July 30, 2008

Once the cradle of the NFL's finest passers, the city of San Francisco is now the home to the league's second ugliest quarterback controversy. Should the 49ers stick with former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith, or hand the ball to journeyman Shaun Hill who turned a few tricks in the final month of 2007? Montana and Young these men are not ...

In fact, no 49ers quarterback has passed for 3,000 yards or 20 touchdowns since '02, when Jeff Garcia had Terrell Owens to throw to. But fantasy owners still need to keep a watchful eye on this camp battle because the team has a number of fantasy considerations at the skill positions whose '08 success is dependant upon on how well the team's quarterback performs. Whether it's Smith, Hill or a confident underdog candidate named J.T. O'Sullivan will not be determined until deep into camp. For now, let's examine each of the challengers and why they deserve the gig ...

Why Smith will keep the job: Money. The 49ers simply are too heavily invested in Smith to give up the pot now in favor of some unproven journeyman quarterback (whether that's Hill or O'Sullivan). Remember, this is the guy the team handed a $49.5 million contract, roughly half of which was guaranteed, only three years ago. Can San Francisco really give up so fast?

In '06 Smith actually looked as though he had turned around the woes of his rookie year. He had an equal number of touchdowns and interceptions (16) that sophomore campaign, and threw for 2,890 yards. That statline should have answered those ready to hang the "bust" tag on the former Utah product. But it hasn't.

It's easy to forget other franchise quarterbacks have needed time to develop (guys such as Troy Aikman and Terry Bradshaw come to mind). But fans and owners want results, even if the 49ers were probably wrong in playing their coveted pick too soon to begin with. Additionally, Smith has had to deal with a revolving door of passing mentors, which doesn't help in producing any semblance of continuity.

Smith is four years younger than either of the two players with which he is competing, but that might be secondary to whom gives the team the best chance to win, but in a close competition it's a factor that must be considered. Bottom line: if any of these three have the potential to be an elite NFL quarterback, it's Smith.

Why Hill will win it: Well, if we were to base this argument solely on how Hill's numbers compared to Smith's last year, it'd be a slam dunk. Hill's 68.4 completion percentage dwarfed Smith's 48.7 percent, and despite having less than half as many attempts to work with, Hill threw for more touchdowns. More convincing, though, is the fact that San Francisco won two of the three games in which Hill played. And, as a great football man once said, winning trumps all else (or something to that effect). Heck, even when Hill played his shakiest football (11 of 24 against Tampa Bay in Week 16) he still guided his team to victory, and in that performance threw more touchdowns (three) than Smith had in his seven appearances (two).

Why O'Sullivan cannot be ignored: The wild card in all of this discussion is Mike Martz, now in charge of the 49ers passing attack. Everywhere Martz has gone record passing totals have followed. In San Francisco, Martz will no doubt play a big role in shaping the new look of this offense, and so it might mean something that O'Sullivan has followed Martz from Detroit.

As a Lion, O'Sullivan saw limited action, but he did complete 13 of 24 passes in an overtime win over Minnesota in Week 2 of last year. In NFL Europe, O'Sullivan was named the co-offensive MVP after posting a 104.8 QB rating for Frankfurt. Perhaps Martz saw something in the Detroit backup he appreciated, who knows? This job is up for grabs, and Martz has made difficult (and unpopular) quarterback decisions before.

Who fantasy owners should pull for: Hill

San Francisco is best served turning to the safest pick rather than the boldest one. In '07 Hill looked the most comfortable guiding this team and he probably gives the 49ers the best chance of competing in the NFC West.

What fantasy owners really care about, though, is not who wins, but rather that the player is able to benefit from Martz's tutelage. What Martz did for Marc Bulger and Jon Kitna is the stuff of fantasy legend. Both became instant top-10 quarterback prospects simply because they effectively operated within Martz's vertical passing system. San Francisco's offseason pickups Isaac Bruce and Bryant Johnson could both be productive fantasy backups if all goes well, and the quarterback who gets to throw to those two, as well as tight end Vernon Davis should earn fantasy consideration as a backup in traditional leagues.

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