The San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback meetings will be crowded this offseason. Will they have enough chairs?
Though the first chair isn’t in question – starter Alex Smith agreed to a three-year deal last week to remain with the team – there now is some uncertainty on who will occupy the second, third and fourth chairs. Who gets the job as Smith’s backup and who gets to be the backup to the backup? And will the 49ers somehow retain four quarterbacks in 2012, or is this a game of musical chairs that will squeeze somebody out next August?
The Niners created something rare – interest in backup quarterbacks – when they signed Josh Johnson last week.
Johnson, 25, who was a standout at the University of San Diego under current 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, has been in the NFL four seasons with the Tampa Bay Bucs after being a fifth-round pick in 2008. The Oakland native, a 6-foot-3, 205-pounder who can run, has appeared in 26 games (five as a starter) and has completed 96-of-177 throws (54.2 percent) for 1,042 yards, five TDs and 10 interceptions. He’s also rushed for 254 yards on 37 carries (6.9-yard average).
He’ll compete for the No. 2 quarterback job against Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers’ second-round pick from Nevada in 2011. Also on the roster is former Wisconsin standout Scott Tolzien, who signed with the Chargers as an undrafted free agent in 2011 but was released in the team’s final cuts and picked up by the 49ers. In his preseason audition with San Diego, Tolzien completed 25 of 40 passes for 302 yards, one TD and one interception, but did not appear in any games for San Francisco after being acquired in early September.
Niners GM Trent Baalke, on signing Johnson to a two-year deal that could be worth up to $5 million, called Johnson “a promising young player” who has experience in Harbaugh’s West Coast system. “Josh has shown promise in limited action, both as a backup and starter at the NFL level,” Baalke said.
Johnson told reporters that he’s not sure how much playing time he’ll get, or what his role will be. Kaepernick, who had a very productive career at Nevada and was in competition for the starting job last preseason with Smith, has been presumed to be the team’s quarterback of the future – although Smith is just 27 years old.
Johnson says he’ll just compete and let the situation sort itself out.
“I’ve been in worse situations,” he told the Associated Press. “I’ve been in camps where there were five guys. It’s about taking advantage of the opportunity that you get.”
Johnson is excited to be reunited with Harbaugh, who recruited him to USD out of high school at Oakland Tech.
“I know the success will continue, because I’ve played under this coaching staff already,” Johnson told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group after signing with the 49ers. “I know what they expect out of their players, details that go into the preparation every week. … I’m excited to be part of that again.”
As Inman noted, the Niners are believed to still be very high on Kaepernick’s long-term future. But, by bringing in Johnson, the team now has a more experienced, NFL game-ready QB to throw into the competitive mix. Harbaugh, writes Inman, is “fond of competition,” and the addition of Johnson will provide just that when the Niners get down to business in training camp this summer.
Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle had an interesting conversation with former Cal coach and quarterback guru Roger Theder about Johnson and Kaepernick. Theder has coached them both – when they were in high school -- and says each is “very talented.”
“It would be a toss-up for me which guy would be the better quarterback,” he told Branch.
Theder told Branch he’s a big fan of Smith’s, but believes both Johnson and Kaepernick are ultimately more talented than the 49ers’ No. 1 QB and capable eventually of beating him out.
Of course, the 49ers have much invested in Smith now, and Smith has proven he can lead this team after taking it to the NFC Championship Game last season. Realistically, the battle this season will be to see who’s No. 2.
“I think what Jim is looking for is that work ethic, and I think Josh lost that a little bit at Tampa,” Theder told Branch. “He’s got it back now because he knows what Harbaugh expects. And Colin’s always had that great work ethic. So I think that’s going to be the deciding factor as far as which guy is the better quarterback.”