varying viewpoint outside of the conventional thought process.”