New 49ers coach Chip Kelly is known for his zone-read offense, and it takes a quarterback with an accurate arm, nimble feet and a sharp mind to operate it at maximum efficiency.
Whether that person is Colin Kaepernick, Sam Bradford, Blaine Gabbert, Jared Goff or someone to be determined is the first important question of the Kelly era.
Kelly liked what he saw of Bradford while they were together with the Philadelphia Eagles this season, and Bradford probably will test the open market soon. March 9 is the first day of the free-agent season.
While speculation is that the 28-year-old Kaepernick has the inside track for the position, any number of factors may preclude his return to the 49ers. While he recovers from hand, thumb and shoulder injuries, there’s no way of knowing anytime soon if he’ll be healthy enough to assume the role.
For his part, Kaepernick may prefer to cut ties with the organization, although he has not indicated as much.
“In terms of Kap, he was very difficult for us to play against on this field two years ago,” Kelly said. “I haven’t done a ton of tape study on how he played [last year]. We’re in that process right now.”
The organization cannot speak with Kaepernick about football-related matters until April 4, the first day that teams with new coaches can begin off-season workouts. That’s three days after his $11.9 million salary for next season becomes guaranteed.
“We signed that contract for a reason,” general manager Trent Baalke said. “We’re not worried about the financial part of it at this point. What we’re worried about is getting him healthy and ready to compete.”
Kelly denied a report that he wanted to pursue Kaepernick in a trade earlier this season. “I don’t know where that report came from, but we were very happy with Sam in Philadelphia,” Kelly said.
The Eagles could place a franchise tag on Bradford, 28, but the price would be steep — nearly $20 million for one season. Feb. 16 is the first day that teams can begin the process.
Despite health concerns, Bradford had hoped to sign a longterm deal last year, but Kelly considered his request of $25 million per season to be exorbitant.
New Eagles coach Doug Pederson is impressed with Bradford as well, saying this week, “Sam’s a quality quarterback. I think he’s a top-notch quarterback. Look what he did that last half of the season, the numbers he was able to put up. As a quarterback, he would fit perfectly with a system I’m going to bring.”
Bradford finished the season with 3,725 yards, 19 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He was at his best in the final eight games, when he completed 68.2 percent of his passes for 1,959 yards, 10 touchdowns and four interceptions.
Free agent Robert Griffin III also could interest Kelly and the front office as a backup. A less likely possibility is Johnny Manziel, whom the Cleveland Browns are expected to make available.
If Bradford were to be signed, Kaepernick could be moved in a trade, a contract settlement could be reached or he could be released as a last resort.
Otherwise, Kelly indicated he wouldn’t be opposed to a Kaepernick-Gabbert tandem.
“Obviously, Kap is an extremely talented football player, and you need to have a good quarterback to win,” Kelly said. “But I was also impressed in the film I watched in terms of how Blaine played this year, also. I think statistics bear out that you probably need two good quarterbacks in this league with the injury rate quarterbacks have. I think both of those players make this an attractive
If Bradford and Kaepernick were not options, then Gabbert would be next in line. In that case, the front office could draft a quarterback of the future with the seventh pick in the first round. The 49ers also have the resources to trade up in the order — 21 draft picks in the next two years — possibly for Cal’s Jared Goff.
Untested backup Dylan Thompson also is on the roster.