SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The quarterback battle between Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick continues to tilt away from the one-time wonderboy who led this franchise to its last Super Bowl.
During Friday’s joint practices with the Houston Texans, Gabbert took all the first-teams snaps. Kaepernick, afflicted with what first-year head coach Chip Kelly described as “soreness” and “arm fatigue,” threw no passes, but did stand behind the offense taking mental reps, reading the defense, going through his progression, and, on one snap—a fumble following a botched exchange between Gabbert and Shane Draughn, serving as a highly credible free safety, running down Texans corner Kareem Jackson to prevent the scoop-and-score.
While the 49ers have listed the pair as co-No. 1s on the depth chart, the decision to limit Kap on Friday ensured that Gabbert would be the starter Sunday for San Francisco’s exhibition opener against Houston, during which the ex-Jacksonville Jaguar could tighten his grip on the job.
It was a small sample size, one practice, but I thought Gabbert and the 49ers receivers had a pretty good day—especially considering the modest regard in which they are widely held. (Pro Football Focus ranks the Niners wideouts and tight ends 31st, out of 32 teams. It ranks the 49ers quarterbacks … dead last.)
Conventional wisdom holds that Kelly’s formation-driven attack doesn’t need star receivers. That could explain GM Trent Baalke’s lack of urgency in upgrading the position. The player who’d generated considerable buzz, a CFL refugee named Eric Rogers, tore an ACL early in camp and is out for the season.
The throw-and-catch of the day was a long touchdown from Gabbert to Jerome Simpson on a flag route. Texans safety Andre Hal had tight coverage, but Gabbert basically parachuted the ball onto the crown of the helmet of Simpson, who made a sweet hands catch and glided to the end zone.
Jogging past Sacramento Bee beat writer Matt Barrows and me on his way back to the huddle, Simpson remarked, with a smile, “Y’all better write that s____ down.”
With No. 1 receiver Torrey Smith taking the day off due to “tightness” in his leg, Simpson, a nine-year vet with 150 career catches, was San Francisco’s most productive, experienced wideout on the field. That’s not a good thing. Quinton Patton, a fourth-year player with 36 career catches, sat out most of this practice, leaving more room for Bruce Ellington to shine, which he did. But the loss of Rogers and the invisibility of 2nd-year man Andre Smelter, are creating opportunities for UDFA receivers DiAndre Campbell, who spent last season on the practice squad, and speedy ex-Cal Bear Bryce Treggs, who during 7-on-7 went skywalking over cornerback Mitchell Terrance, high-pointing the ball eleven feet in the air, then making a balletic move to get one foot down in bounds.
More News and Notes from 49ers camp
• Gabbert was loose, confident, in charge—easier to do with Kap on the shelf—and on point. He looks the part of an NFL starter. It’s been five years since the Jaguars traded up to make him the 10th overall pick in the 2011 draft, then made a complete hash of things. After releasing incumbent starter David Garrard, Jacksonville rushed the rookie into the lineup, with disastrous results. Gabbert was 5-22 as a starter, throwing 22 touchdowns and 24 picks. In the end, he was benched for … Chad Henne.
• Under Kelly, with his wizard’s rep, Gabbert has a chance to peel off the “Hi, my name is BUST” sticker that was slapped on his chest in Jacksonville, and turn into something closer to what the Jaguars hoped he would be. This was among the topics I discussed with Ryan Tollner, a partner at Rep1 Sports, the agency whose clients included the first and second picks in the 2016 draft, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz. Tollner is a former backup quarterback at Cal-Berkeley; I’ve always been struck by his penetrating insights on that position. He was at the tail end of a three-camp tour, visiting and checking in on clients. After flying home to Orange County later that day, he was headed for the LA Coliseum for Saturday’s Rams-Cowboys game.
“How sweet is that?” he said. “Driving to an NFL game in LA.”
Five Questions with agent Ryan Tollner
Q1: You started off your recent tour at the Steelers camp in Latrobe, Pa. Ben Roethlisberger is one of your guys. How’s Big Ben looking, and do you get the sense sometime, for a guy with his resume, he’s sometimes overlooked, underappreciated?
RT: Ben’s in the best shape I’ve see him in for training camp. He looks leaner and is moving around well. His command at this stage of the game is obvious. He’s operating with an unusual comfort level in the system, because he’s had some continuity now there for awhile.
I’ve always said it won’t be until Ben is done, and people can really assess his body of work, that they’ll recognize how great he was. People obviously know he’s won Super Bowls. But just from a statistical standpoint, he’s got the third-best winning percentage [.667] of active quarterbacks, behind Brady and Rodgers. This’ll be his 13th year, and he’s never had a losing season as a starter. He currently has the 10th-most regular season wins of all time , and this season will likely pass Joe Montana , Johnny Unitas  and possibly Fran Tarkenton .
Q2: You visited Carson Wentz in Philly. In his preseason debut Thursday against the Buccaneers, he was up an down: 12 for 24 for 89 yards, no touchdowns and a pick. What were the highlights for you? Do you get the sense the Eagles are truly determined to not rush him into the lineup? [This question was posed before the news was released the Wentz fractured a rib in that game.]
RT: I think all that matters, when you watch these young quarterbacks in the preseason, is that the stage doesn’t appear to be too big for them. You can’t put too much into the execution you see on the field; they’re often running with a number of players that aren’t sure about their assignments, and there’s no game-planning that’s occurring, really on either side of the ball. So, you’re really looking to see, does he look the part? Does the guy take over the huddle and manage the line of scrimmage and slide and move to find throwing lanes and deliver the ball? Does he appear to have what it takes, physically, to excel in the NFL. I think it was immediately evident that Carson does all that. He just brings an energy and feel for the game. And physically, his tools jump out at you. He’s got the potential to be an elite quarterback.
I was impressed with the Eagles in the draft process—they had a plan and executed it perfectly to move up and draft Carson, and I really trust that they have a plan for his development, and that they are focused on long-term, sustainable winning, for the team. The challenge will be, if you’ve ever been to an Eagles home game, that crowd is relentless in the way that they boo. If they’ll boo Santa Claus, they’ll certainly boo a quarterback who’s sputtering in any way, and you’ve got this talented guy on the bench.
Q3: You’ve seen Blaine Gabbert today, he looks composed, confident, he’s making good decisions, good throws. This is his sixth NFL season; can he shed the “bust” label and re-invent himself here under Kelly?
RT: I don’t see why not. Every opportunity to be a starter in this league is a chance to make a new impression. It’s a new team, a new coach, a new offensive system. There’s no question [Gabbert] has the physical attributes, and he no longer has the pressure of being a high draft pick and having the weight of a franchise on his shoulders, as he did in Jacksonville. I think it’s a great opportunity for him, and I know the players we have in San Francisco like him and believe in him.
Q4: How do you think Kaepernick fits in here, in a system that puts such a premium on timing and accuracy and moving swiftly through your progression?
RT: I think Chip’s system starts with athleticism, and they’ve got four QBs that are good athletes [Thad Lewis and Jeff Driskel round out the depth chart]. And you can go back and look at Kaepernick’s college system, and recognize that he can play in an up-tempo scheme. It’s a great opportunity for him as well to find a system and a role he can thrive in.
Q5: Who are some of the other Rep1 clients here today?
RT: We’ve got Joe Staley, 49ers left tackle, a perennial Pro Bowler. Next to him is left guard Zane Beadles, a very good player who’s also just an exceptionally intelligent and thoughtful guy [Beadles maintained a 3.57 GPA while earning a degree in Mechanical Engineering at Utah]. He also unusual social awareness, and want to use this really make a difference. [Beadles, deeply involved in the fight against pediatric cancer, has been the Walter Payton Man of the Year in Jacksonville and Denver].
Texans linebacker Max Bullough is a third-year undrafted free agent out of Michigan State, who’s got a good chance to really contribute on that defense this year. Max’s grandfather, Dad and uncle also played at Michigan State. His two younger brothers are linebackers there now, and his sister is on the track team. His Mom’s three brothers were all starters … at Notre Dame.
And David Quessenberry is an offensive lineman from San Jose State going through a serious battle with cancer [non-Hodgkins Lymphoma]. He’s on the Texans IR, but he’s on the practice field today. He’s endured 500 hours of chemo, and has 26 more treatments to go. But he’s really intent on continuing his football career.
Early returns on rookie defensive lineman Deforest Buckner, whom the Niners selected with the seventh overall pick, are excellent. After starting camp third on the depth chart, the versatile and explosive 6’7”, 300-pounder is now taking snaps with the starters and feeling flashes of déjà vu. He’s working alongside his former Oregon teammate, Arik Armstead, and heeding the blunt instructions of former Ducks defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro – Coach Az -- a plainspoken character whose name came up on the field after practice.
While chatting with Chip Kelly, who I met when he was Mike Bellotti’s offensive coordinator in Eugene, the coach said, with a grin, “Let’s find Coach Az, and you can ask him about his dip!”
He was referring to an interview I’d conducted with Azzinaro back in ’09. Upon arriving in his office, I noticed that he was availing himself of some smokeless tobacco. To break the ice, I said, “Why don’t I not write that you’re dipping.”
“Why don’t you write,” he riposted, with a grin—and this remains one of the Top 10 quotes, I’ve ever elicited—“that I don’t give a f___ what you write.”
He really didn’t. Couldn’t find Coach Az Friday, but look forward to catching up with him this season.