It is only natural for Colin Kaepernick to be on this list. After all, the quarterback is supposed to feel more pressure than any of his teammates, largely because a great deal of the responsibility falls on his shoulders.
Kaepernick is a high-profile player at the most scrutinized position in all of sports, and he has had a taste of success early in his career. He dethroned a top-rated passer on his way to the starting gig and did extraordinary things from the QB position.
The 49ers have since parted ways with their former starter, putting all their eggs in the Kaepernick basket by shipping Alex Smith to Kansas City. Jim Harbaugh and Co. made a commitment to No. 7 by giving him the reins of the offense.
Now there is the expectation that he has to live up to.
The organization and its fans are expecting a franchise player at the quarterback position. That immediately puts him in an elite class, historically, as Kaepernick is quicker to draw comparisons to Steve Young than Jeff Garcia.
The talent is apparent, and in limited time, he managed to become the third quarterback in 49ers' history to start in a Super Bowl. He was also five yards away from surpassing Joe Montana as the fastest QB in team history to win a Lombardi Trophy (games played).
This offseason will be Kaepernick’s first as the starter, which makes this a unique, yet pressure-filled, year for the 25-year-old icon. And needless to say, all eyes will be on his development as both a player and a leader.
His offseason has been aces so far, as Kaepernick hit the ground running, getting to work in Atlanta only a week after Super Bowl XLVII, according to ESPN.
Since he first arrived in 2011, Kaepernick has demonstrated an incredible drive and overall work ethic. This sort of initiative is what helped him win the starting job, and now that he’s the front man, it’s going to help him craft a more well-rounded game with fewer weaknesses.
To rattle off a few things he can work on, his decisiveness, short-to-intermediate throws and chemistry with his teammates all make the list. It was duly noted that Kaepernick had little to no chemistry with Vernon Davis for a good portion of the season.
Until Kaepernick’s insertion, the star tight end was one of the focal points of San Francisco’s offense. Yet, in 10 games with his new quarterback, Davis racked up only 398 yards and two scores.
In seven of the first eight games, Davis averaged 15.0 yards per game receiving, catching two or less passes in each of those contests. In much of their time together, Davis was an arrant non-factor in the passing game.
It was actually the previously dormant Michael Crabtree who would end up thriving from the quarterback change.
A lot of the times, Davis was bracketed by defenses and used as decoy to pull coverages away from where the play was really going. He also got dirty in the trenches, fulfilling a role as a blocker in the run game.
There was a stretch of about seven weeks where No. 85 was a ghost.
At long last, Kaepernick and Davis began clicking during the postseason. In the NFC title game and the Super Bowl, the 49ers tight end caught 11 balls for 210 yards and a touchdown.
Interestingly enough, Crabtree’s production did not suffer either, as he caught 11 passes for 166 yards and a score in those games. Although they went 1-1 in those games, this is the ideal scenario for San Francisco’s functionality on offense.
Kaepernick wants to find all his receivers equally because it poses a greater threat. An evenly distributed passing attack—not to mention the top-ranked rushing attack—makes defenses guard the whole field.
In his three best games with Kaepernick (CHI, ATL, BAL), Davis averaged 5.6 catches and 97.6 yards per game. There is certainly potential for this passing attack to reach another level if their chemistry matures in the offseason.
And lastly, as Kaepernick looks to develop as a passer and a leader, he will attempt to sidestep the dreaded sophomore slump. This is the cursed follow-up season that often sneaks up on players in transition.
I believe one of the greatest elements influencing a potential decline is individual complacency. One could point to the regression by Cam Newton in Carolina as an example of this, citing his demeanor and lack of competition on the roster.
Eli Manning did not catch his groove right away either.
Though it’s clear Kaepernick is in a different situation entirely, moreover, history shows that past franchise quarterbacks who were asked to start early have been able to circumvent the sophomore slump.
As Scott Kacsmar of Cold Hard Football Facts notes, Dan Marino had one of the greatest individual passing seasons ever (1984), and Ben Roethlisberger managed to bring home a Super Bowl (2005).
The good news about the weight on Kaepernick's shoulders is that he thrives in pressure situations. If you were to ask the 49ers quarterback, he’d likely spin you a similar yarn according to PFT:
I’ve said this before: Pressure, I feel like, comes from lack of preparation. This isn’t going to be a pressure situation, it is going to be a matter of going out there and performing physically.