The competition between Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert for the 49ers’ starting job this season has yet to begin.
The foundation for the comparison is in place. But the actual competition does not commence until the 49ers take the practice field for the first workout of training camp under Chip Kelly on Sunday in Santa Clara.
Former 49ers guard Alex Boone provided some context last week with a revealing comment about where the situation might stand as training camp approaches.
“(F)rom what I know of Blaine, I think he's going to take the reins," Boone, now a member of the Minnesota Vikings, told ProFootballTalk Live on NBC Sports Radio. "I mean, I think he's a good guy. He knows what he's doing out there and he just has the support of the group.”
It has long been suspected, but now that he is no longer around, Boone gave a voice to the 49ers’ locker room with his observation of which player has “the support.”
Kaepernick seemed to be in a funk most of last season. There were complaints inside the organization that he closed himself off from his teammates. Such players as Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith openly showed frustration on the field with his decision-making and performance.
Gabbert embraced his leadership role after being moved into the starting lineup at midseason. One of his first acts as the starter, according to sources, was to invite the offensive linemen to his house two nights before his starting debut against the Atlanta Falcons in early November.
Gabbert seems to feel at ease in this role. He continued to have a dominant role during the 49ers’ offseason program, which concluded early last month. Tight end Garrett Celek pointed out a month into the workouts that Gabbert was “taking control.”
“Whether it’s in the locker room or out on the field, everyone has a good relationship with him,” Celek said. “And him motivating us is good.”
If, indeed, Gabbert has won the locker room, that’s great for him. But he still has to win the job on the field.
Kaepernick continued to work out at the 49ers’ practice facility to help regain weight and strength he lost during his rehabilitation from surgeries to repair his shoulder, knee and thumb.
He did not miss a day during the 49ers’ offseason program after requesting a trade in February. All that stood between a deal to the Denver Broncos was the failure of Kaepernick’s camp and John Elway to reach terms on an adjusted contract to replace the deal that is scheduled to pay him nearly $31 million over the next two seasons.
Kaepernick was not cleared to take live snaps in practices until the 49ers’ three-day minicamp concluded the team’s offseason activity in early June. Coach Chip Kelly consistently praised Kaepernick’s work in the classroom.
In his lone media session of the offseason, Kaepernick appeared to be positive, up-beat and determined to do whatever is necessary to regain his starting job.
Gabbert might have gotten a head start in the competition, but none of that matters when the practices begin and Kelly must determine which quarterback gives the 49ers the best chance of winning on September 12 against the Los Angeles Rams.
There are two conflicting beliefs of which quarterback is a better fit for Kelly’s system.
Kaepernick has the dual-threat capabilities that Kelly’s offenses featured during much of his time at Oregon. But Gabbert has the advantage of a quicker release and, perhaps, better accuracy on the underneath throws, to go along with his underrated athleticism. In Kelly’s short-passing game, making the simple, short throws are essential.
Based on Boone’s read of the situation, it’s reasonable to speculate Gabbert will receive the benefit of the doubt. If the competition is close, Gabbert would likely begin the season as the starter with his popularity in the locker room giving him the edge.
But if Kaepernick clearly proves himself to be the better option, Kelly has to go in that direction.
The 49ers do not have many outspoken veteran players whose voices could greatly influence the decision based on locker room dynamics. But if it becomes clear to such players as Joe Staley and Smith that Kaepernick is the 49ers’ best option for winning games, Kelly’s decision will be made for him.