When teams strip it all down and start over, the results in the beginning of the process generally aren’t pretty. In any rebuilding process, young players are inserted into a roster, they learn on the job, and often make mistakes that prove costly. Still, you live with that because it’s part of their development, and eventually those mistakes will lessen and plays will start to get made. That tends to be the plan, and that’s what you’d have to assume was the thought process of the San Francisco 49ers moving into 2016.
Usually, teams who are starting over like the Niners are want to make sure they have a plan at the most important position in sports, the quarterback. Now more than ever, the NFL is a passing league, and if a franchise really wants to sustain any real success they have to have a long-term answer at QB. Sure, you can win with a great defense and a conservative offense, but the window with those kinds of rosters is a small one (see the 49ers from 2011-2013).
So, with the Niners in clear rebuild mode and no real answer behind center, one would assume quarterback would have had a high priority this past offseason. Um, no. GM Trent Baalke doesn’t seem to believe you need a good quarterback to win, instead feeling you just have to run the ball and play good defense. He treats the position like an afterthought. Unfortunately for San Francisco, his approach is outdated and is one of the main reasons why the 49ers are such a bad football team.
Let’s take a walk down memory lane, all the way back to April of 2016 and the NFL Draft. The 49ers went into the weekend with two lame ducks at the position in QB Blaine Gabbert and QB Colin Kaepernick. The former is in the last year of his deal, and the latter is basically on a year-to-year contract (and the 49ers spent most of the winter trying to trade him anyway). The two of them had just muddled through a season in which San Francisco scored an unsightly 238 points or 14.8 per game, and couldn’t move the ball at all on offense. Gabbert was 8-27 in his career as a starter, and the regressing Kaepernick had lost 10 of his last 13 starts.
Given the options, the mindset of the team should have been to be aggressive in the draft and take a quarterback in the first three or four rounds. Looking at the draft board, it’s not like there weren’t quarterbacks to take a chance on late in the first round and beyond. QB Paxton Lynch was taken two picks before the 49ers selected G Joshua Garnett at the end of the first. Could the 49ers have topped the trade the Denver Broncos made and selected him? Probably, and Lynch looks to have a bright future. The next quarterbacks taken were QB Christian Hackenberg (second round), QB Jacoby Bressett (third round), QB Cody Kessler (third round), QB Connor Cook (fourth round) and QB Dak Prescott (fourth round). All of these players would have been a worthy selection for the Niner’s, and some of them (especially Prescott) have already played well after being forced into action.
The 49ers could have had a realistic shot at any of the names mentioned above, but they instead traded up for Garnett (who may end up being a fine player but can’t even crack the lineup yet), and selected two cornerbacks (CB Will Redmond and CB Rashard Robinson) in the third and fourth rounds. While Robinson looks like a good pick, the 49ers didn’t need to draft the same position back-to-back, especially considering they’ve taken seven corners in the past three years. Also, Redmond was coming off and ACL injury (insert joke here).
Ultimately, Baalke waited until the sixth round and selected a project in QB Jeff Driskel. While Driskel was raw, there were some serious physical talents there, and he seemed like someone you could keep around and maybe try to develop. Instead, the 49ers cut him and went with veteran QB Christian Ponder, who’s basically the same guy as Gabbert. Ponder, a failed first-round pick who wasn’t even with a team when training camp began, is never active on game day. Why would you keep a veteran you know isn’t very good, over a rookie who might be, just to keep him inactive every week?
As most expected, the 49ers quarterback situation has been a disaster so far in 2016, and Gabbert’s play has arguably cost the team wins in each of the last two weeks. He routinely overthrows wide open receivers down the field, and can’t move the offense with any consistency. In turn, San Francisco is 1-4, and the season looks basically over. Kaepernick will probably get a shot soon, but he hasn’t played well in years. Can he turn it around in HC Chip Kelly’s offense? I guess so, but it’s far from a sure thing. Now would be the perfect time to insert a young option you could see being the answer at some point, but the 49ers don’t have anyone like that on their roster. The reason is because their general manager and his staff don’t really seem to get it, and that’s a scary thought for the future of the franchise.