The San Francisco 49ers are officially on the hook for the $11.9 million base salary owed to quarterback Colin Kaepernick for the 2016 season, at least for now. Kaepernick signed a team-friendly deal that allowed the team various outs if the quarterback under-performed and after his benching last season, there have been plenty of rumors and speculation about Kaepernick's future.
With a deadline of April 1 for Kaepernick's 2016-17 base salary to become fully guaranteed, the technical deadline actually passed at 4 p.m. ET on Thursday, when the league stopped accepting transactions for the day. Once it was clear that no release or trade had been made, Kaepernick will make that much this year unless he willingly agrees to restructure his contract.
Being among the teams that hired a new head coach, the 49ers are set to begin their offseason workout program on Monday, April 4. Despite an uncertain future, Kaepernick is expected to attend that program, as first reported by Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News. Given he has a $400,000 workout bonus if he attends 90 percent of the offseason workout program, it's no surprise that Kaepernick is expected to show.
But what of the trade rumors, the connection to the Denver Broncos, who have reportedly been working on acquiring Kaepernick for weeks? And why didn't the 49ers, who have little hope of competing next season and seem to like Blaine Gabbert more than their once-franchise quarterback, release Kaepernick prior to the deadline?
They were never going to release Kaepernick
One thing that was routinely overlooked in this whole process is the fact that Kaepernick's 2016 salary was already guaranteed for injury. And Kaepernick, not long after his benching last season, was placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. That injury is not yet healed, and the 49ers had not even brought him in for a physical as of Thursday.
Releasing Kaepernick without him being able to pass a physical would have resulted in the 49ers being on the hook for the $11.9 million regardless. They stated multiple times that they had no plans on releasing Kaepernick in advance of the April 1 deadline, but it was a constant discussion until said deadline regardless.
Whether or not the team is serious about Kaepernick legitimately having a chance at starting and succeeding in head coach Chip Kelly's offense is still to be determined. Kaepernick has reportedly been "disillusioned" with the franchise and it may even be the case that he doesn't want to play for them at all, while the 49ers knew they could try and get a trade for him rather than be on the hook for his salary in either scenario.
A trade can still be made
The deadline isn't like most deadlines, which usually restrict options going forward. The 49ers have every option available to them on Friday that they did on Thursday and well before then. They can still trade Kaepernick, same as they could before the deadline, and the Broncos are still an option. The issue is whether or not every party can get something out of the deal.
Throughout this saga, there have been reports that the 49ers are satisfied with the offered compensation, that the Broncos and Kaepernick were close to a restructured deal, that the Broncos wanted Kaepernick to take a massive pay cut and that Kaepernick has not actually said he'd refuse to take a pay cut.
Where things stand is unknown and any new report only adds another layer of uncertainty to the mix. We won't know for sure if a deal is even likely until something far, far more concrete comes out on this front. But Kaepernick's salary being guaranteed is one inconsequential factor in the proceedings. Kaepernick starting the offseason workout program with the 49ers is also likely inconsequential to the proceedings.
The decision could be Kaepernick's to make
Nobody can be certain if Kaepernick is willing to take a pay cut, how much the pay cut the Broncos are after, how much the 49ers actually want Kaepernick involved in their 2016 plans and how adamant Kaepernick is about not playing for the organization that drafted him going forward. There are so many factors at play, but if we take a couple things as givens, the balance of power becomes a little clearer.
Say it's definitely true that the Broncos are trying to trade for Kaepernick, and that it's definitely true that the Broncos and 49ers are close enough on compensation that Denver has launched negotiations with Kaepernick and his agent. Say it's also true that the Broncos need Kaepernick to take a substantial pay cut. If those things are true, then the person who has the power is Kaepernick.
He's getting money, one way or the other. Is he willing to take a pay cut, possibly a substantial one, to play for the reigning Super Bowl champions? Does he want out of San Francisco badly enough to up and leave the team that drafted him for less money than he would make by sticking around?
There are plenty of questions and not of lot of answers, but no more of either than there were before the April 1 deadline.