Colin Kaepernick's Continued Rise Will Define San Francisco 49ers' Season

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Colin Kaepernick's Continued Rise Will Define San Francisco 49ers' Season
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On the eve of the 2013 NFL season kicking off for a majority of the league, optimism is rampant for the San Francisco 49ers

And for good reason.

The 49ers were one missed defensive holding/pass interference call away from tying the Pittsburgh Steelers for the most Super Bowl wins in league history. They bring back Jim Harbaugh, arguably the league's best head coach, for a third season. Although they lost a couple key players in free agency, the front office worked hard on draft night and on the bargain bin of the open market to find great value.

According to the oddsmakers, that push has worked. Bovada has San Francisco installed as the favorites to win the NFC Conference Championship, and just behind the record-setting Denver Broncos as the likeliest Super Bowl winner. 

But the Yay Area is buzzing with Super Bowl hype because of the man under center, Colin Kaepernick.

The former Nevada standout took over for the injured Alex Smith in Week 10 last season, and Wally Pipp'd the incumbent starter all the way to the Super Bowl. Providing the 49ers with an explosiveness not seen in the offense under Smith, Kaepernick finished his first regular season as a starter with 1,814 yards and 10 touchdowns against three interceptions, rushing for an additional 415 yards and five scores.

If that weren't enough to instill a level of confidence, Kaepernick's level of play rose once more in the postseason. He broke the NFL's quarterback rushing record with a 181-yard outing against the Packers in the divisional round, led a torrid comeback against the Falcons in the conference championship and nearly did the same post-blackout versus the Ravens.

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All together, Kaepernick's numbers as a starter prorated over a 16-game season, per Grantland's Bill Barnwell, go as follows: 3,670 passing yards, 20 TDs, seven INTs, 826 rushing yards, nine TDs. And as Barnwell points out, there are mitigating factors that say Kaepernick should improve over the life of a full season. He faced the league's top three pass defenses in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, and then played three times in the pressure-packed postseason.

The 49ers are relying heavily on that improvement. They watched on as key members of last year's second-ranked defense, most notably safety Dashon Goldson and defensive linemen Ricky Jean Francois and Isaac Sopoaga, moved on to greener pastures. There's no reason to think the 49ers still won't be a top-five defense this season, but seeing the offense enter the elite stratosphere would do a whole lot of good.

While Brian Burke's age regression models show Kaepernick still has years of growth ahead, it'd be understandable to be somewhat bearish.

In Kaepernick's 10 games as a starter (playoffs included), Michael Crabtree had 61 receptions for 880 yards and eight touchdowns. Prorated over a 16-game season, those numbers finish out at around 98 catches, 1,408 yards and 13 touchdowns, using standard rounding procedures. That would have been just the 14th such season in NFL history. The last player to put numbers up on that level over an entire season was Randy Moss in his historic 2007 campaign. 

There are flaws in that model, of course. Touchdowns are fluky (right, Calvin?), and it's always unfair to assume proration of six whole games—well over a third of the season. But once Kaepernick entered the lineup full time, it's hard to argue any connection had more success. Even if you reduce our prorated numbers for some level of regression to the mean, the company Crabtree found himself in down the stretch was astounding. 

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I mention this all to follow up with the fact that Crabtree is injured, and will miss at least the first six weeks after being placed on the physically unable to perform list. The former Texas Tech star tore his Achilles in May, an injury with an uncertain time frame. Barring a miraculous recovery, though, Crabtree will probably be out at least through Week 12—about the six-month point since his injury.

Here is perhaps the biggest area where Kaepernick's improvement (or lack thereof) will come into play. We know that the Kaepernick-Crabtree combo could have been among the league's best. But can Kaepernick take a mediocre-at-best receiving corps and stay playing at an elite level? We'll find out this season because those are the cards he'll be dealt.

Taking over the Crabtree role will be Anquan Boldin, acquired in the offseason to give Kaepernick a solid secondary weapon. There are some redundancies between Boldin's and Crabtree's skill sets—both are physical receivers who use their toughness to create separation—but the latter is a better version at this point.

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Boldin hasn't made 70 catches or gone over 1,000 yards since he was lining up next to Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona. Barreling toward age 33, it's hard to see Boldin re-entering the elite receiver conversation at this point, even with his stellar postseason play with the Ravens. 

The remainder of the 49ers receiving corps is a hodgepodge of former busts and unproven youngsters. Kyle Williams will serve as the team's No. 2 receiver. He's coming off an ACL tear and has exactly 35 receptions in three professional seasons. Williams looks like a seasoned vet compared to third receiver Marlon Moore, he of exactly 12 career catches. 

Rookie Quinton Patton was stellar in the preseason and gives 49ers fans some hope, but Kaepernick is working with one of the league's worst receiving corps this season. There's no other way to sugarcoat it.

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Then, there's the Vernon Davis conversation. The uber-talented 49ers tight end looks on paper to be a perfect fit with Kaepernick. He's big, athletic and runs faster than a majority of the league's top receivers even as he advances in age.

But outside of two resurgent, 100-yard outings in the NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl, all the data we have on hand suggests Kaepernick has little interest in throwing to the tight end. In six of Kaepernick's 10 starts, Davis had one or fewer receptions. In one of the outlier games, Davis had a whopping two catches for 15 yards. 

These are small samples, but so is everything with Kaepernick. If he doesn't find a successful relationship with Davis, he'll be ignoring his only pass-catcher with All-Pro capabilities. What's more, that would leave Boldin as the only even above-average target in the offense.

It's true Kaepernick's running ability will play a huge factor this season. But read-option revolutions be damned; NFL defenses can stop offenses where there is only one receiving threat. 

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That's not to say Kaepernick can't make this work. Drew Brees is in year 50 billion of using swing backs and a rotation of receivers who can't succeed elsewhere in New Orleans. Tom Brady is staring at a great abyss at receiver this season, and no one is batting an eye. Demaryius Thomas was on the cusp of being a bust before meeting a man named Peyton Manning.

The question is whether he belongs in that conversation. 

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No matter which passing metric you look at, the answer—small sample size alert—says yes. Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) overall rating metric placed him behind only Aaron Rodgers last season. He was the league's most efficient deep-ball thrower, per Pro Football Focus, by a mile-and-a-half, completing 60.6 percent of his passes traveling 20 yards or more.

The 49ers return all five members of an offensive line that gave Kaepernick the second-most time to throw of any quarterback in 2012. And even when teams found a way to generate pressure, Kaepernick's quick feet and accuracy on the move, according to Pro Football Focus, placed him among the league's best there too.  

There's no question Colin Kaepernick was damn good last season. You know that. I know that. Jim Harbaugh knows that. It's almost guaranteed that he'll be very good again this season. The key to the 49ers atoning for their Super Bowl XLVII loss, however, is whether he'll be able to do as so many elite predecessors have done and prop up a mediocre core of surrounding skill position players. 

For that answer, we'll have to wait. 

 

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