Colin Kaepernick: A Worthy Gamble

The NFL scheduled a workout for Colin Kaepernick in front of a couple dozen NFL teams on Saturday, but as with pretty much everything in Kaepernick’s career, things didn’t go as planned. Ultimately, Kaepernick did work out, but independently and for only a handful of teams, an hour later and a few miles away from the original site. Kaepernick backers will point to the NFL’s curious timing and strict rules; his detractors will suggest that he would find no requirements adequate. The 32-year-old showed off his rare throwing arm as well as his ability to divide NFL fans. It seems unlikely any team will take a chance on Kaepernick, but it’s worth looking at his career and what he offers as a possibility for quarterback-needy teams.

A Troubling Pattern

Kaepernick played sparingly as a rookie in 2011, but burst on the scene when starter Alex Smith suffered a concussion in 2012. He excelled in the air and on the ground, averaging 8.3 yards per attempt (best among QBs with 200 attempts) and adding 415 rush yards on just 63 attempts. He remained outstanding in San Francisco’s playoff run, averaging nearly 10 yards per pass attempt and whopping 10.6 yards per rush. Kaepernick’s first full season in 2013 wasn’t quite as strong, but he finished eighth in the NFL with 7.7 yards per pass attempt, only threw eight interceptions, and remained a ground threat, as the 49ers went 12-4.

That was his last above-average year, however. Kaepernick’s yards per attempt fell to 7.0 in 2014, 22nd in the league, though he did set a career high in rushing. His 2015 campaign was probably his worst, as he lost his job to Blaine Gabbert and underwent season-ending shoulder surgery. Kaepernick finished with a career-worst 6.6 yards per attempt, while the 49ers finished dead last in scoring offense and went 5-11. Gabbert entered 2016 as the starter, but Kaepernick took over in Week 6. While he posted a gaudy 16 TD to 4 INT ratio, he averaged only 6.8 yards per attempt and took sacks on nearly 10% of his dropbacks. San Francisco finished a dismal 27th in scoring offense and won only two games.

While Kaepernick declined statistically during his career, it’s hard to parse how much of that was due to the league “catching up” with him, and how much to a deterioration in the organization generally. General manager Trent Baalke forced out head coach Jim Harbaugh after an 8-8 finish in 2014, but Harbaugh’s successor Jim Tomsula fared no better in 2015 and Baalke ousted him after a 5-11 campaign. After a 2-14 2016 season, Chip Kelly became the third straight head coach to get his walking papers, this time taking Baalke with him. The on-field talent continued to erode amid the off-field upheaval. With a head coaching change for the third straight year, Kaepernick was on the outs, and opted out of his contract before he could be cut.

49ers Supporting Cast

* Pro Bowler

+ Kaepernick started fewer than 10 games

– Player / coach has not played / coached in 2019 NFL season

Unsurprisingly, things did not immediately turn around with the ouster of Baalke, Kelly, and Kaepernick. The 49ers endured two more losing seasons, going 10-22, before their turnaround this year. Kaepernick was unable to transcend a poor supporting cast late in his career, but perhaps he can be more successful with better pieces around him.

Kaepernick the Option

So there’s plenty of reason to think Kaepernick might not work out … but that’s also why he’s available in the first place. Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, and DeShaun Watson are not hitting the free agent market. As of Week 11, every quarterback with at least 10 touchdown passes either played for his current team last year or is a rookie. Top signal-callers just don’t change teams frequently. Of the quarterbacks to make the Pro Bowl since 2002, 71% are still playing for the team they started with:

That obviously depresses the available talent pool considerably. Teams will not let halfway-decent quarterbacks hit the market. Unsurprisingly, that leads to more teams seeking their signal-callers through the draft. But teams that aren’t picking near the top, aren’t willing to trade up, or don’t like their options further down, might have to consider the available veteran options. And that means players like Kaepernick: players with warts. Those warts include:

Injury Risk

Two of the greatest free agent signings in the modern era are Drew Brees and Peyton Manning. Brees looked like a failed prospect through his first three years with the San Diego Chargers, but turned in a Pro Bowl campaign in 2004 and another quality season in 2005. But with questions about his throwing shoulder, the Chargers let him hit free agency. The New Orleans Saints jumped at the opportunity, and he’s rewarded them with one of the greatest careers in NFL history, including a Super Bowl championship. Manning had done his best work already when a neck injury cost him the 2011 season, but the Denver Broncos decided he had more in the tank and signed him despite concerns for his future. He rewarded them with an MVP season in 2013 and a Super Bowl title two years later.

Early Failure

Steve Young had a truly miserable start to his career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 53% completion rate, 11 TDs to 21 INTs, sacks on 12% of his dropbacks, a dismal 3.53 ANY/A, and a 3-16 record. Legendary coach Bill Walsh still saw the talent that led to Young signing a record rookie deal with the USFL. After serving as a backup for four seasons, he took over for good in 1991 and put together a Hall of Fame career. Brett Favre threw only four passes as a rookie with the Atlanta Falcons and two were picked off, but Green Bay Packers GM Ron Wolf saw enough to deal a first-round pick, and Favre won three MVPs and a Super Bowl with the Pack.

Lack of Renown

Sometimes much less-regarded prospects than Young and Favre thrive when given a chance with a second team … or sometimes a third or fourth. Trent Green was an eighth-round pick in 1993—the draft only has seven rounds now—and didn’t get a chance to start until 1998. He settled in with the Kansas City Chiefs in the early 2000’s, making two Pro Bowls. The New England Patriots selected Rich Gannon in the fourth round of the 1987 draft and tried to make him a running back. After some years starting with the Minnesota Vikings and backing up in Kansas City, he linked up with Jon Gruden in Oakland and made four Pro Bowls and two All-Pro Teams.

Apparent Decline

Former Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer was a young star with the Cincinnati Bengals, but by 2013 he didn’t look like the same guy. He’d retired in 2011 to force a trade to the Raiders, then disappointed in two seasons in silver-and-black, completing barely 60% of his passes and throwing 30 interceptions against only 35 touchdowns. The Arizona Cardinals were able to pick him up for a song, just a swap of late-round picks. They wound up going 38-21-1 and Palmer turned in an MVP-caliber season in 2015. That wasn’t the first time Arizona proved a fountain of youth for an aging quarterback. Kurt Warner’s St. Louis Rams career petered out, followed by a one-year stint with the New York Giants. He landed in Arizona, and led the desert birds to a Super Bowl appearance in 2008.

A Long Time Off

Perhaps the case that best mirrors Kaepernick is that of Michael Vick, who like Kaepernick, had an extended hiatus from the NFL. Vick spent 21 months in prison for running a dog-fighting ring, for which the NFL suspended him as well. He was out of the league entirely in 2007 and 2008 and threw just 13 passes in 2009. In 2010, however, he turned in perhaps the greatest season of his career, finishing with a passer rating north of 100 while adding 676 yards and 9 touchdowns on the ground.

There are a lot of reasons Kaepernick might fail. But that is true of all the players I listed above, too. If Kaepernick had continued his early-career trajectory, there’s no way he would be available right now. The question is not whether Kaepernick is as good a bet as Carson Wentz or Dak Prescott or Patrick Mahomes—they’re not available. The question is whether he’s a better bet than Nick Foles, Jameis Winston, Tyrod Taylor, and the other quarterbacks with blemishes who are going to be on the market. There are arguments either way, but certainly Kaepernick deserves consideration among that group.

Compiling the list above, I can’t help but notice how big a role coaching played in many of those success stories. Young got in with Walsh, Favre with Mike Holmgren. Palmer had his resurgence under Bruce Arians, Vick under Andy Reid. Brees took his game to another level with Sean Payton. Gannon paired perfectly with Gruden’s flavor of Walsh’s offense. These are some of the top offensive minds of the past 25 years.

In that light, it would be fun to see Kaepernick paired with a coach who could take advantage of his strengths, especially his big arm in the deep passing game. He might fit great with Arians’ bombs-away attack in Tampa Bay, providing Winston’s upside without so many interceptions. The Bucs seem unlikely to draft high enough to obtain a top QB prospect; why not try Kaepernick? He would fit in with Norv Turner in Carolina as well if the Panthers decide Cam Newton isn’t healthy and want to bring in veteran competition for Kyle Allen. That would also reunite Kaepernick with Eric Reid.

The other elephant in the room, of course, is Kaepernick’s political activism. Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’re aware that he made headlines during the 2016 season for sitting, then kneeling during the National Anthem. This drew extensive backlash from some circles, including all the way up to President Trump. Teams contemplating signing Kaepernick did so at the risk of igniting a “media circus” and drawing unwanted attention.

The initial firestorm around this issue appears to have died down. Former San Francisco teammate Reid, who also settled with the NFL in a collusion suit, has largely been a non-story during his tenure with the Panthers, despite continuing to protest during the Anthem. A team that signs Kaepernick will make national headlines, but it’s unlikely the story will have the kind of legs it would have had in 2017 or even last year. For teams considering desperate options at quarterback, now is a prime opportunity to see what Kaepernick has left.

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