Breaking down the 49ers quarterback battle

Quarterback leads the many position groups to pay attention to during this 49ers offseason. And as the second week of organized team activities progresses, so does the competition between Brian Hoyer, Matt Barkley, C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens as to who will rise toward a starting role for the 2017 NFL season.

This far into the offseason, uncertainty at quarterback is is a clear concern. All is not lost, though, as Kyle Shanahan and his brand-new gang of coaches are just beginning to implement the foundation of the offense.

With this in mind, evaluating each potential quarterback at this stage is a tough task at best. But rating each player’s physical abilities is a fair conversation to have.

Footwork

At Wednesday’s OTAs in Santa Clara, the 31-year-old Hoyer unsurprisingly looked to have the sweetest feet among 49ers quarterbacks. Compared to the other three suited up in black jerseys screaming “DO NOT HIT ME,” Hoyer has by far the most NFL experience. His nine seasons nearly double Barkley, who has five seasons under his belt. Beathard was picked up at No. 103 out of Iowa, and Mullens signed as an undrafted free agent out of Southern Miss.

The ability to efficiently and effectively move in the pocket and around the rest of the field as a quarterback is essential. How a pass comes out of their hands, how a ball is handed off, and how a quarterback can elude would-be pass rushers are just a few areas of the game affected by a player’s footwork.

Solid five- and seven-step drop backs demonstrated Hoyer’s footwork and allowed him to get passes out on time, and do it efficiently.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, third-round draft pick Beathard looked to have the worst footwork. By dragging his feet and looking relatively awkward from the waist down, it was a surprise that Beathard didn’t trip over his own feet. It’s a good thing Beathard has other redeeming qualities, because his footwork alone would land him a spot riding the pine.

Arm Strength

Any quarterback can throw a shallow crossing route, or a checkdown to a sitting running back. But it takes more to be able to hit a receiver 30 yards down the field. Quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Matt Stafford have made careers of their ability to launch a ball on a deep fade route, so arm strength is another aspect that can make or break an otherwise talented prospect.

Not many deep passes were thrown Wednesday, though one quarterback was seemingly unafraid to let it rip when given the opportunity. That player was Barkley.

Taking the majority of reps with the second team on offense, Barkley showcased multiple deep throws. Although several were overthrown, Barkley’s raw ability to heave the ball downfield was apparent.

Hoyer, on the other hand, seemed reluctant to attempt any deep pass. He routinely checked down to the running back five or six yards away from the line of scrimmage.

This lack of risk-taking throws may have been instructed by Shanahan, but if so, none of the others got the message.

Accuracy

Footwork and arm strength allow a quarterback to get the ball down field. But placing a ball where it’s intended to go is arguably the most important aspect of passing. Just ask former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Considering this, the award for accuracy on the 49ers’ roster would have to go back to Hoyer. Although passes down field came few and far between, and were often overthown, the vast majority of Hoyer’s passes in the short- to medium-range were very precise.

A tight spiral and good ball placement made for a good showing of accuracy for Hoyer, who took the majority of reps with the first team on offense.

The most accurate pass of the day, however, came from Barkley, who fit in a tight ball on a post route ran by second-year receiver DeAndre Carter out of Sacramento State. Barkley’s laser strike Wednesday, however, came after a slew of passes last week that sailed dangerously high.

Also struggling with inaccuracy was Beathard. Coinciding with his issues with footwork, an array of passes landed very low. And while it is clearly better to throw low compared to high, an inaccurately thrown ball is still not ideal.

Progressions

The biggest criticism of recent 49er quarterbacks — specifically Kaepernick — has been an inability to work through pass progressions. This made for a very predictable offense with a “run-first” mentality. As San Francisco’s recent record indicates, this hasn’t worked.

Hoyer’s reluctance to throw down field and instead checkdown to an open running back makes him valuable in terms of going through his progressions.

A checkdown pass may seem like a lack of confidence, but it can be an intelligent decision if in fact other options on the play are covered. In Hoyer’s case, that is exactly what happened at times. After surveying his first, second and third passing options, the checkdown reflected his ability to look at each choice in the progression.

Next in line would be Beathard, who demonstrated patience and poise while going through his reads. He was also able to look off the opposing safety at times by going through the progressions.

Timing/Ball Release

A quick draw and a fast release are always welcomed in the NFL. The quicker the ball gets out, the less likely a quarterback is to get hit while throwing. And just like two plus two equals four, fewer hits equal fewer injuries and turnovers.

While Beathard’s feet may move slowly, his arm sure does move fast. Beathard showed the quickest draw of 49ers quarterbacks, perhaps masking deficiencies in accuracy. Though some passes dropped low, high ball speed at release doesn’t allow opposing corners and safeties to track the under-thrown balls. It also keeps DBs from seeking out telegraphed throws.

The slowest release, perhaps the most reminiscent of Kaepernick’s infamous wind-up, was Barkley. The slow-motion, cock-back style is not ideal for a quarterback, especially one not known for his mobility. Barkley gave plenty of time for 49er defensive lineman to get inside of the pocket for “sacks.”

Overall Assessment

Judging from these five attributes, the not-so-clear frontrunner thus far at quarterback appears to be Hoyer. This should come as no surprise, considering he played under Shanahan in Cleveland in 2014. His knowledge of the offense and additional experience make him the clear candidate for starter for the upcoming season.

Following him is Barkley at backup, Beathard at third string, and Mullens as an outsider with the potential of being cut before the season begins. With several months remaining until starters are announced, there is clearly room for improvement for all of the 49ers quarterbacks.