San Francisco 49ers: How Will Colin Kaepernick Develop in 2014?

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San Francisco 49ers: How Will Colin Kaepernick Develop in 2014?
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

How good will Colin Kaepernick be next season? There’s no single player who will impact the fate of the 2014 San Francisco 49ers more than their newly extended quarterback, so figuring out what to expect from him is crucial to predicting how the team will perform this upcoming season.

Considering Kaepernick only has 23 starts under his belt, there’s a lot of potential variance in what we could possibly expect from him next season. At the high end, he is as low a 22-1 pick to win the league MVP, per Odds Checker.

On the other end of the spectrum, it’s true that Kaepernick’s numbers dropped off last season, thanks in large part to injuries to his offensive weapons. He has not yet developed into the sort of quarterback who can succeed regardless of the talent around him. He’s been referred to as a one-read, “remedial” quarterback by some, including ESPN’s Trent Dilfer. He clearly has a step or two more to take as a passer before becoming an elite quarterback.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
Will the 49ers pass more in 2014?

The situation is set up for some improvement in 2014. He’ll likely have a full year of a healthy Michael Crabtree, along with the addition of Stevie Johnson to augment his receiving corps. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has hinted that the team will pass more, indicating a larger role in the offense for Kaepernick. He’ll also have another full season of experience under his belt, as well as more offseason practice and workouts.

One way to try to estimate how much improvement Kaepernick will make is by looking at historical players who had similar seasons to his 2013 year and seeing how they improved the next season.  On the macro scale, similar quarterbacks tend to develop in the same ways. While there are always outliers on the individual level, knowing how similar players have developed can give us a baseline for Kaepernick’s odds.

To do so, I went back to 1990 and looked at quarterbacks between the ages of 24 and 28. I then used a modified version of Football Outsiders’ similarity scores to figure out which quarterbacks had the most similar seasons to Kaepernick, adjusting the numbers to suit his particular play style. This helps us toss out unrealistic comparisons; it’s just as unhelpful to compare Kaepernick to Peyton Manning as it is to compare him to Blaine Gabbert.

Here are the 16 seasons that ended up the most similar to Kaepernick’s 2013 season:

Colin Kaepernick's Comparables
Name Year Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD INT Rush Att Rush Yds TD
C. Kaepernick 2013 243 416 58.4% 3,197 21 8 92 524 4
Jay Cutler 2010 261 432 60.4% 3,274 23 16 50 232 1
Steve McNair 2001 264 431 61.3% 3,350 21 12 75 414 5
Mark Brunell 1997 264 435 60.7% 3,281 18 7 48 257 2
Roethlisberger 2008 281 469 59.9% 3,301 17 15 34 101 2
Cunningham 1990 271 465 58.3% 3,466 30 13 118 942 5
Russell Wilson 2012 252 393 64.1% 3,118 26 10 94 489 4
D. McNabb 2003 275 478 57.5% 3,216 16 11 71 335 3
David Carr 2004 285 466 61.2% 3,531 16 14 73 299 0
D. McNabb 2001 285 493 57.8% 3,233 25 12 82 482 2
Alex Smith 2011 274 445 61.4% 3,144 17 5 52 179 2
D. Culpepper 2003 295 454 65.0% 3,479 25 11 73 422 4
S. Humphries 1992 263 454 57.9% 3,356 16 18 28 79 4
Steve McNair 1998 289 492 58.7% 3,228 15 10 77 559 4
Philip Rivers 2006 284 460 61.7% 3,388 22 9 48 49 0
Philip Rivers 2007 277 460 60.2% 3,152 21 15 29 33 1
Chris Miller 1991 220 413 53.3% 3,103 26 18 32 229 0
Average NA 271 453 59.8% 3,289 21 12 62 320 2

Pro Football Reference

Even with the adjustments, it’s hard to find players who rush quite as much as Kaepernick does, because he’s on the forefront of a new style of quarterback play—only Randall Cunningham and Russell Wilson had more attempts than Kaepernick’s 92. On a per-pass and per-rush basis, however, these players all fall fairly close to Kaepernick’s numbers last year.

All in all, however, it’s not a bad list of comparables. Only David Carr and Stan Humphries failed to make the Pro Bowl in their careers. Steve McNair was the NFL MVP in 2003, and Randall Cunningham was the first-team All Pro quarterback in 1998. You’re not seeing any sure-fire Hall of Famers on the list, but Cunningham, McNair, Roethlisberger, Brunell, McNabb and Rivers have all had enviable careers.

How did the players develop the year after? There are a couple of asterisks to look at before showing those numbers:

  • Jay Cutler’s 2011 season was cut short by a fractured thumb, and he only started 10 games.
  • Randall Cunningham tore his ACL in the first game of the 1991 season.
  • Donovan McNabb broke his ankle in 2002, limiting him to 10 games.
  • Alex Smith’s concussion in the 2012 season led to Colin Kaepernick’s arrival as a starter in the first place.
  • Stan Humphries missed time with injuries in the 1993 season, limiting him to 10 starts.
  • Steve McNair hurt his back in the 1999 season, and he missed five games.
  • Chris Miller suffered from concussions between 1992 and 1994, missing significant time.

While injuries can and do happen, it’s not really accurate to say that Kaepernick has a 45 percent chance of missing time due to injuries, nor is it fair to take the injury-depleted statistics of those seven seasons and using them to compare.

That leaves us with nine Year N+1 seasons untouched that we can use for comparison. I’ll also look at the next fully healthy season for the other seven quarterbacks as well, under the more flawed assumption that they would have picked up where they left off the year afterward.

Year N+1 Seasons
Name Year Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD INT Rush Att Rush Yds TD
D. Culpepper 2004 379 548 69.2% 4,717 39 11 88 406 2
Roethlisberger 2009 312 478 66.6% 4,328 26 12 40 82 2
Philip Rivers 2008 312 478 65.3% 4,009 34 11 31 84 0
D. McNabb 2004 300 469 64.0% 3,875 31 8 41 220 3
Steve McNair 2002 301 492 61.2% 3,387 22 15 82 440 3
Russell Wilson 2013 257 407 63.1% 3,357 26 9 96 539 1
Philip Rivers 2007 277 460 60.2% 3,152 21 15 29 33 1
Mark Brunell 1998 208 354 58.8% 2,601 20 9 49 192 0
David Carr 2005 256 423 60.5% 2,488 14 11 56 308 1
Average NA 292 460 63.5% 3,546 26 11 57 256 1
Alex Smith 2013 308 508 60.6% 3,313 23 7 76 431 1
D. McNabb 2003 275 478 57.5% 3,216 16 11 71 335 3
S. Humphries 1994 264 453 58.3% 3,033 17 12 19 19 0
Jay Cutler 2012 255 434 58.5% 3,033 19 14 41 233 0
Steve McNair 2000 248 396 62.6% 2,847 15 13 72 403 0
Cunningham 1992 233 384 60.7% 2,775 19 11 85 549 5
Chris Miller 1995 232 405 57.3% 2,623 18 15 22 67 0
Average NA 278 450 61.8% 3,308 23 12 56 271 1

Pro Football Reference

The best-case scenario here is pretty clear. Daunte Culpepper took a huge step forward in 2004, leading the league in both completions and yards. It’s a season entirely outside of his career norms—an outlier among outliers.

Even without Culpepper’s crazy year, however, there are quite a few great seasons here. Roethlisberger and Rivers both trumped 4,000 yards, though honestly, Roethlisberger’s year isn’t as good as it appears, thanks to the sheer volume he had to put up those numbers.

Paul Sancya/Associated Press
Having a year like Russell Wilson's would be just fine for Kaepernick.

McNabb, McNair and Wilson also put up great years out of this sample set. I think any of those stat lines would be accepted as a big step forward for Kaepernick in the 2014 season. All three could use their legs, much like Kaepernick does. More importantly, all had their completion percentage up above 60 percent. McNabb and Wilson had more than eight yards per attempt, as well, which would represent a slight step up for Kaepernick’s numbers. That sort of season is probably what 49ers fans should hope for, in terms of development.

Most of the bad seasons came a year after suffering an injury, but the worst fully healthy season there belongs to David Carr. It’s very rarely a good thing when he shows up on your list of comparable players.

However, Kaepernick has an advantage Carr didn’t have in Houston—a functioning offensive line.  In 2005, Carr was sacked 68 times—that’s more than four sacks every game. By comparison, Kaepernick was sacked 39 times last season, which is just over half as much. Having players like Joe Staley and Mike Iupati keeping defenders at bay can do nothing but help a quarterback’s development.

So, with all this data, what sort of season are we expecting from Kaepernick in 2014?

PHIL COALE/Associated Press
Kaepernick's numbers are very similar to Steve McNair's.

I think the best case to look at, when all is said and done, is Steve McNair's development. Like Kaepernick, McNair didn’t get a full season of starting experience until his third year in the league, and he never had a ton of gross yardage. Instead, McNair found ways to beat people with both his arm and his legs. His arm matured as he got more experience in the NFL, balancing out his contributions on the ground and through the air.

I think we’ll see Kaepernick’s rush totals take a step back in 2014, while his passing numbers take a corresponding step forward. Just looking at the quarterbacks who have had similar seasons in the past 15 years, it would be an upset if Kaepernick didn’t similarly improve entering his fourth year in the league.

My projections? If I had to guess now, I’d say Kaepernick’s stat line might look something like this:

Colin Kaepernick Prediction
Year Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD INT Rush Att Rush Yds TD
2013 243 416 58.4% 3,197 21 8 92 524 4
2014 260 420 61.9% 3,400 26 7 85 420 2

Pro-Football-Reference

Hoping for a burst into the 4,000-yard range seems a little naive, considering that this is still primarily a running team. We’d be talking about adding something like five extra passes every game to San Francisco’s total, and a 20 percent increase in pass attempts seems unrealistic. Instead, look for Kaepernick to take a step forward, rather than a huge leap, as he continues his development.

 

Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers.  Follow him @BryKno on twitter.

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