Despite discussions beginning as far back as the NFL combine, the San Francisco 49ers have yet to extend quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s contract. Kaepernick’s contract currently expires after the 2014 season—an outcome neither the team nor the player wishes to see.
On Tuesday, 49ers general manager Trent Baalke re-affirmed the team’s desire to see Kaepernick signed for the long term, and soon:
“We’re going to work extremely hard, very diligently in trying to get something done prior to training camp. That’s the objective right now, as it stands.”
In 2014, Kaepernick is scheduled to earn just under $1.1 million in base pay and bonuses. By comparison, backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert is slated to make over $2 million next season. Obviously, Kaepernick isn’t receiving his fair market rate at this point in time.
The 49ers have a small amount of wriggle room under the cap for any immediate signings, but it seems unlikely that Kaepernick will receive any additional base money in 2014. What’s far more likely is that he’ll receive a large signing bonus up front, with that money then prorated out over the course of his upcoming contract.
We do know that he won’t come cheaply. Per a recent interview, 49ers owner Jed York has said that Kaepernick should be paid like one of the top quarterbacks in the league.
While Kaepernick’s detractors point to down numbers in 2013, that can be attributed in large part to the depleted receiving corps he was working with. It’s clear the 49ers believe that there are few quarterbacks in football with equivalent potential to Kaepernick.
But what precisely qualifies as “one of the top quarterbacks”?
In terms of average salary, Aaron Rodgers tops the list, making $22 million a season on his current deal. With both an MVP trophy and a Super Bowl ring on his resume, it’d be hard to make the argument that Kaepernick deserves quite as much money as Rodgers.
Go down a few steps, however, and it becomes harder to argue that Kaepernick doesn’t deserve an equivalent salary. Take a look at this table of recent quarterback extensions:
Flacco and Ryan both orbit around Kaepernick’s current value. Ryan regularly cracks the 4,000-yard mark, which Kaepernick never has, but Ryan has struggled in the postseason, where Kaepernick has shined. Flacco outdueled Kaepernick for a Super Bowl ring, but his regular-season production falls below Kaepernick’s benchmarks.
In short, Kaepernick falls right into the categories of those previous extensions, and he will likely be paid accordingly.
With the salary cap going up and up, the $18 million to $20 million deal is going to become the going rate for any solid starting quarterback. By signing Kaepernick now, before the extensions to players like Cam Newton, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson can further push the benchmark forward, the 49ers might actually save money in the long run.
Of course, extending Kaepernick will have a domino effect on the rest of the roster. Because he’s been playing at such a low salary, the 49ers have had freedom to spend that extra cash all over the roster. With Kaepernick getting paid a more logical salary, that freedom evaporates, making decisions tougher.
After all, Kaepernick isn’t the only 49er with contract issues after this season. The 2015 offseason looks like a big one, with quite a few contracts expiring.
As of right now, Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, Mike Iupati, Aldon Smith and Glenn Dorsey all are free agents after next season. Even without an extension to Kaepernick, re-signing all of those players would be difficult. With an adequately paid quarterback, it’s likely impossible.
That’s the reality of the NFL, however. The salary cap is a great thing for the league as a whole, but it does make it difficult to extend all the players you’d like to see on the team.
The financial realities of the situation likely mean that at least one of Kaepernick, Crabtree and Iupati will be plying their trade for another franchise in 2015. The goal of the front office, then, is to figure out which players are the highest priority to sign.
That’s why everyone’s focused on Kaepernick’s extension now. As important as Crabtree and Iupati have been to the offense, there’s still no position as important to the team than quarterback. We’ve seen how the addition of a decent quarterback can turn around a team such as the Kansas City Chiefs last season—a good quarterback can turn a bad team into a playoff contender.
Getting Kaepernick signed before training camp would save a season of questions and wondering. It gets the team settled at the most important position in the game. It’s much easier to imagine a rookie wide receiver such as Jordan Matthews or Davante Adams replacing Crabtree’s production in 2015 than it is for a rookie to be leading a playoff team in two years.
We were spoiled recently by the success of Luck, Wilson and Robert Griffin III. That’s not how rookie quarterbacks normally work out; you’re far more likely to see a Christian Ponder than an Andrew Luck.
Pro-Football-Reference.com provides a look at every quarterback from the first two rounds of the draft, thrust into a starting role. It has been a good decade for those sorts of players; besides the big three from the 2012 draft, Newton, Andy Dalton, Matt Ryan and Flacco all stepped in and performed admirably.
Then you start to see some of the other names—the Blaine Gabberts and Vince Youngs of the world. Even if you made the argument that the recent influx of quality rookies isn’t a fluke, that it’s because of better scouting or more similar college offenses, it’s still far from a guarantee that your rookie will work out in the long run.
Is it possible the 49ers could strike gold twice in a row, finding a young prospect to take the place of a soon-to-be too expensive previous starter. That’s a huge risk to take when a team’s in a Super Bowl window, however.
Kaepernick’s extension isn’t just to ensure he’s being paid fairly. It’s to remove uncertainty from the position—to ensure that the single most important position on the team is set for the long run.
The 49ers have enjoyed having Kaepernick at a budget price, but they knew it couldn’t last forever. Reduced roster flexibility is the price you pay for having a top-10 quarterback on your roster. It’s worth the payment in the long run, but in the short term, it means the team will have to make some difficult decisions in the near future.