Colin Kaepernick ended the 2015 season injured and backing up a Jacksonville Jaguars draft bust, but the 49ers quarterback now looks set for a fresh start in San Francisco.
Rewind a couple of months, and a Kaepernick return in 2016 would’ve seemed incredibly unlikely. The 28-year old was recovering from shoulder surgery, his back-up Blaine Gabbert seemed more suited to now-former offensive coordinator Geep Chryst’s offence, and when Kaepernick actually played, he was poor.
Speculation that he would leave San Francisco intensified, with some sources claiming that the quarterback himself was keen to move on. All of this for a player who had led his team to the Super Bowl just two years previously, then viewed by many as a franchise quarterback. Add in the fact that keeping Kaepernick would result in a $16.8m salary cap hit for San Francisco, and all signs pointed to the exit door.
Return to February 2016, and things are looking up for Kaepernick. Stop-gap coach Jim Tomsula has been replaced by former Philadelphia Eagles head coach and ‘offensive guru’ Chip Kelly. Immediately after the announcement of Kelly’s appointment, many analysts began to speculate that maybe it wasn’t all over between Kaepernick and the Niners.
Indeed, it now looks almost certain their relationship will continue, with 49ers general manager Trent Baalke addressing the media on Wednesday.
“Colin’s done some awful good things through his career, won some big games for the San Francisco 49ers and [we] expect him to come back,” said Baalke.
So, there it is – apparent confirmation that Kaepernick will return to San Francisco after all. What does this mean for the team going forward?
The cap hit
First thing’s first, re-signing Kaepernick is going to cost a lot of money. As mentioned, the franchise will take a $16.8m salary cap hit if they do indeed bring him back. Even if you don’t follow the NFL, you know that this is a considerable sum, especially considering his below-par performances last season. It also means there’s less money to go elsewhere.
This means that Kaepernick will be guaranteed his salary of $11.9m, although San Francisco will retain the right to release him before April 1 in 2017 and 2018.
It’s an interesting decision from the 49ers, given that Kaepernick – injury aside – had the worst season of his career in 2015. Blaine Gabbert, one of the biggest draft busts in recent years, finished the season with a better completion percentage than Kaepernick, passed for more yards than Kaepernick and suffered fewer sacks. Astonishingly, Gabbert also managed a higher rushing average, given Kaepernick’s strengths on the ground. Gabbert also put together a 3-5 record, with Kaepernick going 2-6 as the they split starts across the season. Despite all of this, the 49ers clearly believe that he can rediscover his best form of 2012 and 2013.
The Chip Kelly effect
While the large cap hit would have certainly crossed the minds of those in the 49ers front office, the arrival of Chip Kelly was probably what swung the pendulum in the favour of Kaepernick’s retention.
Kelly was a wonderful college football coach, to put it simply. He excelled at Oregon, leading the team to the national championship game in his final year in charge with one of the most explosive offences seen in recent years. Much of that was due to his use of a dual-threat quarterback. At Oregon, Kelly had a gifted passer who could rush like a legitimate running back – a certain young first-year player in Marcus Mariota, now impressing in the NFL with Tennessee.
Now in San Francisco, Kelly is presented with Kaepernick – a quarterback who epitomises the term ‘dual-threat.’ On his day, you could argue there isn’t anyone better in the entire NFL. This presents a tantalising prospect, as in three years at Philadelphia, Kelly never had the chance to work with a true dual-threat quarterback, other than a brief flirtation with veteran passer Michael Vick at the very beginning. In much of his tenure in Philly, Kelly still managed to make the offence tick with the likes of Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez under center.
Whether it’s boom or bust for the Kelly and Kaepernick tandem, it certainly isn’t going to be short of intrigue.
Even with Kaepernick staying, the 49ers could decide to bring in a project for the future in the draft. With the franchise picking seventh, they will have at least one or two of this year’s top quarterback prospects to consider.
It’s likely that at least one of the consensus top three prospects – Jared Goff, Carson Wentz and Paxton Lynch – will have gone by the time Trent Baalke and Chip Kelly make their selection, especially with quarterback-desperate Cleveland picking second.
Memphis alumnus Lynch could present an interesting option for San Francisco in the long run. Many scouts have compared his build and athleticism to the league’s top dual-threat passers, such as Cam Newton, Mariota and Kaepernick himself.
However, if Kaepernick can return to form, quarterback won’t be as much of a need as it may currently seem, if at all. Granted, that will come down to if the 49ers are confident they can get the best out of him once again. If so, Baalke may look to strengthen their defensive pass rush, or indeed, their offensive line.
It’s a team that showed last year they have a number of needs, so giving Kaepernick one last try perhaps makes sense to allow them to address these this year.
We looked at what could be next for outgoing Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III. The 49ers could be yet another option, especially considering he is another player with the dual-threat abilities that Kelly could bring to the fore.
However, with his knee taking a shattering in recent years and his performance levels a concern, it’s unclear as to what Griffin will be like when he returns to the field. If Kaepernick is deemed a risk, then Griffin would seem an even bigger one for the 49ers to take.