San Francisco 49ers: Is Colin Kaepernick the Next Elite NFL Quarterback?

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San Francisco 49ers: Is Colin Kaepernick the Next Elite NFL Quarterback?
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has swiftly gone from unknown backup to national media sensation.

San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh is a football genius.

When Harbaugh elected to continue starting second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick over  Alex Smith after he recovered from an injury, controversy was at the forefront of the 49ers camp.  Aside from suffering a concussion against the St. Louis Rams in Week 10, Smith had done nothing substantial to lose his starting job.

Smith, though, did not boast the dynamic talents and possibilities of Kaepernick.

Kaepernick took over the starting role not because of Smith's ineffectiveness, but rather because he had the potential to perform at a higher level and give San Francisco much more at the position.  What initially appeared to be an unnecessary gamble on Harbaugh's part has now turned into one of the smartest decisions in the 49ers run to the Super Bowl.

His raw talent and potential were recognized by Harbaugh and 49ers general manager Trent Baalke during the 2011 NFL Draft, when San Francisco traded up in the second round to select the University of Nevada standout with the 36th-overall pick.  The tandem had enough during scouting trips to Nevada to know they both liked what they saw enough to move up to select him. (sfgate.com).

At the time, few around the league recognized the potential that Kaepernick had.  What was known was that he had a cannon of an arm, blazing speed and an ability to win (sports.yahoo.com).  He had set numerous records at Nevada, including becoming the first NCAA player to have 2,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in back-to-back seasons. 

 

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Colin Kaepernick's (left) playing days at the University of Nevada drew the attention of 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke.

When Kaepernick earned the starting job in his sophomore season, there were those who wondered whether or not Harbaugh's move was the right one.  Smith had the experience and finally seemed to be coming into his own.  Kaepernick was raw and untested.

Yet Kaepernick relished the opportunity.  "What took you so long," were among his first words from Kaepernick to the 49ers head coach when the decision had been made (via USA Today).  The statement was cocky, especially for a quarterback who had yet to do much of anything at the NFL level.

Now, Kaepernick is one win away from bringing the franchise another Super Bowl victory, which would be the team's sixth, tied for the most in the NFL.

San Francisco rode the young quarterback's hot hand down the stretch of the regular season and through the playoffs to Super Bowl XLII.

Fans saw what he could do on the playoff stage.  First, Kaepernick torched the Green Bay Packers, setting a quarterback record with 181 rushing yards.  He rushed for two touchdowns and also threw another two, becoming only the third player in NFL history to do so in a playoff game.  Kaepernick's performance was heralded by The Huffington Post's Michael Klopman as one of the greatest postseason performances ever (huffingtonpost.com).

He then followed up his stellar win against the Packers with a dramatic come-from-behind performance after trailing the Atlanta Falcons 17-0 in the NFC championship game. 

Harry How/Getty Images
Colin Kaepernick's record-setting performance against the Green Bay Packers during the divisional round of the 2012 NFL playoffs was heralded as one of the top individual performances of the year.

 

His rise to prominence has not been without its share of media attention.  "Kaepernicking" has become a national sensation, even prompting the emerging star to trademark his signature touchdown move of kissing his tattooed biceps (time.com).

National media has recognized this star on the rise, which begs the question: Is Kaepernick the next elite NFL quarterback, or is he another "flash in the pan" who may be forgotten in short notice?

His accolades thus far have done most of the talking. 

When he was drafted, there were question marks surrounding whether or not a pistol offense could work at the NFL level.  Now, the real questions are on defensive coordinators, as opposing teams scramble to devise ways to defend against a quarterback who is so dynamic (huffingtonpost.com).

By looking at it from that vantage point, one can assume that the league itself is changing and quarterbacks like Kaepernick are at the forefront of this new breed.  If an athlete is at the top of his class, that should, by definition, mean he is elite.

Kaepernick is one of, if not the, best quarterback who can run a pistol-style offense at the NFL level.   The league, long dominated by one-dimensional quarterbacks, is now forced to recognize that offenses led by dynamic difference-maker athletes are among the most potent. (nytimes).

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
With his legacy in the making, Colin Kaepernick looks to lead the San Francisco 49ers to their sixth Super Bowl championship.

 

Of course there remains the question of durability.  Kaepernick is not the first mobile quarterback who can throw.  In addition, his speed will certainly decline with age.

Will Kaepernick be able to maintain such a high level of athleticism year after year and run the risk of serious injury each time he rushes out of a quarterback read-option play?  All it would take is one or two hits from a defense to change Kaepernick's game forever.

Most likely, Kaepernick will eventually be forced to settle into a pocket-passing style of offense.  Sure, he may be able to continue scrambling, much like former-49ers' great Steve Young did later in his career, but Kaepernick's style of plays lends itself to the label of injury-prone and his game may have to change eventually.

Assuming Kaepernick can make that adjustment when it does come and continue the success he has enjoyed thus far, there is a high possibility of him being remembered as one of the great quarterbacks of his era.

For now, Kaepernick has the ability to galvanize an "elite" legacy early in his career.  One win away from a Super Bowl Championship and Kaepernick is already preparing for the game like any elite quarterback would.

Making only his tenth NFL start in the Super Bowl against the Baltimore Ravens, Kaepernick has retained his cool.

"I wouldn't say I have an expectation for it," Kaepernick said of victory in the Big Game, "I'm just going to keep working and see what happens" (via mercurynews.com).

If the 49ers are able to beat the Ravens this upcoming Sunday and win their sixth Super Bowl and Kaepernick is a major factor in that win, his name will certainly be circulated among the top up-and-coming quarterbacks in the league.

While the term "elite" may still be a ways away for the young star, Kaepernick is well on his way to earning the accolade and sealing his legacy among a new breed of quarterback.

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