49ers Mailbag: The battles behind Alex Smith

49ers Mailbag: The battles behind Alex Smith
August 14, 2012, 4:48 pm
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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.