How the 49ers Can Ensure Colin Kaepernick Develops into an Elite NFL Quarterback

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How the 49ers Can Ensure Colin Kaepernick Develops into an Elite NFL Quarterback
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

 

One of the more intriguing stories in the Bay Area this offseason is San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his development.  

As we enter a transitional period for NFL passers, Kaepernick is one of the front-runners leading this new class of young talent. But unlike Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III, the league only got a preview of what Kaepernick can do. 

The 49ers’ second-year gunslinger did not have a full offseason to prepare as a starter, and when the 2012 regular season finally did begin, he would not receive his first start until Week 11.

Including three postseason games and the Super Bowl, Kaepernick has only 10 career starts. He came through in big situations against the Bears, Saints, Patriots, Packers and Falcons, finishing the season 7-3 as the No. 1 signal-caller.

For someone thrown into the fire, he looked sensational in live game action, accumulating 2,441 yards and 19 total touchdowns in that span. Under his command, the 49ers offense scored less than 25 points only twice.

And despite how poised and effective he was in 2012, Kaepernick has limited game experience, which leaves serious room for development. At 6’4”, 230 pounds, he has the build of an NFL QB, possessing the elite physical tools to compete in this league.

And when taking a step back and giving him the "eye test," it appears as if he has the intangibles to lead this franchise for the next decade. Kaepernick brings raw playmaking ability from the quarterback position and could be revolutionary as a dual-threat.

But he is still new in this big world that is the NFL. San Francisco needs to make sure he continues to develop into an elite quarterback, and this is how:

 

 

Jim Harbaugh 

Colin Kaepernick is in a very favorable position with Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco. The Niners head coach is a known quarterback guru, having previously optimized the production out of Josh Johnson, Andrew Luck and Alex Smith.

He developed these quarterbacks with a great deal of success.

Johnson finished as the Toreros all-time passing leader with 9,699 yards from 2004-2007. Luck was a two-time All-American at Stanford that went on to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft.

While Smith saw career-bests across the board with the 49ers, including his first ever postseason berth. Each team Harbaugh coached saw improvement from the most important position on the field and this led to increased wins.

San Diego Toreros Standford Cardinal San Franicsco 49ers
2004: 7-4 2007: 4-8 2011: 13-3
2005: 11-1 2008: 5-7 2012: 11-4-1
2006: 11-1 2009: 8-5  
  2010: 12-1  
Year Prior to Arrival: 8-2 Year Prior to Arrival: 1-11 Year Prior to Arrival: 6-10

The reason Harbaugh is such a specialist at the position is because he has 14 years of quarterbacking experience in the NFL. In his only three stints as a head coach—with San Diego, Stanford and San Francisco—Harbaugh ensured forward progress stemming from the QB position.

He is a very hands-on coach that understands the particulars of the position from a mental and physical standpoint. And now that the cat is out of the bag in San Francisco, and Smith is on his way out, Harbaugh can provide Kaepernick with his full attention.

Kaepernick has been able to deliver the ball effectively, but could improve his decision-making and underneath passes. He improved in both facets as the season grew on, but these are areas that could benefit from attention in the offseason.

For Kaepernick, repetition and overall experience will aid in his growth, and that will come with time. The main ways Kaepernick can improve cannot be expedited by an offseason program or a passing camp.

The good news is that he has revealed himself to be a quick learner, so this organic method of learning-by-doing should be the best thing for him.

He has a special arm and delivers the ball with a great deal of velocity, but needs to learn to harness it. He will come to understand that not every throw necessitates a 100 mph fastball.

The 49ers staff left his throwing motion alone for the most part; they just made it quicker. Kaepernick had a big windup coming out of Nevada, and still possesses that near sidearm-style release. A lot of coaches would have wanted to correct it so it fit more of a traditional, over-the-top delivery.

Since he posted a 100-plus passer rating in half of his starts, one could argue that Kaepernick’s mechanics do not require significant tweaking. Harbaugh emphasizing the little things will help ensure his quarterback continues to develop. 

Besides, Harbaugh’s philosophy on passers does not dictate drastic changes of throwing motion. He believes each individual has a delivery that is unique to them:

There's no one perfect way mechanically to throw a football. Anybody who's ever thrown something, whether it’s picking up a rock and throwing it or throwing a baseball or throwing a football or throwing anything, you throw how you throw. It matters what the ball does more than how you do it.

To me, it is, 'Can you process the information?' How long does it take to get the ball out from the time you see the target open or coming open until the ball gets to the receiver? He’s very fast in processing that and the ball gets there fast. He’s got the kind of arm strength to really power a ball through a defense.

 

Harbaugh, along with quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst, have had two offseasons with Kaepernick already. In that time, Kaepernick has made strides as the staff has ironed out any minor mechanical irregularities. And while the style of his release remains, they have hastened it and made it more efficient.

More often than not, Kaeperick won’t let the ball drop below his midsection. It is a tighter release as he’s trying to keep the ball closer to his body, protecting it and shaving seconds off his pitch.

Before the start of 2012, 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman spoke on Kaepernick’s technical development in year-two:

It’s time on task, it’s a lot of different things. It’s just working hard to improve your entire game, your footwork, your balance, your alignment, where receivers are going to be, working with those receivers or tight ends or backs, whoever it might be. It’s just an understanding and a comfort, I hate to use that word comfort, but it’s more of a familiarity. 

 

By citing “time on task,” Roman confirmed the assumption that Kaepernick simply needs experience and familiarity. The comfort in the system—and with his teammates—is an essential factor in all of this.

And that leads us to our next point.

 

 

The Surrounding Cast, Pt. I

USA TODAY Sports

Jim Harbaugh and this 49ers front office have also cultivated a winning environment. Kaepernick is truly fortunate enough to have the personnel in place where he is in a position to succeed. He will never have to overcompensate for a lack of talent, and instead, can just play his game.

He is surrounded by dynamic players with elite level talent, but perhaps none more important than this offensive line.

In 2012, San Francisco’s entire line was voted to represent the NFC in Hawaii; that included two starters and three alternates. It was Kaepernick’s blind side made of Joe Staley and Mike Iupati that earned first-team recognition from the league.

So often, young talented quarterbacks that come into the league are handicapped by an unstable offensive line. A lot of the times organizations are looking to acquire a top-tier passer and they neglect other vital areas.

Before Kaepernick’s arrival, the Niners invested three first-round selections and signed a former Pro Bowler and Super Bowl winning center.

One of the best moves San Francisco can make to ensure Kaepernick continues to develop is keeping this line intact. And when the time does come where changes need to be made, they must do so gracefully and adequately.

Moreover, the Niners are in a similar position as New England, Green Bay and New Orleans, where they can afford to continue surrounding their QB with playmakers. They have the field general; they just need to provide him with weapons.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

So, year after year we see Bill Belichick and Mike McCarthy bringing unique high-ceiling players to help their quarterback. The organizations acquire these spectacular athletes like Rob Gronkowski and Randall Cobb—it’s like installing nitrous oxide in a Ferrari.

They build around the passer. 

And with the stability at quarterback, they can afford to flirt with trades around free agency time. Belichick is always sniffing around for a bargain in the offseason, having brought in Wes Welker, Randy Moss, Brandon Lloyd, Donte Stallworth and Chad Johnson over the years via trade or FA signing.

It is about providing the quarterback with the tools he needs to optimize the offense, making it as potent as possible.

The Niners need to carefully scrutinize their options this offseason and bulk up this corps of weapons around him. From unrestricted free agents, to the draft, to trade bait, there are plenty of opportunities for San Francisco to add talented skill players around Kaepernick. 

 

 

The Surrounding Cast, Pt. II

In no time at all, Colin Kaepernick displayed a supreme chemistry with Michael Crabtree.

Before Kaepernick’s insertion into the lineup, fans and analysts questioned whether Crabtree would ever be a No. 1 WR in this league. As a former top 10 pick and first-ever two-time Biletnikoff Award winner, Crabtree had loads of potential entering the NFL.

With the connection between No. 7 and No. 15, the stars have seemed to finally align in San Francisco.

In 2013, Crabtree will be entering the final year of his rookie contract and extending him will be paramount. The future of these two is very bright, so the front office must prioritize Crabtree’s retention.

The opportunity to have continuity with his No. 1 receiver will be critical for Kaepernick’s development. However, he also needs to look for his other receivers on the field and emphasize spreading the ball around.

Needless to say, Crabtree received a number of targets from the second-year quarterback, while other playmakers struggled to get involved. Kaepernick did not have the same chemistry with Vernon Davis or first-round pick A.J. Jenkins.

He must get in sync with the other weapons on offense in order to push this unit to the next tier. By doing this, opposing defenses cannot key in on one player, but rather have to respect everyone equally and defend the entire field.

Kaepernick seems willing to improve in this respect.

Within 48 hours of the loss in Super Bowl XLVII, the 49ers star QB vowed to begin training for next season in a week’s time. According to ESPN, Kaepernick will commence training in Atlanta and will be bringing his receivers along with him.

 


The System

Kaepernick 67-yard run

The most important thing an organization can do to utilize the talents of their players is making sure their skill set fits the system and vice versa.

The 49ers understand this, which is why 2012 dawned an evolution of San Francisco’s offense. The switch from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick brought about a change in game planning and play-calling, including packages and offensive sets.

San Francisco worked toward tailoring the system to fit the skills of their quarterback. Even when Kaepernick saw reps as the No. 2, the Niners would make sure he was in a position to succeed by tailoring the package and play intent to fit his abilities.

We witnessed San Francisco take more deep shots to utilize Kaepernick’s arm strength, spread the defense out with multi-WR sets and kill teams with play-action. The 49ers also began to incorporate the pistol package more into their game plan.

When Alex Smith was starting, the 49ers used more of a pro style offense with heavier sets and plenty of underneath options. After Kaepernick took over, this pistol formation began to reveal itself more and more. And rightfully so, as this was what Kaepernick primarily operated out of at Nevada.

This is an example of the 49ers playing to Kaepernick’s strengths, and in time, they will find more ways to do that schematically.

Kaepernick 56-yard run

They also deployed the read-option to take advantage of Kaepernick’s running ability. His sub-4.5 speed was well documented coming out of Nevada, and that athleticism was a real reason why San Francisco drafted him.

He worked with then-Wolf Pack head coach Chris Ault, mastering the read-option at the college level. Kaepernick could credit these innovative runs for his 4,000-plus rushing yards during his time in the NCAA.

The Niners will use his abilities as a runner going forward, drawing up creative ways to get him in open space. However, Harbaugh will have to regulate this to a degree.

He cannot have his franchise quarterback exposing himself to vicious blows from 250 pound linebackers. Kaepernick is dynamic enough to win games with his arm alone, so the 49ers should only have him run when strategy dictates they should.

This is critical for the 49ers and Kaepernick in the long run.

 

 

Conclusion

Kaepernick is certain to experience individual growth, and with the environment he is in, he could develop rapidly. Between the staff and personnel around him, he will have all of the tools at his disposal to continue his forward progress.

When transitioning to the pros, Kaepernick overcame the curve of learning a pro style offense. He caught up to the speed of the game and revealed poise as a pressure player. And when given the opportunity, he locked down the starting job.

Kaepernick has conquered one obstacle after another and should continue to forge ahead. He is determined, gifted and in a tremendous situation career-wise. 

He was in a position to sit tight and soak up information for over a year, unlike his predecessor, Smith, who was thrown into the lineup right away. Kaepernick took that time to learn the playbook, adjust to the speed of the game and fine-tune his mechanics.

Going forward, he’s going to get better at reading defenses and will get faster in his progressions. 

Again, experience is the only thing he lacks and that will come with time. Jim Harbaugh will continue to provide him with the education he needs, while Trent Baalke provides him with the weapons he needs.

In 2013, Kaepernick is entering his third NFL offseason, but what makes it significant is that it will be his first as a starter. In a way, this will be the first offseason of the rest of his career. As long as he stays accountable and assumes the leadership position that is rightfully his, he will develop into an elite NFL quarterback. 

 


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