When the 2015 season began, it was clear from preseason projections that the San Francisco 49ers were probably the weakest team in the NFC West. The departure of famed Coach Jim Harbaugh, as well as the talent exile the franchise had seen in recent seasons were enough to think of the Niners as a team in rebuilding mode, now under a new coach in Jim Tomsula, and with a new stadium that was still building a new identity for the franchise. Despite the relative turmoil state in San Francisco, it was at least assumed that the quarterback position was capably filled, and that Colin Kaepernick could use this tough season as a building block towards the next contending 49ers team. However, things haven't gone according to plan.
Through 10 games, San Francisco stands at 3-8, tied for the worst mark in the NFC. That was certainly a reasonable scenario, but what came as a surprise was that Kapernick only started 8 of those games before being demoted in favor of Blaine Gabbert. The Niners went only 2-6 in Kaepernick's starts, with the Nevada alum playing the worst football of his career, and regressing to a point that suddenly made Gabbert (with a career 6-24 record as a starter) a more attractive option.
Since becoming a full-time starter in 2012, Kaepernick had always been somewhat erratic but with an upside that few quarterbacks have in the NFL. He took the 49ers to the NFC Championship in his first season, and then came within a completion of winning the Super Bowl in his second year. At that point, it seemed as if the Niners had found a worthy successor in their QB lineage, as Kaep had the unique skillset of a solid passer with the athleticism to produce yards with his legs, who was already a Super Bowl QB at age 26.
That prompted the 49ers to hand their quarterback a big contract extension before the 2014 season, in what essentially was a non-guaranteed, six-year deal that gave the franchise an early out clause in case things didn't work out well for both parties. Kaepernick's recent benching and the troubles he's had with management have led the NLF to be almost certain that the former franchise QB will be in search of a new team before the 2016 season. While it is not completely unheard of to think that a QB of his age and accomplishments to suddenly become available, it is indeed a rare chance for other franchises to lure such a quarterback and give him another chance to succeed.
Kaepernick's statistical profile certainly reveals a quarterback that has declined to a low point, especially considering that he will finish 2015 ranked in the bottom five of quarterback rating, with career-lows in many key offensive categories. If we split his career numbers by his early peak followed by a disappointing 2014 and the disastrous 2015, the picture becomes a lot clearer:
2012-2013: 17-6 Record, 59.8% Comp., 31 TD, 11 Int., 93.9 Rating, 939 Rush Yd., 9 Rush TD
2014: 8-8 Record, 60.5% Comp., 19 TD, 10 Int., 86.4 Rating, 639 Rush Yd., 1 Rush TD
2015: 2-6 Record, 59.0% Comp., 6 TD, 5 Int., 93.9 Rating, 256 Rush Yd., 1 Rush TD
While some of the numbers don't see such a dramatic drop-off, they undersell just how lost Kaepernick has looked at times during the past two seasons, especially after teams stopped fearing his passing, which in turn provoked a decline in his rush attempts. While the loss of key components of San Francisco's offense have certainly played a role in Kaep's fall from grace, there are also numerous mechanical and likely character adjustments to be made if he wishes to regain his status as a starting QB.
If the 49ers choose to cut him before their deadline set on April 1st, 2016, they will only be responsible for a prorated signing bonus of around $7.4 million, which is a significant amount in dead money, but pales in comparison to the salaries Kaepernick would be set to make through 2019. If the franchise has really lost all faith in his ability to remain the franchise QB, Kaep could become the ultimate project for offensive coordinators around the league, and one that could produce a bidding war for his services.
While some teams will certainly be cautious considering his steep decline seen in 2014 and 2015, others will look to his dazzling career start (like his playoff win in Lambeau Field), or his unique combination as a runner and a passer and try to harness that potential into a career renaissance. With the league always on the lookout for above-average quarterbacks, who could potentially present a good landing spot for Kaepernick?
At this point, it may be hard to predict the changes that will follow the 2015 season, as Kaepernick's destination will depend on several personnel and salary cap factors. However, the market for quarterbacks with potential will always be an attractive one, especially for franchises that have no true established QB's in their system. Based on what we have seen so far in the present season, we could divide the remaining 31 NFL franchises into three camps:
Teams with established QB situations
Patriots, Bills, Dolphins, Bengals, Steelers, Ravens, Colts, Jaguars, Titans, Chiefs, Raiders, Chargers, Giants, Vikings, Packers, Bears, Panthers, Falcons, Buccaneers, Cardinals, Seahawks.
Broncos, Cowboys, Redskins, Lions, Saints.
Jets, Browns, Texans, Eagles, Rams
So while this tentative division of the NFL would make Kaepernick a bad fit for around two thirds of the league, the rest could make a convincing case for giving the embattled QB another chance. The “wild card” bunch will enter the 2016 offseason with major questions behind center regardless of how the season finishes, while the “needy” group is probably already scouting for a better option once the season is finished.
The Jets and Texans may be playoff contenders as of today, but they own their status mostly to solid defenses. On the other hand, the Browns, Eagles, and Rams have fallen apart and desperately need a stable quarterback to get over the hump. If Chip Kelly manages to get a final opportunity in Philadelphia, he would be the prime candidate to land Kaepernick to lead an up-tempo offense that can harness his mobility, but that may be tough if the Eagles continue their free-fall.
In an offseason where we might see a couple of high-profile quarterbacks change teams (Matt Stafford and Drew Brees come to mind), Colin Kapernick will be another name that will make headlines regardless of where he lands. His current injury will not allow him to showcase his talents any longer in 2015, but his near certain departure from San Francisco will make him a vaunted free agent based on his potential and what he showed early in his career.
Super Bowl quarterbacks don't reach the open market too often, so this storyline is bound to become fascinating as the offseason rolls around. As for Kaepernick, he will get another chance to redeem himself and prove the 49ers wrong, but a lot will have to change in his play if he wished to rejoin the ranks of the franchise quarterbacks in the NFL.