Will Niners keep McCown or look for new No. 3 QB?
The 49ers head into cutdown week with an abundance of riches at some areas of their roster but with an eye toward adding players at other positions, including quarterback. Make that, particularly quarterback.
The team currently has four quarterbacks on the roster. But the Nos. 3 and 4 passers, veteran newcomer Josh McCown and rookie McLeod Bethel-Thompson, haven't seen any action this preseason.
Meanwhile, starter Alex Smith and rookie backup Colin Kaepernick were decidedly underwhelming in the third preseason game against the Houston Texans on Saturday. They were a combined 8 of 22 for 69 yards and each threw an interception. Kaepernick's gaffe was returned 73 yards for a touchdown.
That continued a trend of shaky play for both quarterbacks since the exhibition season began earlier this month.
Neither quarterback has completed more than 49 percent of his passes during those games. Smith will carry an unsightly passer rating of 33.0 into Thursday’s preseason finale against the Chargers in San Diego. Kaepernick’s rating is only slightly better at 35.1. Neither QB has thrown a touchdown pass.
"I think if you're looking to find something positive to say offensively, it's not easy tonight," coach Jim Harbaugh said after Saturday’s game. "I'm not going to single anybody out. The players will hear it from us. They don't need to read about it as well."
With Harbaugh having gained a reputation as a quarterback guru in college before leaving Stanford in January to join the 49ers, San Francisco has determinedly focused on the development of Smith and Kaepernick with the expectation they could handle the Nos. 1 and 2 roles heading into the season.
The 49ers now might need to consider alterations in that plan. San Francisco signed McCown on Aug. 17 to a one-year deal for the league minimum, about $810,000. The thinking then was that McCown, should he display that he’s capable, would be available as veteran insurance as the No. 3 QB behind Smith and Kaepernick. McCown then ostensibly could move ahead of the inexperienced rookie to take over in an emergency should something happen to Smith early in the regular season, buying more time for Kaepernick to get comfortable at the pro level.
But McCown has not taken a snap in either of the two preseason games since he was signed, and the 49ers could easily cut him and add another third quarterback if they see someone they like on the waiver wire. With what they’ve seen so far from their top quarterbacks in game situations, that certainly is an option the team is considering.
All NFL teams must winnow their rosters from 90 to 80 players on Tuesday and then reduce them to 53 players on Saturday.
Other areas where the 49ers could add bodies include tight end and outside linebacker.
The team has big plans for both Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker, and there will be plenty of two-tight end formations this season featuring those two players.
However, they also like to use a third tight end and haven't settled on anyone for that role after Nate Byham suffered an ACL tear early in training camp. Undrafted rookie Konrad Reuland and journeyman Nate Lawrie currently occupy that role for the 49ers.
Meanwhile, the team tried to sign ex-Bills linebacker Aaron Maybin when he was released earlier this month. That signals that they feel they still can upgrade that position.
Ahmad Brooks and Parys Haralson are the starters, and rookie Aldon Smith will have a big role at right outside linebacker this season. But the No. 4 player at the position, Antwan Applewhite, hasn't had a big impact since he was added as a free agent at the beginning of August. The 49ers will look for upgrades at that position.
The 49ers do, however, have a lot of linemen, so many, in fact, that general manager Trent Baalke is entertaining trades for his interior linemen.
Draft picks Daniel Kilgore, a guard, and Mike Person, a tackle, have looked good in training camp and have earned roster spots. That could make a veteran like Tony Wragge, who has played well this offseason, or even versatile Adam Snyder expendable.
There also is good depth on the defensive line. Beyond the three starters, the top backups are Ricky Jean Francois and Will Tukuafu. But a trio of undrafted rookies – Ian Williams, Demarcus Dobbs and Sealver Siliga – also have played well and made impressions.
The 49ers must figure out which of those players to retain on the regular roster and which will make it to their practice squad, an option that would mean each youngster would have to first clear waivers.
With plenty of depth at safety, the 49ers could keep five players – starters Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson as well as backups Reggie Smith, Madieu Williams and C.J. Spillman. Two other good-looking players, Curtis Taylor and Chris Maragos, are eligible for the practice squad.
Both of those young veterans were on the 53-man roster last year. Taylor, now entering his third NFL season, played in five games last season before landing on injured reserve with a quad injury. Maragos, a steadily-improving, hard-nosed second-year player, spent most of his rookie season on the practice squad last year before finishing the season on the 53-man roster.
The 49ers like their situation at safety so much that they dumped talented prospect Taylor Mays, their second-round draft pick in 2010, last week in a trade with the Cincinnati for an undisclosed, late-round draft pick.