49ers' Kelly leaves door open for change at quarterback

49ers' Kelly leaves door open for change at quarterback

SANTA CLARA – Just minutes after the conclusion of the 49ers’ fourth consecutive loss, backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick was dressed and out the locker room door that leads to the parking lot.

Kaepernick remained on the sideline throughout the 49ers’ 33-21 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Thursday at Levi’s Stadium. It was the fourth consecutive game in which he did not play. And he was the first player out of the building after another abysmal defeat.

Coach Chip Kelly has given starting quarterback Blaine Gabbert one vote of confidence after another. But for the first time, Kelly left the door open for the a possible change at quarterback when the 49ers return to practice on Tuesday to begin preparations to face the Buffalo Bills.

“We’re going to go and look at everything,” Kelly said. “We got a couple of days off, in terms of getting ready for Buffalo and we’ll assess the film.

“I think we’re going to look at everything. I mean, we’re 1-4. We need to make sure we’re going out there and giving us the best chance to win, so we’re going to look at everything.”

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He will not like what he sees from an offense that generated just 286 total yards. And the 49ers’ passing game, which ranked last in the NFL in yards per game, could not even meet its lowly average of 178.8 yards from the first four games of the season.

Gabbert completed 18 of 31 passes for 162 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. He was also sacked seven times for minus-27 yards, including a late-game safety. Kelly said he did not consider an in-game change at quarterback on Thursday.

“It’s extremely frustrating,” Gabbert said. “I let this team and this organization down tonight. I did not play good whatsoever. And that’s on me. I had two crucial turnovers that led to points for the Cardinals and that was the difference in the game right there.”

Gabbert said he fully understands that his poor play has created a situation in which the coaching staff must discuss the team's quarterback situation in the coming days.

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“Yeah, I got to play better, there’s no question about that,” Gabbert said. “I have to do a better job leading this football team, executing this offense, scoring points, winning games. The whole nine yards. That’s just the way it goes. I have to play better.”

Gabbert won the starting job at the beginning of the regular season based on his body of work through the offseason program and training camp, Kelly said at the time. On Thursday, he said Gabbert has continued to be the team’s starting quarterback because he has been better than Kaepernick in practices.

“Yeah, Blaine has done a really nice job in practice, yes,” Kelly confirmed.

But, clearly, the 49ers have not been able to carry over any of the good things they might be showing in practice.

“It’s the entire offense,” Kelly said. “I’d expect us to execute well in practice. It’s a controlled environment. You’re in a lot of trouble if you’re not having a lot success in practice. We have to make sure we can take it to practice field to the game field, and we’re not doing that right now on the offensive side of the ball.”

Said Gabbert, “We just got to find ways to stay in that mode. It starts with the quarterback. I got to deliver the ball. I got to make the right reads. I got to deliver the football on time and accurately for us to be successful on offense.”

The sparse crowd at Levi’s Stadium made its feelings known on the team’s quarterback situation. In the third quarter, and the 49ers’ struggles continued to mount, there were loud chants of “We want Kap!”

Gabbert said he did not hear it.

“I’m focused on leading the 11 guys on the field,” Gabbert said. “When you’re in the game and in a situation like that, your focus on that play, that specific drive. So we’re all locked in and that’s it.”

The coaching staff and the coaching staff alone will make the decision on how to proceed at quarterback, Kelly said. He said general manager Trent Baalke will not have a voice in the process.

“Any decision that’s made with the current roster is a coaching staff thing,” Kelly said. “Trent has never come in and said, ‘This guy has to play’ or ‘That guy has to play.’ Trent does a great job of acquiring talent and getting players on this football team, but he’s never once told me who has to play where and what the lineup is.”

Deepest position in the NFL Draft? 49ers VP of Player Personnel weighs in


Deepest position in the NFL Draft? 49ers VP of Player Personnel weighs in

The 49ers concluded the first wave of the free-agent signing period with the signings of players to fill the team’s biggest offseason needs.

--Cornerback. Aqib Talib would have been the answer in a trade with the Denver Broncos, but he wanted to play elsewhere. Instead, the 49ers signed veteran Richard Sherman, whom the Seattle Seahawks cut a day earlier.

--Interior offensive line. Center Weston Richburg was the player the team had rated as their top target in free agency, and they signed him to a lucrative five-year deal.

--Running back. The team decided Jerick McKinnon was a better fit than Carlos Hyde. They wrapped him up with a four-year contract.

--Edge rusher. Lacking many options in free agency, the 49ers signed Jeremiah Attaochu to a one-year contract in hopes he will earn a spot on the team and make a contribution at the “Leo” position.

The 49ers can still use more help at a number of different positions, including cornerback, wide receiver, offensive line, linebacker and edge rusher. While the 49ers might add some role players in the second wave of free agency, most of the major acquisitions at this point are likely to come in the draft.

On the 49ers Insider Podcast, 49ers vice president of player personnel Adam Peters addressed what positions he believes are strong in this year’s draft.

“I think running backs, absolutely. It’s a deep position,” Peters said. “Quarterbacks at the top is deeper than it was last year. Secondary, corners, it’s not deeper than it was last year, but it’s a strong class of corners. Those are the main ones. The offensive line class is a little better than last year, too.”

The 49ers got major contributions from their rookie class last season. Tight end George Kittle, receiver Trent Taylor, quarterback C.J. Beathard, running back Matt Breida, defensive lineman Solomom Thomas, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, linebacker Reuben Foster and safety Adrian Colbert each played more than 300 snaps.

The 49ers feel good about Witherspoon, a third-round draft pick, as a starter with Sherman on the other side. Peters said a lot of the team’s rookies played larger roles than expected in 2017, but Witherspoon might have been at the top of the list.

“I don’t think he was active for the first four games,” Peters said of Witherspoon. “And he ended up playing at a high level at the end. Really driven, conscientious player who wants to be great. 

"We were lucky we got a chance to play a lot of rookies because that’ll help us moving forward.”

Shanahan sees versatile McKinnon as piece that was missing from 49ers' offense


Shanahan sees versatile McKinnon as piece that was missing from 49ers' offense

The player Kyle Shanahan studied on video was a lot better than the player he saw on the stat sheet.

The 49ers coach said he places a lot more emphasis on how he projects a player in his offense than what the player did with his former team.

And that is why the 49ers placed a large priority on signing former Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnonon the first day of the free-agent signing period. McKinnon comes to the 49ers on a four-year, $30 million contract with $11.7 million guaranteed.

McKinnon's stats might not suggest he is anywhere near a top running back in the NFL, but Shanahan sees it differently. And that is why the 49ers opted to pursue McKinnon instead of Carlos Hyde.

“I don’t know the numbers until I like the guy,” Shanahan said. “I always watch the guy first, and turn on the tape and get lost in it for a while. There were so many things I liked about him, visualizing how we would use him and stuff he would do. And even though there wasn’t a ton of it, you still got to see him do some stuff that we do a lot. Where he did it, he excelled a ton and was very good at it.

“Eventually, I look at the numbers and it did surprise me. Then you go back and you try to see why. I’m not going to get into all the whys, but I know all the stuff we liked about him, we cut up those numbers. I think they would’ve been good numbers.”

In four NFL seasons as a part-time player, McKinnon (5-9, 205), averaged 4.0 yards per rushing attempt. The past two years, he gained 539 and 570 yards with rushing averages of just 3.4 and 3.8 yards.

Hyde (6-foot, 230) is a bigger back with more production in his career. He rushed for 988 and 938 yards in 2016 and ’17 with averages of 4.6 and 3.9 yards.

Shanahan said he looked at every player who was available, and McKinnon was the player he evaluated to be the best of all the free agents. Shanahan has long valued running backs who are versatile in the run and pass games with an ability to make defenders miss.

“A good run is when you get more yards than what it was blocked for,” Shanahan said. “Sometimes, runs are blocked for negative 1 (yard) and the best run in the game was a 1-yard carry.

“Sometimes the one that most people could do is a 60-yarder because it was a busted coverage or a busted front and nobody was there. Numbers do tell stuff, but it’s never an absolute."

The 49ers signed McKinnon to be the starting running back with Matt Breida likely mixing into the action. The 49ers could also be in the market to add to the competition and depth through the draft.

Shanahan is likely to deploy multiple players, just as he did successfully with Atlanta Falcons running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. McKinnon is expected to take Freeman’s role. In each of Shanahan’s two seasons as Falcons offensive coordinator, Freeman accounted for more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage. He rushed for 1,056 and 1,079 yards while catching 578 and 462 yards in passes.

“I’m just excited to be in the offense that I feel is a perfect fit for me,” McKinnon said on Thursday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

“Things that coach Shanahan has done with the backs like he did in Atlanta with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, I see myself doing those kinds of things. For me, I feel like the scheme is right. The fit was just perfect for me. I feel like I can’t be in a better situation as a player.”

Shanahan said he liked McKinnon as a draft prospect in 2014 out of Georgia Southern but it was more difficult to evaluate him because he mostly played quarterback in college.

But in studying McKinnon while with the Vikings, he saw a runner who has speed and elusiveness while also exhibiting the strength to break arm tackles. He set the record at the NFL Scouting Combine for running backs with 32 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press in 2014. But McKinnon's best asset might be his ability to be a factor in the passing game in blitz pickup, while also being a dependable receiver out of the backfield or in the slot.

“When it comes to separating and beating linebackers and safeties in man-to-man coverage, I definitely think he’s an issue for teams,” Shanahan said. “I think this league, when it comes to third downs and things like that, you move the chains based off of matchups, which allows you to get points in the long run. I think Jerick is very versatile and we can do a lot of things with him.

“He’s good enough to make it as a runner alone in this league. He’s good enough to make it in the pass game as just a third down threat alone, but when you can do both of those, it gives you a lot of freedom as a coach.”