Jim Harbaugh says he's starting to see some clarity in the 49ers' Nos. 1 and 2 quarterback jobs. The No. 3 position, however, remains as fuzzy as ever.
Three days after saying there was no "clear cut" leader in the competition to be the 49ers' starter, Harbaugh on Tuesday said that Alex Smith had begun to peel away from rookie Colin Kaepernick in recent practices.
"There's some separation there," Harbaugh said. "You know, Alex has done a fine job. But Kap -- Kap's doing a phenomenal job. He is going to be one heck of a talent, one heck of a player." Speaking more on Smith, Harbaugh said, "He's had eight practices. I could really go back the last three, four, five practices and it's just solid - getting better, getting better every practice. Very encouraging."
Finding a veteran passer to be the third quarterback hasn't been nearly as encouraging. Harbaugh revealed Tuesday that the team entered free agency with a target in mind. "We had a guy there in free agency, and it didn't work out," he said.
That guy is likely former Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck who said recently that his choice came down to the 49ers and Titans. He ultimately decided to play in Tennessee. Hasselbeck received a three-year, $20 million deal from the Titans. If he had signed with the 49ers he would have competed for the starting spot, not settled for the role of third quarterback. Harbaugh insisted the 49ers did - and still do - have a plan for that position, but that the player they bring in has to be "the right guy and the right fit for our situation here."
The 49ers on Monday worked out former Sacramento Mountain Lions quarterback Daunte Culpepper for that position and Harbaugh said "a few other guys" may be visiting in coming days. He would not rule out the 49ers eventually signing Culpepper, 34, but a deal does not appear imminent.
As for Smith, he said the improved practices simply were the culmination of practice repetitions. As an example, he cited two passes he threw to wideout Braylon Edwards on slant patterns Friday night. The first was thrown behind Edwards incomplete; the second was on target for 12 yards and a first down. The difference, he said, was that the 49ers hadn't practiced the first route very much before Friday. "The second one is something we repped a little more and was pretty easy to hit," he said.
While Harbaugh has called Smith's battle with Kaepernick a competition, Smith has received the lion's share of the work with the first unit since he joined training camp practice. Kaepernick took a few snaps behind the first-team offensive line Tuesday, but struggled during one stretch when he went 0-4. (To be fair, one of the passes was dropped).
He didn't seem bowed by the news that Smith had taken a lead.
"Well, he has seven (six, actually) years of experience," Kaepernick said. "So you expect him to have a little more knowledge of defenses and checks and things like that than a rookie coming in. Right now I'm just trying to get up to speed and make sure I know all those things so I can make this a competition."
-- Matt Barrows