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Makes sense 49ers turned to Kaepernick, even if they have little idea what he brings

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

Chip Kelly called Colin Kaepernick’s rise this week a “football decision.” In reality, it’s an offseason decision. The San Francisco 49ers are 1-4 and the offseason decision-making has just begun.

That is why Kaepernick is starting again. Not because the 49ers are sure he gives them a better chance of winning than incumbent Blaine Gabbert, but because the 49ers aren’t certain what Kaepernick will give them at all. And to prepare for another offseason of quarterback tremors, San Francisco has to know what it has in the first place. That can’t be done without Kaepernick getting snaps.

Colin Kaepernick will get his first start of the season on Sunday against Buffalo. (AP)

On the Gabbert front, the financials are fairly straightforward. He’s on a one-year deal and costs nothing to walk away from when the season ends. Kaepernick, on the other hand, is in a state of flux. A league source confirmed to Yahoo Sports that he’s considering some “tweaks” in the per-game active roster bonuses in his deal (potentially turning them into guaranteed salary for the remainder of this season) while also restructuring some of the contract exits. The latter could also allow him to become a free agent more quickly after this season, advancing the trigger date of a full salary guarantee, which currently stands at April 1. The idea being that San Francisco would have to either make that salary commitment near the beginning of the offseason, or cut Kaepernick and let him hit free agency in March.

All of this is a long way of saying this: Kaepernick effectively has 11 games or less to make his case to be San Francisco’s starting quarterback in 2017. More if he can rally the team into the postseason. And that suits both sides, affording the 49ers some clarity as to how much heavy lifting will be necessary at the position.

When the season ends, they’ll love what Kaepernick brings to the table as a starter in Kelly’s offense, or he’ll be gone. Simple as that. As for Gabbert, well, he may have an opportunity to return in 2017 on an extremely friendly team deal that slots him squarely as a backup. Which is exactly what he’ll be offered elsewhere in free agency.

The wild card in all of this is which quarterbacks become available in the offseason. Case Keenum has skills that suit Kelly’s offense, and a source familiar with the coach said there is a possibility that Keenum – whose contract expires after the season – could get a look. And when Kelly was coaching the Philadelphia Eagles, the staff took a look at Jimmy Garoppolo, who is expected to draw some trade interest this offseason. That said, Garoppolo’s price tag is expected to be steep, and it’s hard to fathom general manager Trent Baalke mortgaging the team’s future unless he’s certain that he’s trading for a franchise cornerstone. But ownership and Kelly could also be a part of that decision – in which case, all bets are off.

One way or another, the 49ers are going to be making quarterback moves when the season ends. And for all intents and purposes, the course of those moves were set in motion this week.

Heading to Week 6, here are four other teams that are also looking at quarterback rebuilds this offseason …

It looks like the end of the road for Jay Cutler in Chicago. (AP)

Chicago Bears
Out the door:
Jay Cutler/Brian Hoyer
Dead money cost to move on: $2 million (due to Cutler’s current deal)
2017 candidates: Brian Hoyer, Ryan Fitzpatrick, pro-style college quarterback

The Bears staff has already sent an unambiguous message on this one, declining to anoint Cutler the starting quarterback once he’s healthy again – if the staff ever deems him to be healthy anytime soon. Either way, there’s little chance the Bears will be open to retaining Cutler at a $16 million price next tag season. That’s middle-of-the pack money, but Chicago has ample evidence that he’s not the future at the position. Cutler’s departure will open the door for a short-term deal for a veteran quarterback at a backup salary. Unless Hoyer bombs the remainder of the season, he’s the top candidate to be re-signed to a modest deal that would pay him solid backup money. Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains also has some familiarity with Fitzpatrick, having coached him with the Tennessee Titans in 2013. The likeliest bet here is the Bears signing a veteran (likely Hoyer) to a modest two-year deal and drafting a pro-style quarterback with a first-round pick. While the New England Patriots’ Jimmy Garoppolo would be a worthy trade target, it’s unlikely the Bears would be willing to part with the ample draft ammunition required to add him. There are too many holes on the roster to give up a bounty of picks.

New York Jets
Out the door:
Ryan Fitzpatrick/Geno Smith
What it costs to move on: $5 million (due to Fitzpatrick’s current deal)
2017 candidates: Bryce Petty, Christian Hackenberg

Through five games, Fitzpatrick has done little to dissuade the front office’s opinion that he’s a mediocre starting quarterback whose arrow is turning south with each passing year. Part of the three-year, $24 million offer that was extended to Fitzpatrick last offseason (which he declined) was structured to slide him into a backup role. Thus far, he looks like a guy who is headed there sooner rather than later. Barring a significant reversal in the final 11 games, you can bank on the Jets offering him nothing more than a team-friendly deal that will once again pay Fitzpatrick like a backup. As for Smith, there hasn’t been any suggestion the team believes he can be the starting quarterback – nor any attempt to extend his deal, which expires after this season. All of this points to an offseason quarterback derby between Petty and Hackenberg for the right to start in 2017. The Jets will likely look to sign a veteran backup to keep in the mix, in case neither Petty nor Hackenberg looks capable of taking over. With that in mind, one of those players – or possibly both – will get some snaps later this season if the Jets fall out of the playoff race. Don’t expect a run at Jimmy Garoppolo. The Jets have already committed solid draft picks to the quarterback spot and the Patriots aren’t dealing him to a division rival.

Miami Dolphins
Out the door:
Ryan Tannehill
What it costs to move on: $10.4 million
2017 candidates: Jay Cutler, Josh McCown, pro-style college quarterback

Could Tannehill remain next season for a tradeoff of $20 million in salary cap space? The next 11 games will determine that. There is a lot of financial sense to Miami retaining Tannehill no matter what he does the rest of the way. As it stands, cutting him this offseason would incur $10.4 million in dead money on next season’s cap. If that took place, Miami would still look to sign another veteran quarterback to hold the fort while a likely highly drafted rookie was groomed. A solid veteran starting quarterback (like, say, Jay Cutler – who played well under head coach Adam Gase when he was in Chicago) would cost north of $10 million a season, even on a short-term deal. From that approach, Miami would actually end up spending more at quarterback (Tannehill’s $10.4 million dead money + Year 1 of a new veteran QB) than it would simply keeping Tannehill and drafting someone to compete with him. The unknown in all of this is the final 11 games, which will illuminate the Dolphins’ path. If Tannehill craters the rest of the season, it’s possible Miami drafts a quarterback in the first round, then seeks a one-year deal with a veteran like Josh McCown to give the rookie a season long buffer to get up and running. Count Garoppolo out as an option here. The Patriots won’t deal him to a division rival.

Cleveland Browns
Out the door:
Robert Griffin/Josh McCown
What it costs to move on: $2.41 million (the remainder of both contracts)
2017 candidates: Griffin, McCown, Jimmy Garoppolo, college quarterback

McCown is carrying a solid backup salary next season ($5 million) and could certainly return in that capacity. But there may be some short-term buyers for him this offseason – teams willing to part with a draft pick in exchange for a one-year starting option as they groom a rookie starter. The Browns could also keep him for that exact purpose, depending on the draft. With a potential No. 1 pick on the way, there are a lot of options on the table. But it seems less likely that Griffin is retained if a rookie is brought into the fold and McCown is kept on the roster. That’s a crowded quarterback room, and the bulk of the staff attention would go toward developing a highly drafted quarterback … not getting Griffin back on track. That said, Griffin isn’t likely to have any starting options offered in 2017. Sources have already indicated he would be on board with sticking with the Browns and competing with a rookie next season. In that scenario, McCown would likely have to be traded. Again, the staff isn’t going to want to keep two veterans and a highly drafted rookie for an entire season. Especially when one of those players (Griffin) still wants another long-term starting shot. The wild card in all of this: Garoppolo. With double picks in both the first and second rounds – along with a third-rounder and three fourth-rounders – the Browns have more ammunition to go after Garoppolo than any other quarterback-needy team. If Garoppolo suits what the brain trust is looking for and the Browns once again don’t like the college options available, expect New England to at least get a call.

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