Why Colin Kaepernick's Contract Won't Cripple San Francisco 49ers' Future

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Why Colin Kaepernick's Contract Won't Cripple San Francisco 49ers' Future
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
All smiles—49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick potentially has 126 million reasons to rock those pearly whites.

Believe it—Colin Kaepernick’s new six-year, $126 million contract won’t cripple the San Francisco 49ers’ future.

His individual record-breaking, $61 million guaranteed will not compromise the team’s championship window by negating extensions for all key players in 2015 and beyond.

But don’t take our word for it.

Per ESPN’s NFL insider extraordinaire Adam Schefter, Kaepernick only signed the massive deal after receiving an affirmative “yes” to this one important question:

“So this structure gives us room to try extensions with my teammates, right?” Said teammates include leading wideout Michael Crabtree, dominant left guard Mike Iupati and starting cornerback Chris Culliver, among others.

Notwithstanding any naive notions and front-office prevarications, both the executives who devised the terms and the man who agreed to them were roster-conscious throughout this whole process.

And by "process" we mean March 3 and the three months that followed.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
Expect Kaepernick and Michael Crabtree (No. 15) to remain a dynamic tandem for the foreseeable future.

Back on that fateful spring day, Kaepernick vocalized his contractual desires to the tune of $18 to 19 million per season, per NFL.com’s Chris Wesseling. If the Chicago Bears' Jay Cutler received $18.2 million annually—the interception-prone gunslinger with just one playoff win to his name—Kap’s request was both reasonable and market-appropriate.

After all, San Francisco’s dual-threat dynamo is 3-1 in road playoff games alone.

He guided the 49ers to a Super Bowl appearance in his first season as a starter, led them to the NFC Championship Game one year later and owns the best QBR among quarterbacks with at least three postseason starts since 2006, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Cutler isn’t even in the same stratosphere when it comes to those accomplishments.

At any rate, nine days later, the 49ers cut cornerback Carlos Rogers, replaced Donte Whitner with veteran safety Antoine Bethea and netted $12.85 million in cap savings as a result (Rogers’ $6.6 million plus Bethea’s $6.25 million fewer guaranteed).

Niners general manager Trent Baalke then traded for former second-round offensive tackle Jonathan Martin. His addition bolstered the league’s pre-eminent blocking contingent, affording it ample flexibility across the line.

Let’s now fast-forward to the second weekend of May—the date of the 2014 NFL draft.

On Day 1, Baalke took safety-hybrid Jimmie Ward with the No. 30 overall pick. He defied universal prognostications by staying put in Round 1 and selecting a versatile defensive back who can play multiple positions.

Ward will serve in Rogers’ place in nickel coverage, while eventually becoming the replacement for the soon-to-be 30-year-old Bethea on the back end.

Then, before Day 2 officially began, Baalke acquired wide receiver Stevie Johnson from the Buffalo Bills. He landed the proven possession target—who’s also signed through 2016, by the way—for a mere conditional mid-round pick in 2015.

Johnson will provide insurance behind both Crabtree and Anquan Boldin, whose contracts expire in 2015 and 2016, respectively. (But expect the former to be catching passes from the man of the hour for as long as he’s in a 49ers uniform.)

Moving to Rounds 2 through 7, well, let’s just say it was a tour-de-draft-savvy-force by Mr. Baalke. Please pay heed to the theme of immediate depth and future starting utility.

Baalke secured, in order, the team’s successors at running back, center, inside linebacker, guard, wideout, cornerback, outside linebacker and fullback.

Carlos Hyde, Marcus Martin, Chris Borland, Brandon Thomas, Bruce Ellington, Dontae Johnson, Aaron Lynch and Tre Millard, to name a few, will fill these significant roles at some point down the line.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
Carlos Hyde represents a significant portion of the backfield future for the Red and Gold.

Hyde will serve as the goal-line back this year and will form a powerful one-two punch with Marcus Lattimore for the next three years. Martin will either start at center or become the league’s top backup behind Daniel Kilgore. And Thomas will redshirt this season—a la Lattimore in 2013—and could become Iupati’s replacement in 2015.

Additionally, Borland will hold down the fort at inside linebacker while NaVorro Bowman fully recovers over the first eight games. The 2013 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, like Martin, could also merit the title of premier NFL backup for years to come.

Furthermore, Kaepernick will find a new slot weapon in Ellington, while defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will have Johnson and Lynch at his developmental disposal for multiple positions. Those include corner, safety, outside linebacker and defensive end.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
Defensive back Dontae Johnson is an absolute physical specimen who brings high football IQ to the 49ers.

The 49ers can indeed wave a respectful goodbye to the likes of Frank Gore, Iupati, Culliver and Aldon Smith without saying adios to their Super Bowl hopes.

As of May 29, all of those aforementioned draft picks signed their entry four-year deals. They will augment their championship-worthy squad in the short term, while solidifying it over the long haul.

And coming back full circle, as of June 4, the Red and Gold locked in their franchise quarterback through 2020—but without the compromising by-products that such long-term commitments usually entail.

The always-astute Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk—per usual—synthesized the contractual intricacies for the less-knowledgeable masses to digest (I’ve paraphrased his breakdown in bullet points below).

  • Only $13.073 million is guaranteed at signing. Franchise QBs usually get double or even triple that amount.
  • The base salaries for 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and part of 2018 are guaranteed only for injury through March 31 (and the first few weeks of free agency). The 49ers thus have the ability to move on from Kaepernick in any given year.
  • From 2015-2020, there’s a potential yearly de-escalation of $2 million (and potentially $12 million all told).
  • Due to an uncharacteristically substantial $2 million per year in per-game roster bonuses (starting in 2015), Kap would lose $125,000 for every game missed due to injury after 2014.
  • And if he ever sustains a career-ending injury, he would have to fork over $20 million in the form of a disability policy.

Now, Kaepernick can secure his due pay.

He will net high returns by continuing to stay healthy, playing 80 percent of the snaps and either guiding the 49ers to the Super Bowl or earning a first- or second-team All Pro in any year of the contract. The sooner he does so, the more he would get paid.

But note how Florio details the mutually beneficial, non-future-destroying aspects of this deal:

As one source put it, Kaepernick can feel good about the deal because he has a lot more guaranteed money today than he had yesterday.  But the same source also added that the 49ers are nevertheless “thrilled” with the contract, which allows them to control Kaepernick’s rights for seven years and to move on after any of the next six seasons, if they ultimately decide that Kaepernick is more like the guy who struggled at times during the 2013 regular season and less like the guy who found the gas pedal in the playoffs.

Yet this next observation puts the work done by Baalke and team president and chief negotiator Paraag Marathe in the best possible perspective:

If they keep him, the average payout will be low in comparison to other franchise quarterbacks, and the difference will become glaring as other franchise quarterbacks get new deals under a salary cap that is expected to continue to spike.

In other words, Kaepernick’s contract will eventually qualify as a relative bargain.

And in a league where pretenders represent the majority, where contenders are few and where only the Super Bowl elite have both franchise quarterbacks and a deep supporting cast (and Crabtree), the 49ers are in business.

That is, the business of attaining multiple Lombardi Trophies over the next seven years.

All salary information courtesy of Spotrac unless otherwise noted.

 

Joe Levitt is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, waxing academic, colloquial and statistical eloquence on the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him on Twitter @jlevitt16

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