Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh may have a tough decision to make at the end of camp about which quarterback to release.
Having great depth at quarterback is always a good thing in the NFL, where a starter is always just one play from being carted off the field.
But what does a team do when it has three No. 2 quarterbacks?
Can the San Francisco 49ers afford to keep four QBs on the roster when the regular season opens? Probably not – which could make for an interesting few weeks of training camp and exhibition games.
The 49ers began camp with Alex Smith the unquestioned No. 1. Meanwhile, Colin Kaepernick, last year’s No. 2, and Josh Johnson – a free agent signed this offseason – were expected to battle for the primary backup job.
Lost in the shadow of the Kaepernick-Johnson battle was Scott Tolzien, the second-year pro from Wisconsin who was signed at the end of training camp last season when he was one of the final cuts of the San Diego Chargers.
Now, however, Tolzien’s name is suddenly in the mix for a roster spot. After his opening peformance in Friday night’s exhibition victory over the Vikings, the No. 4 QB is now in the hunt for the No. 2 job.
Against the Vikings, Tolzien was 10-of-13 for 84 yards, and his performance – the first time he’s played in a game in a 49ers uniform – drew raves.
Niners safety Donte Whitner dubbed him “Baby Drew Brees” for the way he picked the defense apart, made his reads and accurately delivered the ball.
“The other day, he looked as good as anyone,” Whitner told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group.
Whitner went on to praise him as a young quarterback who seems to play beyond his experience level.
“He understands the reads,” he told Inman. “We can hardly trick him and he knows where to go with the football.”
Since graduating from Wisconsin, Tolzien has been battling a numbers game.
He went undrafted, yet the Chargers were high on him, signing him as a free agent. He played well last summer for San Diego, but the Chargers didn’t have a spot for him and he was released.
The 49ers picked him up in September, and he stayed with the team the entire season, yet never got a chance to play. Entering 2012, he was the fourth QB in what likely amounts to a game of musical chairs in which three quarterbacks will get jobs. Smith is a lock, and so is Kaepernick, last year’s second-round pick who also looked impressive against Minnesota.
That would leave Tolzien to battle Johnson, the former QB at University of San Diego under Jim Harbaugh, now the 49ers head coach. Johnson and Harbaugh have a history and a good rapport, and Johnson’s experience in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Bucs was thought to be his strong point – that Johnson might even unseat Kaepernick at No. 2.
Tolzien, however, may force the 49ers to make a tough choice. Harbaugh has liked what he’s seen. After Friday night’s game, he told Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle that Tolzien did “some really exceptional things.”
“He’s been real accurate in practice and in the game,” the coach told Inman. “He has good command of the offense and gets the ball out quick.”
For his part, Johnson says he just wants a chance to play and show what he can do. He can see the numbers and knows somebody’s going to be left off the roster.
Johnson completed two of his four passes Friday night, but he was the fourth quarterback to see action.
“All I really care about is the opportunity to go out and compete and show what I can do,” Johnson told the Chronicle. “Whatever happens is going to happen. It’s out of my control. … All I want to do is go out there, lead the offense, put good things on tape and let the chips fall where they fall. That’s the NFL.”
Round 2 of the quarterback competition derby is this Saturday night, with the 49ers playing the Houston Texans.