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San Francisco 49ers: Breaking Down Colin Kaepernick's Strengths and Weaknesses

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San Francisco 49ers: Breaking Down Colin Kaepernick's Strengths and Weaknesses
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Colin Kaepernick is still a developing quarterback. 

He has only 23 career starts under his belt, meaning there are some areas of his game that still need work.  At the same time, Kaepernick is loaded with potential.  There are things he’s already doing well at, things that can be used as building blocks for future success.

Pro Football Focus has been running a series where it has been breaking down every starting quarterback in the league last season in any number of statistical and situational categories.  This week, they covered Colin Kaepernick, and their analysis of him can be found here.  If you’re a big fan of tables, charts and numbers, then this will take away most of your afternoon.

However, it’s a lot of raw data, so I thought I’d break down some of the notable positives and negatives and try to contextualize them somewhat to give a fuller view on why Kaepernick is good or bad at certain things, as opposed to simply looking at the outcomes.  This will help us better understand how the offense can best use Kaepernick, and how his development might go in 2014.

 

Colin Kaepernick and Vernon Davis

One thing that jumps off the page almost immediately is Kaepernick’s success when throwing to tight ends.

Kaepernick to Tight Ends, 2011-2013
Player Targets Catches Cmp % Yards TD
Vernon Davis 142 85 59.9% 1,350 17
Delanie Walker 36 20 55.6% 346 2
Vance McDonald 20 9 45.0% 132 0
Garett Celek 9 5 55.6% 85 0
Justin Peele 1 0 0.0% 0 0
Total 208 119 57.2% 1,913 19

Pro Football Reference

It’s not just success to tight ends, of course—it’s mostly success to Vernon Davis.  Davis and Kaepernick are a scoring machine, connecting on 17 touchdowns (including postseason) dating back to November of 2012 when Kaepernick became a full-time starter.  That’s more than twice as many as Kaepernick’s next biggest connection, as he and Anquan Boldin have put up only eight touchdowns.

There’s no one Kaepernick trusts in the red zone more than Davis.  Kaepernick has attempted 115 red-zone passes in his career, and 30 of them have headed Davis’ way, more than any other target.  Davis has caught 17 of those passes and scored 12 times, again more than any other player.  Interestingly, Kaepernick targets Michael Crabtree almost as much, aiming 28 passes at him, but only 10 of those were completions.

Pro Football Focus gives Kaepernick a plus-12.7 grade when throwing to tight ends, which is third-highest in the league, behind only Drew Brees and Philip Rivers.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
Kaepernick has had a good rapport with Davis

Of course, you’ll note the similarity between the three players: Brees, Rivers and Kaepernick enjoy the services of three of the top tight ends in football—Jimmy Graham, Antonio Gates and Davis.  Of course passes thrown to those players are going to be better than average, because those are better-than-average players.

The fact that Kaepernick scores high here is still good, however—after all, he scores better than, say, Tony Romo or Tom Brady here, despite the presence of Jason Witten and Rob Gronkowski.  Kaepernick and Davis have a great rhythm together, which may help explain why 27.1 percent of his dropbacks in 2013 ended in a pass to a tight end.  The 105 attempts were ninth most in the league last year, despite San Francisco’s relatively low pass volume.

All this screams what should be blindingly obvious—it’s very important that the 49ers and Vernon Davis come to an agreement on his contract status soon.  Davis’ holdout isn’t likely to go too long into the regular season, but if it did, that could be disastrous for Kaepernick’s development.

Kaepernick doesn’t need an elite tight end, per se—he did well with Delanie Walker in 2012.  However, last year’s second-round pick, Vance McDonald, sputtered quite badly last season.  The 49ers don’t really have a solid pass-catching option at tight end behind Davis right now, making Davis’ value to the offense immense.  If Davis does hold out for an extended period of time, there’s a ton of pressure on McDonald to at least get up to league average.

And that’s not necessarily a great thing to put your hopes on.

 

Kaepernick shouldn’t be blitzed

Yes, Kaepernick’s numbers go down when the opposing team blitzes.  His completion percentage drops from 60.3 percent to 55.0 percent, and his accuracy drops by about the same margin.

However, compared to other quarterbacks, Kaepernick does very, very well handling multiple pass-rushers.  Kaepernick ended up graded fourth against the blitz at plus-11.5, behind only Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, and Russell Wilson.  Wilson essentially lapped the field, but Kaepernick is right there in that second tier.

Matt Slocum/Associated Press
Blitzing Kaepernick allows him to get outside the pocket.

Why?  You can probably chalk up quite a bit of this to his legs.  Kaepernick was blitzed 180 times and only took 13 sacks, scrambling out of the backfield 18 times.  He was the only quarterback in the league to have more scrambles than sacks against the blitz, meaning bringing extra pressure was more likely to see Kaepernick run for positive yards than bring him down in the backfield.

The other 149 times Kaepernick was blitzed, he completed 82 passes for 1,197 yards, 11 touchdowns and only one interception.  Another five catchable passes were dropped.

Essentially, blitzing Kaepernick brings defenses into something of a no-win scenario.  First of all, often the pressure is picked up by San Francisco’s above-average offensive line; 106 of the 18 blitzes failed to get any pressure on Kaepernick whatsoever.  That’s the worst-case scenario, as it takes players out of coverage while failing to succeed in slowing down the quarterback.

Even when pressure does come, however, you’ve simplified the game for Kaepernick.  One of the criticisms of Kaepernick is that he’s a “one read” quarterback.  Against a blitz, you generally only have one read, and Kaepernick is great at hitting them.  When pressured by the blitz, Kaepernick throws for 8.4 yards per attempt, and his receivers average 8.6 yards after the catch.

If the read isn’t open, Kaepernick is deadly with his legs, too. If defenders overcommit when pressuring him and end up chasing him, they’re usually unable to catch up.

In other words, what Kaepernick loses in efficiency and completion percentage when blitzed is more than made up by the overall success he has against it.  Blitzing Kaepernick is a recipe for disaster.

 

Third Down Success…or is it?

Kaepernick graded out at plus-7.9 on third downs, 13th in the league.  Since he’s entered the league, Kaepernick is 129 for 219 on third downs, for a completion percentage of 58.9 percent.  More importantly, 100 of the 245 plays he’s been involved in have resulted in touchdowns or first downs, which is a fairly decent number.

Kaepernick's Third Down Targets
Player Targets Catches Cmp % Yards TD
Michael Crabtree 48 25 52.1% 413 3
Anquan Boldin 47 35 75.4% 543 3
Vernon Davis 36 23 63.9% 312 4
Frank Gore 19 12 63.2% 147 0
Mario Manningham 16 9 56.3% 70 0
Kyle Williams 10 5 50.0% 90 0
Other 40 20 50.0% 215 0
Total 217 129 59.4% 1,790 11

Pro Football Reference

A lot of his success last season came from looking for Boldin, and the two made a great pair, completing nearly three-quarters of their targets.  They weren’t just short dump-offs, either—34 of the 35 completions either went for a first down or touchdown, and the average play went for 11.55 yards on an average of 3rd-and-8.  That’s quite a successful relationship.

However, put Kaepernick in a 3rd-and-long situation, and he struggles more.  In his career, Kaepernick has had 80 passing plays facing 3rd-and-10 or more, and on only 22 occasions has he managed to move the chains.  That’s rather abysmal, all things considered.  Pro Football Focus gave him a grade of minus-4.9 in 3rd-and-10 or longer, which was the third worst in the league last year, ahead of only Joe Flacco and Eli Manning.

Part of it is accuracy—Kaepernick completed only 57.9 percent of his attempts in these circumstances last year.  If the passes aren’t accurate, first downs aren’t going to happen.  He threw only one interception last season, so he’s not trying to force the ball anywhere, and he threw the ball away only one time as well, so he’s not giving up and letting the defense do is job.  He’s just seeing third and a mile and ending up with about 6.7 yards per play.

The 49ers offense needs to get Kaepernick into shorter situations on third down or at least not lose yardage on the first two downs.  Kaepernick’s actually third best on 3rd-and-long (6-10 yards) situations, and he ranks fairly high in shorter situations, as well.  The 49ers offense works best when it’s picking up small bits of yardage at a time and keeping the offense on schedule.  When it stalls and sputters, it tends to do so dramatically.

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press
Kaepernick dumps the ball off to Gore on 3rd-and-10+ 20% of the time.

Part of the issue seems to be playcalling.  On 3rd-and-10 or longer, nearly 20 percent of Kaepernick’s attempts are dumpoffs to Frank Gore.  Those are often completed, and gain about 9.6 yards per play, but only twice have they resulted in a first down.  This might be Greg Roman’s hand at play here; perhaps it's a tactical decision to dump the ball short on third down to prevent a disastrous result and/or play for better field position.

That’s handicapping Kaepernick a bit, though; on Kaepernick's 30 attempt to Anquan Boldin or Michael Crabtree, he finds his way to 15 first downs or touchdowns.  Maybe Roman should let Kaepernick look deep a little more often on those occasions when the team does find itself backed up.

 

Set Him Free

As a general rule, actually, Kaepernick should be allowed to throw deep more.  Look at his stats and PFF grades from 2013 in differing pass depths:

Kaepernick's Pass-Depth Stats, 2013
Range Att Cmp Yds TD Int PFF Grade
1-10 yards 199 142 1,404 9 4 -4.2
5-10 yards 123 82 840 8 3 -5.5
11-20 yards 102 53 1,036 6 2 3.9
21-30 yards 36 13 358 2 1 3.1
20+ yards 57 21 683 6 2 4.3

Pro Football Focus

On passes of 21-30 yards, Kaepernick is doing pretty darn well.  On only 36 attempts, his plus-3.1 grade is 11th in the league, and his 47.2 percent accuracy rate is significantly above league average; it’s actually higher than Peyton Manning, Tony Romo or Philip Rivers at that depth.

At 5-10 yards yards, however, Kaepernick is relatively underwhelming.  His minus-5.5 grade is sixth-worst in the league.  Some of that has to do with volume.  Kaepernick’s average pass in that range is just slightly below average, but he threw 123 of them—and remember, he threw only 416 passes last season.  That’s 30 percent of his passes in that short-range area, and there’s just not a ton of return on investment there.

It’d be one thing of the 49ers had a player like Percy Harvin or Codarelle Patterson who could take those passes and burst upfield, but that hasn’t been the case.  The average completion in this range has given Kaepernick just 3.7 yards after the catch, which is again, slightly below the league average of 3.8

It’s not that Kaepernick has been bad, per se, just that he’s been slightly below average, and he throws a lot of those passes.  That little inefficiency accumulates and builds up over time.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
Could Stevie Johnson provide Kaepernick with a deep threat?

With the addition of Stevie Johnson and the full recovery of Michael Crabtree, the 49ers will have a better passing game.  They need speed on the outside to present a deep threat, because that’s not a type of player the team has really had in recent years.

Send Johnson on some fly routes down the numbers and let Kaepernick air the ball out to him.  They’ve had some success in a small sample size, and it’s worth seeing if that can be sustained with more volume.  Kaepernick doesn’t need to become Peyton Manning and air it out all the time, but turning some of those seven-yard routes into twelve-yard routes might do something for Kaepernick’s passing totals.

 

Work on the Quick Throw

The average three-step drop will send a quarterback four to six yards back.  These are your quick throws; the ones that, as a "one read" quarterback, Kaepernick should excel at, right?

No.  On 78 “quick” dropbacks last season, Kaepernick was 42-for-72 for 390 yards, with four touchdowns to three interceptions.  These quick passes are almost overwhelmingly short dump-offs; Kaepernick had 5.4 yards per attempt, a full yard shorter than average.  It’s not because he’s throwing a lot of incompletions; it’s that these passes are coming relatively close to the line of scrimmage.

This is another play-calling habit of Greg Roman that needs to be tweaked.   Kaepernick is successful on only 32.1 percent of these throws because his receivers aren’t getting down the field.  The average target is only 6.2 yards downfield when Kaepernick throws the ball.  You take below-average receiver depth, add to it a below-average completion percentage and you get a minus-5.0 grade, fifth worst in the league.

It’s not all Roman, though.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
Kaepernick needs to get the ball out slightly faster.

Perhaps Kaepernick needs to get rid of the ball quicker in these situations.  It takes an average of 2.1 seconds from snap to throw for Kaepernick at these depths, while the average is only 1.95 seconds.  That doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but fifteen-hundredths of a second is only just faster than human reaction time, so it could be the difference between a defender being able or not to read where Kaepernick is going with the ball.

Kaepernick’s time to throw on these short depths was eighth worst in the league last season; players like Matthew Stafford and Ben Roethlisberger are getting the ball out of their hands more than three-tenths of a second faster than Kaepernick.

This might be something that comes with experience; joining Kaepernick on the over-two-second list are Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III, Thaddeus Lewis, Nick Foles and Terrelle Pryor.  It’s not an absolute correlation as Drew Brees and Michael Vick are also above the two-second mark, but it’s definitely a trend.

Kaepernick needs to work on getting the ball out of his hand faster in general, as he’s below average on three-, five- and seven-step drops.  That’s probably one of the more major steps Kaepernick can work on that we can measure—we can see how long it takes for him to make his decision and throw the ball.  As that number goes down his success should go up.

 

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

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