Daily Focus: Blaine Gabbert right man for 49ers' starting job?
Is Blaine Gabbert the best option at QB for San Francisco? Much of San Francisco’s offseason has centered on trade-talk involving quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The once-promising signal-caller appears to have fallen out of favor with the 49ers after his second-straight subpar season.
While there was a level of renewed optimism when Chip Kelly was first announced as head coach this offseason, it quickly became apparent that Kaepernick, despite his impressive running ability, is not guaranteed to be the starter come September, even though it appears he’ll still be a 49er this season. News out of the Bay Area yesterday labeled Blaine Gabbert as the heavy favorite to win the starting job, as he is apparently well-respected in the locker room and the new coaching staff has been surprised by his foot speed.
Although it has never been a feature of his game, Gabbert posted the ninth-highest rushing grade for QBs last year, despite only starting eight games. While Kelly is unlikely to revisit the glory days of Oregon by giving Gabbert a huge workload on the ground, he certainly appears better-suited for read-option concepts than Sam Bradford or Nick Foles, Kelly’s main QBs in Philadelphia.
In the context of Gabbert’s first three years in the league, some have argued that he enjoyed a renaissance of sorts last season, but the fact of the matter is, he still only finished 29th in PFF QB rating and 22nd in accuracy percentage. With a comparable workload last year (244 passing attempts to Gabbert’s 282), Kaepernick did not fair much worse, finishing 32nd in PFF QB rating.
Kaepernick’s early-career success and experience with some of the running concepts Kelly ran before transitioning to the NFL suggest that he is the more natural starter for the 49ers, but ultimately the decision as to who starts Week 1 is likely to come down to performance off the field more so than on-field potential. This being said, if Gabbert continues to perform as he has in the past (even at last year’s level), don’t be surprised to see Kaepernick back at the helm at some point this season.
New deal for Bernard could mean heavier workload in 2016: Yesterday, the Bengals announced a three-year extension to Giovani Bernard’s current deal that will keep the running back in Cincinnati through the 2019 season. With an average of $5.17 million per year on his deal, he is now in the top-10 at his position in terms of salary.
In the sense of what a traditional RB is expected to produce, this deal seems to comes off as exorbitant, as Bernard’s carries have decreased every season of his career (he was down to 160 in 2015), and his highest rushing total was this past season’s 758. However, his real value is his performance in the passing game, as he has amassed 165 receptions over the course of his three-year career.
Considering the free-agent loss of slot receiver Mohamed Sanu (Falcons) and the fact that his likely replacement is rookie Tyler Boyd, Bernard should see a healthy increase, health-willing, in terms of volume in the receiving game. Bernard was targeted 69 times last year for 51 receptions and 474 yards, and is likely to surpass those totals through the air this year.
The final piece of the puzzle explaining Bernard’s deal is likely trust. While most of the focus in the aftermath of Cincinnati’s latest playoff debacle was on personal foul and unsportsmanlike penalties of Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones during Pittsburgh’s final game-winning drive, the fact of the matter is the team would not have been in that situation had the Bengals’ other RB, Jeremy Hill, simply held onto the ball on the prior drive. The fumble was Hill’s fourth of the season (he has eight rushing fumbles in his two-year career), compared to none for Bernard (just one in 513 career carries).
Carolina’s receiving corps should be vastly improved: Yesterday, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera was asked about the development of second-year wide receiver Devin Funchess, and he stated he is “light years ahead” of where he was last season. While some may dismiss this as offseason fluff, there likely is a fair amount of truth to it, as Funchess’ workload increased throughout last season (culminating in 47 snaps in the Super Bowl).
2015 wasn’t just Funchess’ rookie season, it was also just his second year as a wide receiver, as he played tight end at Michigan until his junior year in 2014. Being so new to the position was always going to limit his production as a rookie (36 catches for 546 yards), but he should see a significant volume increase this season, and the return of Kelvin Benjamin can only help.
Having a big-time playmaker opposite him should keep Funchess in favorable situations that will allow him to utilize his size against single-coverage, and as long as both weapons improve upon their ugly combined-drop-rate of 14 percent from their rookie seasons, the Panthers’ offense should be even better than it was during Cam Newton’s MVP campaign of 2015.