Two of the league’s brightest stars, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Seattle Seahawks signal-caller Russell Wilson, are set to do battle this Sunday in the NFC Championship Game. Kaepernick will be seeking his second straight Super Bowl appearance, while Wilson is looking to punch his first ticket to the NFL’s biggest game.
Even though both quarterbacks are backed by outstanding defenses, the 49ers and Seahawks wouldn’t be where they are today without them. Kaepernick and Wilson have exceeded expectations in a short period of time and put their respective teams in a position to win on a weekly basis.
With both players embarking on such a huge game, it’s important to understand what makes each QB great. Let’s dive into the game film, break down the statistics and examine Kaepernick and Wilson with the same criteria scouts do.
As Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller would say, “Accuracy is one of the few traits that I believe you cannot coach into a quarterback.” They are either accurate passers or they aren't. It’s that simple. Fortunately for 49ers and Seahawks fans, Kaepernick and Wilson earn high accuracy marks.
Most people look at a player’s completion percentage when they want to assess accuracy. But to get more telling info, one should observe a quarterback's passing chart.
Here’s a look at Kaepernick’s, via Pro Football Focus (subscription required):
So, what does his chart tell you? Kaepernick hits on intermediate-to-deep throws and struggles with short passes. But that’s OK, because coaching staffs would rather have a quarterback excel on intermediate-to-deep throws.
In 16 regular-season games this season, Kaepernick torched opposing defenses over the middle of the field (10 to 19 yards). Of the 122 throws he made 10 to 19 yards down the field, he completed 54.9 percent of his passes, scored seven touchdowns and hurled three interceptions.
As far as his accuracy goes in terms of throws deep down the field (20 yards or more), Kaepernick ranks as the fifth-best deep-passing quarterback in the NFL, via Pro Football Focus. On 57 deep passes, he garnered 21 completions, six touchdowns and two interceptions.
As a whole, Wilson’s numbers are comparable to Kaepernick’s, yet he gets the edge on throws over the middle of the field and on throws deep down the field.
Of the 84 throws he made 10 to 19 yards down the field, he completed 55.9 percent of his passes, tossed six touchdowns and zero interceptions. As you can see, the only number that separates Wilson from Kaepernick is his touchdown-to-interception ratio.
In terms of throws deep down the field, this is where Wilson really shines. At the end of the regular season, the third-year pro out of Wisconsin finished as the league’s best deep-passing quarterback, via Pro Football Focus.
On 60 deep passes, he tallied 27 completions, nine touchdowns and five interceptions. Yes, the interception numbers are higher than Kaepernick’s, but his touchdown numbers and overall completion percentage (48.3) make up for it.
Despite the accuracy numbers being close, the edge goes to Wilson by a hair. His ability to accurately hit on plays deep down the field put him over the top. Here’s his passing chart from Pro Football Focus:
Obviously, top-notch arm strength stands out to scouts and goes a long way in the NFL. Quarterbacks have to fit balls into tight windows over the middle of the field, which is why velocity proves to be more important than distance.
Having the skill set to throw the ball 60 yards down the field is nice, but how often are quarterbacks asked to throw the ball that far? Here’s what B/R's Miller thinks about velocity in relation to arm strength:
When looking at arm strength, I’m more impressed with velocity than distance. I want my quarterbacks throwing on time and with power to the underneath and intermediate areas. Being able to throw deep down the field is impressive in a workout, but most quarterbacks do not make those throws heavily in a game situation. Much more important is being able to thread passes between traffic and fit balls into tight windows over the middle.
There isn’t a set of statistics that accurately gauges velocity, so the tape on both quarterbacks will have to suffice. Based on the eyeball test, Kaepernick and Wilson both put a great deal of velocity on the ball, yet the edge goes to the third-year player out of Nevada.
At the NFL scouting combine in 2011, Kaepernick’s best throw registered 59 miles per hour, via Evan Silva of Pro Football Talk. That led the field of 16 quarterbacks who opted to participate, and it certainly shows up in games.
It doesn’t hurt that he used to be a pitcher and was selected by the Chicago Cubs in the 2009 Major League Baseball draft. According to Silva, Kaepernick can throw a baseball 95 miles per hour. That’s incredible when you consider some MLB pitchers can't reach that mark.
Oddly enough, Wilson was once drafted to play baseball too, but he was a second baseman.
Furthermore, Wilson’s best throw at the NFL scouting combine registered 55 miles per hour, according to Dan Shonka of Ourlads. Make no mistake about it: 55 miles per hour is still impressive. Yet, four miles per hour can make a big difference.
In today’s NFL, being mobile is becoming increasingly important. Yet, that doesn’t mean teams want a run-first quarterback. It just means they want signal-callers who are athletic enough to escape pressure and make plays with their feet when the play breaks down.
For a case in point, look at quarterbacks like Michael Vick, Aaron Rodgers, Kaepernick and Wilson. All four players have shown first-rate escapability in the pocket, but the latter is the most consistent escape artist of the four (at least in 2014).
Based on Pro Football Focus' run rating for quarterbacks, Wilson is the second-best running quarterback in the league with a plus-10.8 grade. As good as Kaepernick is as a runner, Wilson outperformed him in 2013.
In 1,006 snaps, Wilson scrambled 51 times, picked up 434 yards and forced seven missed tackles. Not to mention, he recorded 176 yards after contact. Keep in mind, there is a difference between quarterback scrambles and designed run plays. I’m only accounting for scrambles, because they directly correlate with escapability from the pocket.
One of Wilson’s biggest games, in terms of escapability, came against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 5, when he scrambled nine times for 91 yards (seen above).
Nevertheless, his escapability from the pocket doesn’t always result in rushing yards. His ability to extend the play also produces positive passing plays. Against the New York Giants Week 15, Wilson acted like a modern-day Houdini and helped the Seahawks amass 22 yards through the air on a broken play.
Kaepernick had his share of positive moments as well. Pro Football Focus graded Kap out as the eighth-best running quarterback in the NFL. In 999 snaps, he scrambled 47 times for 404 yards.
The numbers between the two are comparable, but Kaepernick didn’t create as many plays in the passing game with his escapability. That’s why Wilson gets the edge.
Anticipation doesn’t seem to be the most important trait when scouts look at quarterback prospects; however, to some, it can be telling. Coaches and front-office members want their franchise quarterback to “throw receivers open” on a regular basis.
If you’re not familiar with this, Miller explains it quite well in an article he published earlier this year:
One of the biggest knocks on Geno Smith heading into the 2013 NFL draft was his inability to anticipate routes. Some will call this “throwing your receivers open,” but essentially this boils down to being able to know when and/or where the receiver will be open and getting the ball there on time.
Perhaps surprisingly, there are only a handful of quarterbacks in the NFL who struggle in this area. Of the quarterbacks I’ve scouted personally, Kaepernick seems to have the most trouble with this concept. When you break down his game film, it becomes evident that he doesn’t try to anticipate throws because he doesn’t have to.
He has a strong enough arm to make throws in tight windows, which means he can be late with his reads and still deliver the ball on time. In theory, that sounds like an acceptable reason as to why he doesn’t have to throw with anticipation, yet some talent evaluators believe it causes Kaepernick to go through unnecessary slumps.
On this play, Kaepernick waits for wide receiver Randy Moss to break open instead of throwing him open:
Waiting for the receiver to break open is risky business in the NFL. At times, quarterbacks can get away with it like they did in college, but waiting can result in an interception or a wasted opportunity.
Wilson, on the other hand, is as good as it gets in this category.
Emory Hunt of Football Gameplan views Wilson’s anticipation as one of the things that make him such a special quarterback. Hunt is right because anticipation goes hand in hand with poise, timing and pass placement.
One of Wilson's best games in this area took place during his rookie season in the playoffs. Take a look at his ability to throw wide receiver Golden Tate open on this 16-yard play-action pass:
As you can see above, Wilson unloaded the ball before Tate was even out of his break. That’s as textbook as it gets.
In all, Kaepernick and Wilson are similar quarterbacks, and much of their strengths lie in the same areas. But at this stage in their careers, Wilson is a more developed quarterback. He is accurate, has good escapability in the pocket and throws with anticipation. The only edge Kaepernick has is his arm strength (velocity).
The results of the scouted areas could change in a few years, but you can only view the film that is made available. I hate to judge a player based on his potential ceiling, which is why I tend to err on the side of caution.
The Kaepernick-Wilson debate will carry on well after this game. Fans and media members alike should just be thankful that we get to cover two of the most talented quarterbacks in the NFL.