Since the Super Bowl creates a media storm every year that would rival the Great Red Spot on Jupiter, the Senior Bowl often goes overlooked. However, while the two coaches hoping to bring home a Lombardi Trophy are busy planning for the biggest game of their careers, the other 30 coaches are busy in Mobile, Ala., watching former college players in an All-Star game of sorts between teams full of draft hopefuls. It's kind of the official kickoff of the NFL Draft season.
There are a lot of players that make or break their future draft position in the Senior Bowl and one of those players was 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick's journey to leading the Niners through the playoffs and to their sixth Super Bowl berth didn't begin in Week 10 when he assumed the starting job in San Francisco, but in the 2011 Senior Bowl when he began to show the 49ers he was worth a second-round pick.
Pro Football Talk's Evan Silva wrote in January 2011 that Kaepernick's performance in Senior Bowl practices was going to cause his draft stock to rise similar to the way Jay Cutler's did in 2006:
In 2011, Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick took the Senior Bowl practice field as a four-year college starter coming off impressive wins over undefeated Boise State and Boston College in the Fight Hunger Bowl. Observers knew Kaepernick could throw a baseball 95 mph and was a former Cubs draft pick. They also knew of Kaepernick's athleticism. He averaged 6.85 yards per college rushing attempt, joining Missouri's Brad Smith as the only players in NCAA history to top 8,000 yards passing and 4,000 rushing. Onlookers questioned Kaepernick's ability to play in a pro-style offense coming from Nevada coach Chris Ault's pistol spread.
Like Cutler in '06, Kaepernick appears to have silenced doubters.
According to FOX Sports' Adam Caplan, Kaepernick was "great" on Monday and "by far" the best quarterback in practice on Wednesday. CBS' Rob Rang noted Kaepernick's "spectacular" arm strength. Rotoworld's Michael Schottey observed that Kaepernick "threw the ball as well as anyone," generating "buzz from team scouts."
The three big-named quarterbacks to be selected in the '06 draft were Vince Young, Matt Leinart and Jay Cutler. Cutler was the last of those three to be selected and we've all seen what happened to the first two. Similarly, Kaepernick wasn't the first quarterback to be selected in 2011. In fact, he was sixth. Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder and Andy Dalton were all selected before Kaepernick was taken at No. 36, yet, like Cutler, Kaepernick has been the most successful despite the fact that he has the least amount of playing time.
SB Nation's own Minnesota Vikings blog, Daily Norseman, wrote about Kaepernick's surprising rise in popularity during the 2011 Senior Bowl when it was clear that they were looking for a quarterback (just unsure as to which one), saying that one of the only concerns was the fact that Nevada utilized a Pistol Offense that likely wouldn't transfer well to the NFL:
Yes, the prospect that's clearly making the most noise down in Mobile today is University of Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick. People haven't talked much about Kaepernick to this point, mainly because of their worries about his ability to adjust to the funky "pistol" offense that the Wolf Pack runs. It's hard to question Kaepernick's athleticism. He stands 6'5", was once a Chicago Cubs' pitching prospect (the ability to throw a 95-mph fastball will make those sorts of things happen), and he's one of only two players in NCAA history to pass for over 8,000 yards and rush for more than 4,000 in a career ... former Missouri quarterback and current New York Jets' Swiss Army knife Brad Smith is the other.
Of course it's known now that Jim Harbaugh has used the Pistol offense, utilizing Kaepernick's ability to not only throw the ball, but run as well, to help take the team to the Super Bowl.
The NFL is, without a doubt, a passing league. In order for a team to make it to the Super Bowl, they need to be able to move the ball down the field in large chunks, which means they need a quarterback that knows how to throw. Before Kaepernick was named the team's starter, Alex Smith led a decent offense that relied heavily on Frank Gore and the running game. He was asked not to turn the ball over and manage the game and let the defense and the running game do their thing. That was good enough to get the team to the NFC Championship game a year before, but not good enough to get to the Super Bowl.
Kaepernick's ability to make big plays has allowed the 49ers offense to be just as good as their defense and is the major reason that the Niners are favored over the Ravens. If they win, head coach Jim Harbaugh will not only look like a genius for making the change at quarterback, but it will show every other team how important the Senior Bowl is to finding the future stars of their team.