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

Bryan Knowles@BryknoContributor IIIJuly 11, 2014

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.

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
NameYearCmpAttCmp%YdsTDINTRush AttRush YdsTD
C. Kaepernick201324341658.4%3,197218925244
Jay Cutler201026143260.4%3,2742316502321
Steve McNair200126443161.3%3,3502112754145
Mark Brunell199726443560.7%3,281187482572
Russell Wilson201225239364.1%3,1182610944894
D. McNabb200327547857.5%3,2161611713353
David Carr200428546661.2%3,5311614732990
D. McNabb200128549357.8%3,2332512824822
Alex Smith201127444561.4%3,144175521792
D. Culpepper200329545465.0%3,4792511734224
S. Humphries199226345457.9%3,356161828794
Steve McNair199828949258.7%3,2281510775594
Philip Rivers200628446061.7%3,38822948490
Philip Rivers200727746060.2%3,152211529331
Chris Miller199122041353.3%3,1032618322290
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
NameYearCmpAttCmp%YdsTDINTRush AttRush YdsTD
D. Culpepper200437954869.2%4,7173911884062
Philip Rivers200831247865.3%4,009341131840
D. McNabb200430046964.0%3,875318412203
Steve McNair200230149261.2%3,3872215824403
Russell Wilson201325740763.1%3,357269965391
Philip Rivers200727746060.2%3,152211529331
Mark Brunell199820835458.8%2,601209491920
David Carr200525642360.5%2,4881411563081
Alex Smith201330850860.6%3,313237764311
D. McNabb200327547857.5%3,2161611713353
S. Humphries199426445358.3%3,033171219190
Jay Cutler201225543458.5%3,0331914412330
Steve McNair200024839662.6%2,8471513724030
Chris Miller199523240557.3%2,623181522670
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.

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?

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
YearCmpAttCmp%YdsTDINTRush AttRush YdsTD

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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