Commentary

49ers among surprise QB situations

Cutdown day was kind to rookies, but it was especially hard on fullbacks

Originally Published: September 5, 2011
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The biggest roster cutdown in NFL history -- going from 80 players to 53 -- may not have had many surprises but it sure had some fascinating decisions.

Perhaps the most noteworthy was the decision by half the teams in the league to go with only two quarterbacks. While some of that has already changed, 16 teams initially had only two quarterbacks on their active rosters after the cutdown (the number dropped to 13 after the 49ers, Jets and Rams added backups on Sunday), which shows how teams are treating the new 46-man active roster rule.

Under the new rules, teams don't have to designate a third quarterback. Instead, they can have an active 46th player who can play special teams or simply be a backup.

The danger is -- and it seems to happen at least once a year -- a team could suffer two injuries in a single game at quarterback. While the coach might have an emergency quarterback, a season could fall apart if the quarterback situation is in chaos.

The 49ers made the boldest move, releasing veteran Josh McCown, who played well and might be recalled soon. The problem is that Colin Kaepernick, the team's second-round choice, looks way too raw to be the backup to starter Alex Smith. Plus, the 49ers' offensive line has struggled, forcing Smith, Kaepernick and others to scramble way too much. Instead of finding a veteran, the 49ers added more youth to their QB corps on Sunday by claiming rookie Scott Tolzien off waivers.

League-wide, pass blocking has been a problem, which could lead to more quarterback injuries. Defenses should also blitz more because of offensive coordinators calling more quick passes to slot receivers and halfbacks.

Overall, though, the cutdown on Saturday was pretty routine. Marcus Harrison and Chester Taylor figured to be released by the Chicago Bears. Those who have followed the Dallas Cowboys have sensed since the start of training camp cap that high-paid defensive end Igor Olshansky was going to be released, and he was.

The release of Brandon Meriweather by the New England Patriots was the headliner, but his departure had been the subject of speculation for weeks. Now, he gets a chance to resurrect his career with the Bears.

The final cut continues to be tough on fullbacks because more teams are going to one-back offenses, and fullbacks continue to be wiped out. And despite the lockout-shortened acclimation period, teams kept more rookies than normal.

From the inbox

Q: Do you, even after watching this preseason, believe Cam Newton is the answer in Carolina? I know it's preseason, but all I see is an under-performing version of Michael Vick that does not have the same passing ability, even when Vick was the not-so-accurate passer in Atlanta.

Bob in Hattiesburg, Miss.

A: I do think he's the answer. It will take time. I love the way he spins the ball and how live his arm is. His mobility is exceptional. This might not translate into a lot of wins now, but in time I think he will be better than Vince Young. He has a chance to be a good one.

Q: I (like many, I am sure) question your elite QB rankings. I understand Jay Cutler's "Pennington status," but as for your elites that are ranked ahead of him, Tony Romo looks average at best, which I saw against my Bears last year. Joe Flacco is carried by an elite defense like Cutler. By far the most outrageous is Josh Freeman. I do not understand why everyone is excited over him when he has won zero games against teams with winning records AND had to come back in those games. The Bucs played against the two worst divisions last year (NFC West and AFC West), so having said all that why would he be elite?

James in La Crosse, Wis.

A: Let's study this further. Flacco has won four playoff games. In three years, he hasn't had wide receivers who can separate from man coverage -- that's why it looks as though he is holding the ball too long occasionally. He's accurate. He has a strong arm. He's definitely elite. The reason you might not be onto Freeman is that there weren't many Bucs games on national TV. Watch him -- he's sensational. He gets better in the fourth quarter, and he's succeeding with young receivers. I'm with you on Cutler. He has elite ability. I had him as an elite quarterback in Denver one year. But he hasn't maximized his talents in two years in Chicago. He has to score more points and make fewer mistakes in the red zone.

Q: How different is it for Jim Schwartz and his staff cutting players this time around compared with when they came in 2009? Also, how are the position battles different? It seems as if the Lions have more competition during camp this year, better-looking undrafted free agents, and a series of other players who have made it difficult to cut this roster down to 53 for the first time since ... well, probably 1999 or 2000.

Gary in Middlebury, Ind.

A: This is the most talented team I've seen in Detroit in years. After the camp started, they kept bringing in veterans on one-year deals who not only created more competition but gave them more roster options. I'm not sold that they are a playoff team yet, but they are building it the right way. The only concern is the injuries to their top three draft choices. They need to hit it big in the draft to be successful long term.

Q: Is Michael Vick elite or overrated? I suspect Vick will have a down year this year because defensive coordinators will have a full year of game film to devise ways to stop him. He had a remarkable season last year and seems to be on the right track (e.g. involvement in anti-dogfighting organizations), but I remain hesitant to call him elite until he produces consistently for the next two to three years. What are your thoughts on Vick as an elite quarterback and how you think he will fare this year?

Garrett in San Francisco

A: I say elite. He was elite in a running era when he was with the Atlanta Falcons. The game has evolved to more of a passing attack, and he has adjusted and succeeded. He averaged almost 30 points a game in his starts last season. Even if his numbers dip a little bit this year, the guy is remarkable. I've taken more heat from fans who wanted him rated higher than what I ranked him.

Q: So everyone's complaining about this new kickoff rule and how it should be changed. I find it funny that the NFL claims that the rule change was for player safety. However, is it really safer? Think about it: There's a touchback and the offense starts at the 20. Now that's 80 yards to the end zone. This new kickoff rule could potentially result in more plays being run, with each play having a risk of injury. I know, the chance of a team going 80 yards isn't high, but what about those 14-play, 60-something-yard drives? Is the NFL really safer because of this new kickoff rule?

Austin in Florida

A: It probably is safer. I'm concerned the game isn't better. Watch scoring. I wouldn't be surprised if combined scoring drops to 41 or 40 points a game. If scoring drops below 40 points a game, watch the league go back to kickoffs at the 30. This is one rule change I didn't like from the beginning.

[+] EnlargeTerrell Owens
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesThe odds are not good that T.O. can make a comeback and help a team this season.
Q: I know that T.O. has been a non-story this preseason because of his rehab, but do you think that he can make an impact this year coming back from surgery for any team out there? I think if his ACL is fully healed up by now that he can still help someone out there. I thought that maybe the Cardinals could use him this year to help Larry Fitzgerald out and open up the field. I know he is definitely a problem on the sidelines and in the locker room, but his skills are still there.

Adam in Omaha, Neb.

A: I don't think he would add any impact to any team. He's acknowledged that he's a couple of months behind on getting back to full speed. Remember how quickly things ended for Marvin Harrison. Harrison didn't suffer a knee injury as bad as Terrell Owens, but he lost so much speed and explosiveness, no one signed him after he was let go by the Colts. Harrison was one of the better route-runners of his era, while Owens wasn't a great route-runner. His game was being more physically gifted than the cornerback covering him. I don't see it happening for him this year.

Q: Please tell the Denver Broncos are not so insane as to believe they are going to be a winner with a warmed-over coach who was previously fired for not producing. That in itself should have been evident if anyone looked at his last four or five years. Now combine that with an over-the-hill (though a magnificent hill) quarterback who wants to bask in NFL limelight again by showing he can manage a professional football team. Simply being great at one thing many years ago doesn't make someone great at something new today. Mix this all up and throw in a pretty good quarterback, statistically, but as all the talking heads like to say, he doesn't have "it." Kyle Orton is not a winner. He is far better on paper than he is at pumping up a bunch of bloody, dirty, sweaty 300-pounders in a huddle to do more than they already have.

Jon in Tampa

A: Give John Fox a chance. He's a good coach. His style might be conservative, but so was the style of Jeff Fisher, Rex Ryan and several other coaches. When you don't have good quarterback play, like the Panthers last season, you endure a 2-14 season. Fox takes over a Denver team that was ruined by the roster decisions of Josh McDaniels. Give him a chance.

Q: Why is everyone so down on the Jaguars? They went 8-8 last year, almost winning the AFC South. They didn't get any worse during the offseason. In fact, they kept their team intact and added a lot of help on defense to fix their huge problems. Is the hate all because they didn't sign a WR or are they just doomed to be overlooked?

James in Clermont, Fla.

A: Actually they did sign a receiver. They signed Jason Hill, who has become their second-best wide receiver. He was maybe No. 4 or No. 5 in San Francisco. I like the direction the Jaguars are heading. I totally respect the work of general manager Gene Smith. He drafts talent; he drafts character. It's just going to take the Jags a couple of years to turn it around. Because of that, I don't think the talent of the team will be able to do enough to allow Jack Del Rio to stay past this season as its head coach.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Follow Clayton on Twitter @ClaytonESPN

John Clayton

NFL senior writer