When the 49ers open the 2016 season, Colin Kaepernick will be the starting quarterback.
Or it will be Blaine Gabbert. Or current free agent Robert Griffin III. Or, perhaps, former Cal star Jared Goff.
At this point, even general manager Trent Baalke and head coach Chip Kelly couldn’t say for sure who San Francisco’s quarterback will be on opening day. There are too many variables.
But one thing we do know is that a mobile, accurate passer would best suit Kelly’s spread attack.
Kelly, in fact, has said that for a quarterback to succeed, he must be able to “throw the football” where it’s supposed to be thrown.
“Repetitive accuracy is the No. 1 thing we’re looking for,” he said when he was head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. In fact, said many who covered Kelly and the Eagles, “repetitive accuracy” became a phrase used by Kelly over and over again.
And, if that’s the case, Gabbert might actually be better suited to Kelly’s offense than Kaepernick.
In eight games last season, before he was benched for Gabbert and lost due to injury, Kaepernick completed 59 percent of his throws. For his career, he’s completed 59.9 percent, with a season best of 62.4 percent in 2012.
Gabbert last season completed 63.1 percent of his throws over eight games – a huge improvement from his three seasons in Jacksonville when his percentages were 50.8 in 2011, 58.3 in 2012 and 48.8 in 2013.
There were times in the 2015 season that Gabbert looked to be a much more polished quarterback, and the Sacramento Bee’s Matt Barrows quoted NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell as saying, “I could easily see Gabbert being more effective in Chip’s offense than Kaepernick.”
Though both Gabbert and Kaepernick are mobile and athletic, Kelly has said throwing accuracy is the more important attribute.
“I want a quarterback who has the ability to run and not a running back who can throw,” Kelly said during his Philadelphia tenure. “That’s been the biggest misconception. If there’s an opportunity to get a first down, get it. But in this league, you have to be able to throw the football.”
But there is one big negative for Gabbert in that department, and it’s his third-down conversion rate in 2015.
According to Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, Gabbert’s completions on third downs last season often were short of first downs. He noted that only 38 percent of Gabbert’s third-down completions were good for first downs. By comparison, the less-accurate Kaepernick had a 61 percent conversion rate on his third-down completions.
Kelly, however, told Branch that Gabbert’s low conversion rate – settling for short completions on third down instead of throwing beyond the first-down marker – can’t be held against him because, “I don’t know what he was told to do and I don’t know what the play call was.”
When the 49ers begin their offseason workout program on April 4, Kelly says Gabbert – and any other quarterback in camp – will begin with “a clean slate.”
But even then, questions about who the 49ers’ No. 1 QB will be on opening day are likely to still be unanswered.