Shaun Hill, Alex Smith get early start in 49ers’ quarterback race
SANTA CLARA ” Mike Singletary hopes receiver Isaac Bruce will decide his future with the San Francisco 49ers by April 1. The coach’s decision on a starting quarterback probably will take a whole lot longer.
No time is too early to start the 49ers’ seemingly annual quarterback competition ” not even a few hours into the first day of the first minicamp of Singletary’s tenure. With the first game of 2009 still more than five months away, Singletary has begun evaluating whether Alex Smith, Shaun Hill, Damon Huard or a yet-to-be-signed-or-drafted passer will be his starter in the fall.
Finding an additional candidate seems possible, although the Niners seem less interested in Jay Cutler than they were in Kurt Warner, who spurned their overtures two weeks ago. Smith and Hill are neck-and-neck after Smith’s contract renegotiation and Hill’s late-season success last year, but Singletary clearly is keeping every option open.
“I just feel very fortunate to have both of them on this team and under contract,” Singletary said Friday. “It’s a matter of us as coaches picking the right one at that point in time.”
Singletary also has spoken to Bruce, who’s contemplating retirement after one solid season with San Francisco. The coach hopes Bruce, who isn’t attending the voluntary minicamp, will let the team know by April whether he’ll return for another year.
Bruce became the fifth player in NFL history to catch 1,000 passes last season, but his absence could provide an opportunity to newcomer Brandon Jones to be the top pass-catcher. Jones is learning every receiving position in Raye’s offense, but is practicing at flanker, which would be Bruce’s likely spot.
“I think I could fill it,” said Jones, who signed with San Francisco after spending his first four NFL seasons with the Tennessee Titans. “It’s an opportunity that I want, but it’s not about looking at it like that.”
New coordinator Jimmy Raye addressed his full offensive roster for the first time this week, and he was active Friday in his first workouts since taking over for Mike Martz as the Niners’ seventh offensive coordinator in seven seasons. Although the players are still learning his terminology and tendencies, Hill already has a good idea what’s going on.
“I feel more comfortable in Jimmy Raye’s system than Mike Martz’s system,” Hill said. “Every time I talk to (Raye), I get excited.”
Hill is 7-3 as a starter over the last two seasons, but Singletary has refused to give him the starting nod ” and the Niners openly pursued Warner, the two-time MVP. While some young quarterbacks like Cutler would become furious with the perceived disrespect of such a situation, it’s nothing new to Hill, a seven-year veteran who hadn’t taken a significant NFL snap until late 2007.
“That’s just the way my whole career has been on every level,” Hill said with a shrug. “College (at Maryland) was the same way. I don’t know any other way. This team will benefit from the competition, and not every team can say that.”
Singletary refused to address whether the 49ers might be interested in pursuing Cutler, the disenchanted Denver quarterback. The coach claims he was more interested in keeping Smith, the former No. 1 draft pick who restructured his contract to take another shot at the starting job after missing most of the last two seasons with injuries.
Smith said he isn’t limited in any throwing work after undergoing shoulder surgery last year.
“A lot has changed, and there’s a lot to be excited about,” Smith said. “It’s a chance to dive right in. That’s definitely new.”
Offensive tackle Jonas Jennings and safety Mark Roman also didn’t report to minicamp. Both players aren’t likely to return to the 49ers: Jennings is expected to be released soon, and Roman is searching for a trade after Singletary awarded his starting job to Dashon Goldson.
Goldson, a third-year pro from the University of Washington, missed much of last season with a knee-ligament injury, yet still gave the San Francisco coaches enough confidence to promote him. He says his biggest asset in the job is “my passion. I’ve got a lot of range, and my ball-hawking skills ” I go after the ball like no other.”