Manning to 49ers? And other QB strategies

January 26, 2012, 5:41 pm
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Were the 49ers satisfied with the play of quarterback Alex Smith?Yes.Are they expecting the position to be better in 2012?Yes.So, how do the 49ers achieve improvement at the game's most important position?One strategy is to do nothing. Remember, Smith turns 28 in May. He is just now beginning to reach his athletic prime. Theoretically, he should continue to get better for several more seasons. The 49ers also selected a quarterback in last year's draft to groom for the future.
Another solution for the 49ers is to aggressively pursue another option."We said that we'd get the best quarterbacks in here and throw out the balls," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said recently. "That's a position that's earned. It's never an anointed position."So as the 49ers head into the offseason, there are four possible paths for them to take:Status quo
Harbaugh described Smith as "elite." If we take that comment at face value, there is no reason for the 49ers to make a change when the club already has an elite quarterback entering his second season in the same system.Smith, of course, is scheduled to be a free agent. In his first six NFL seasons with the 49ers he averaged 5.5 million in annual salary. In the recently completed season, he earned 6.25 million after maxing out his incentive package.He would figure to be in line for a pay bump after posting career-best numbers en route to the 49ers' 13-3 regular season and appearance in the NFC Championship Game.If the 49ers keep the same three quarterbacks on their roster, the position still should be better in 2012. With greater familiarity in the system, Smith would be expected to improve. Also, the 49ers traded up in the second round to draft Colin Kaepernick. He should be better-prepared to play with a full offseason of work with the coaches.Scott Tolzien, whom the 49ers claimed off waivers from the San Diego Chargers after the final cuts, is still around. The 49ers will get a full offseason to evaluate him in the team's offense.Big splash
The name this offseason is Peyton Manning.In the past, speculation centered around such quarterbacks as Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick, Kevin Kolb and Vince Young.But the one veteran quarterback the 49ers went after last offseason was Matt Hasselbeck, and the 49ers thought they were going to get him. Hasselbeck, instead, decided to sign with the Tennessee Titans.Harbaugh has said repeatedly the 49ers will always look to upgrade every position. But, clearly, if the 49ers spend the kind of money it would take for Manning, they'd have to make sacrifices elsewhere on their roster.Manning turns 36 in March, and it seems unlikely he'll return to the Indianapolis Colts. He's been in one system his entire career. He missed the entire 2011 season after undergoing three neck surgeries in 19 months. In September, he underwent a spinal fusion to repair a damaged nerve in his neck that caused weakness in his throwing arm.A healthy Manning would be a significant upgrade, no doubt. But the 49ers would be taking a huge risk, financially, while also rolling the dice on Manning's physical condition.The hottest young free agent is likely to be Green Bay's Matt Flynn, who played well in his limited action as Aaron Rodgers' backup. But would the sizable financial commitment be too much of an investment on an unproven player?Veteran acquisition
Tampa Bay backup quarterback Josh Johnson, a pending unrestricted free agent, remains a legitimate possibility. Of course, Harbaugh coached Johnson at the University of San Diego, and he has referred to him as a "beloved son."The 49ers can add Johnson without taking on much of a financial risk. Then, Johnson would have a chance to compete for his role with the 49ers -- whether as a starter, a backup or the team's No. 3 quarterback.Pick to the mix
The 49ers own the No. 30 overall draft pick, and it seems highly unlikely the club would select a quarterback at that point.After all, the 49ers traded a second-round pick (No. 45), as well as picks in the fourth (No. 108) and fifth (No. 141) to move up last year to select Kaepernick with the 36th overall selection.Still, using a late-round pick on a quarterback can never be ruled out. The 49ers will undoubtedly bring four quarterbacks to camp. Any draft pick would be competing against Tolzien for a spot on the active roster or practice squad.

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