Colin Kaepernick left $16.9 million on the table for 2017 just to get the hell out of San Francisco. So far, his escape looks like a costly one.
Kaepernick is one of the best options in a limited quarterback market, but has garnered little interest as a free agent. Instead, former starters like Mike Glennon, Brian Hoyer, Josh McCown, Matt Barkley, Mark Sanchez, and Nick Foles have all signed with franchises, leaving the former 49er in the lurch. Two weeks after the start of free agency, Kaepernick and Jay Cutler were the most accomplished passers still free to land a contract with a new team.
Is that a function of the low-key national anthem protests that became Sunday clickbait fodder throughout last fall? Director Spike Lee seems to think so. Kaepernick is the only member of this year’s free agent crop to have started a Super Bowl, though he’s also seen his career spiral away from him thanks to a decline in his on-field play. He went just 3-16 the past two seasons as a starter, but there’s evidence that has more to do with the 49ers’ incompetence than his own regression as a player.
What happened to Colin Kaepernick after his meteoric rise to Super Bowl quarterback?
Kaepernick has been the victim of an unusual dismantling in Santa Clara. 2016 marked the fourth season since the 49ers had played in Super Bowl 47 and third since their last playoff appearance. Let’s compare that 2013 team’s offense with the players who flanked Kaepernick last fall.
2013 49ers offense vs. 2016 49ers offense
|Pos.||2013 49ers||2016 49ers|
|Pos.||2013 49ers||2016 49ers|
|RB||Frank Gore*||Carlos Hyde|
|RB||Kendall Hunter||Shaun Draughn|
|WR||Anquan Boldin*||Jeremy Kerley|
|WR||Michael Crabtree||Quinton Patton|
|WR||Kyle Williams||Torrey Smith|
|TE||Vernon Davis*||Vance McDonald|
|OL||Joe Staley*||Joe Staley*|
|OL||Mike Iupati*||Zane Beadles*|
|OL||Jonathan Goodwin*||Daniel Kilgore|
|OL||Alex Boone||Joshua Garnett|
|OL||Anthony Davis||Trenton Brown|
Players with asterisks next to their name denote Pro Bowlers.
It gets worse. The Niners defense featured six Pro Bowlers that year, significantly more than the zero it had in 2016. Not even Tom Brady, praise be unto him, could turn that unit into a winner.
That’s a tremendous dropoff in talent, and it’s compounded by the fact the team ousted Jim Harbaugh — 44-19-1 in the NFL’s regular season — for a revolving door of coaching mediocrity that’s already burned through Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly in just two seasons.
Kaepernick’s downturn hasn’t solely been a function of his surroundings, though. His career peaked in 2012 after replacing Alex Smith and leading his team to the Super Bowl. He’s been struggling to reach that level ever since.
Kaepernick’s first seven starts showed off his ability to open up defenses with his legs and buy time to find open players downfield. His 8.6 yards per pass attempt led the league in 2012, and his 98.3 passer rating would have placed him seventh among qualified starters — sandwiched between Brady and Ben Roethlisberger. But his effectiveness waned in his final two seasons with Harbaugh as teams adjusted to his dynamic, and sometimes manic, style of play.
While he led San Francisco to a 12-4 record in 2013, his completion rate dropped while his interception rate rose. He was still a top-10 passer after racking up around 3,200 yards and 21 touchdowns, plus more production on the ground, but his decline was just beginning.
Colin Kaepernick's decline (and slight revival)
|Yards per attempt||8.6||7.8||6.9||6.2||7.2|
His last season with Harbaugh, an 8-8 affair that gave Jed York -- the league’s preeminent savant when it comes to failure — enough of an excuse to jettison his outspoken coach, showed more cracks in Kaepernick’s game. His targets remained largely the same from 2012, but were aging rapidly. Steady contributors like Boldin, Davis, and Brandon Lloyd were all 30 years or older. Younger acquisitions like Stevie Johnson and Bruce Ellington failed to work out.
When the 49ers’ top players got too old for their roles, there was no young talent to replace them. Kaepernick’s growth as a quarterback suffered, and his struggles turned into a spiral. Soon, the franchise was so disillusioned with him it turned to human scarecrow Blaine Gabbert as its starter.
What about Kaepernick’s 2016?
The 29-year-old played with the worst roster of his professional career, but still found a way to make lemonade. He posted his first 90-plus passer rating since 2013 after taking the reins from Gabbert in Week 6. Kaepernick’s stats show a quarterback with better numbers than young players like Tyrod Taylor, Trevor Siemian, and Jameis Winston, and older vets like Joe Flacco, Carson Palmer, and Cam Newton.
Of course, that’s not why you heard his name last fall.
Kaepernick earned headlines for his decision to take a knee during the national anthem before games in 2016. That choice, he explained to NFL.com, was rooted in his disappointment with America’s social climate. The San Francisco quarterback declined to “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
He was the first player to take that stand last fall, but not the last. His protest extended across teams and throughout the sporting landscape, permeating into high school, NCAA, and even the U.S. National Women’s Soccer team.
That act of social defiance made him a hot topic despite starting the season on the bench behind Gabbert. It continues into March, as President Donald Trump — who is decidedly anti-Kaepernick — attributed his distaste for the former 49er as the reason why no team has taken a flier on him this spring.
Trump is now bragging "NFL owners don’t want to pick [Colin Kaepernick] up because they don’t want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump"— Ben Jacobs (@Bencjacobs) March 21, 2017
Kaepernick told reporters he plans to stand for the anthem this fall, but that won’t keep media members from pressing the issue with him wherever he may land — especially if the president continues to bring attention to it. Regardless of a franchise’s stance on his protest, that’s a potential locker room distraction that many teams would prefer to avoid.
Roger Goodell hinted at that when he was asked about Trump’s Kaepernick comments, saying on Mike & Mike that the NFL owners are “putting teams together and trying to find the players and coaches and everyone else who can help create that kind of chemistry that’s going to lead to a winning team.”
Where does Kaepernick fit, talent-wise, on the free agent market?
The comparison between Glennon and Kaepernick is an interesting one. Kaepernick is two years older than Glennon, but has five seasons as his team’s primary starting quarterback compared to his peer’s one. In terms of career quarterback rating, the former 49er stands significantly above the now-Bear, 88.9 to 84.6.
But Glennon carries an air of mystery about him, having only thrown 11 passes the past two seasons while backing up Jameis Winston. Any complaints about having a weak supporting cast in San Francisco can be applied to Tampa Bay as well; not a single Buccaneer skill player was named to the Pro Bowl in the two seasons when Glennon accrued his 18 NFL starts. As a rookie, his second-leading receiving target was Tim Wright.
Despite a thinner resume and a peak that has never approached what Kaepernick has accomplished on the field, the former Tampa Bay draft pick earned a three-year contract with the Bears that could pay him up to $45 million. That move has yet to set a precedent for the San Francisco castoff, despite numbers that show he’s a bona fide mid-tier NFL quarterback.
In a field of 14 potentially available, somewhat viable starting quarterbacks, Kaepernick’s 2016 season — unimpressive as it may be — stands as one of the strongest.
Available starting-grade NFL quarterbacks in 2017
|Player||Age||Games Started||Passing Yards||TDs||INTs||Rating|
|Player||Age||Games Started||Passing Yards||TDs||INTs||Rating|
|Robert Griffin III||27||5||886||2||3||72.5|
*Frequent subject of trade rumors
His combination of youth and solid play should make him a compelling pickup for a quarterback-needy team this spring. For whatever it’s worth, Harbaugh is still a true believer in his ability to win multiple Super Bowls. Wide receiver Torrey Smith, who like Kaepernick saw his value tank after playing with the Niners, spoke out on Twitter to laud his former teammate’s skill behind center as well.
So when will Kaepernick get signed?
There’s a chance the hesitation behind signing Kaepernick is unrelated to his off-field headlines and instead tied to a slowly developing quarterback market. The NFL’s two most attractive pieces — the Cowboys’ Tony Romo and the Patriots’ Jimmy Garoppolo — are still under contract with their original teams. Franchises in the market for a potential starter like Kaepernick are holding out to see how Romo’s almost certain release unfolds and whether New England trades its backup passer this spring.
That’s a strategy the league has taken with another veteran free agent who left his longtime home in 2017. Jay Cutler was released by the Bears after eight seasons in Chicago. Though injuries limited him to just five games last year, his 2015 numbers were some of the best of his career. His 92.3 rating that season suggests, in the short term, he could be a better option than Kaepernick. However, Cutler will be 34 next fall and has never experienced the kind of postseason success Kaepernick has achieved in a much shorter career.
Quarterback-needy teams seem to fit into two categories this spring: franchises looking for the missing piece to a long playoff run (Texans, Broncos), and those looking for a young, developmental player who can be the face of a franchise to pair with a veteran passer to serve as mentor (49ers, Jets, Browns, and to a lesser extent, the Bears and Jaguars).
Kaepernick doesn’t neatly fit into either role. He’s no longer the young passer with an upward trajectory, but with limited miles on his odometer he’s also not the kind of player who can groom a starting quarterback during a rebuild. He’s a win-now, missing-piece candidate in a league where few teams need that. The Texans appear primed to wait on Romo, while the Broncos could hold tight with Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch.
That leaves Kaepernick in no man’s land, at least for now. He’s one of the best available quarterbacks, but doesn’t fit neatly with the needs of any rudderless teams. With the 2017 NFL Draft still more than a month away, he may be on the unemployment line much longer than anyone would have expected back in 2013.
Then again, Mike Glennon is going to make $16 million next season, so let’s not rule anything out.