Now that the San Francisco 49ers have made it clear Colin Kaepernick is their franchise quarterback by signing him to a six-year extension in the offseason, it's on his right shoulder that the offense will live and die.
The good news is San Francisco has put all the pieces in place for the 26-year-old to become one of the best passing quarterbacks in the NFL this season.
For a quarterback with just 23 regular-season starts under his belt, Kaepernick has certainly looked the part of a guy who can be an elite passer in the NFL. No one can deny the arm strength—he held the Scouting Combine record for fastest pass at 59 mph until 2014.
The questions around Kaepernick have revolved around accuracy and reads. He went from completing 62.4 percent of his passes in 2012 to 58.4 percent last season. Speed and quickness out of the pocket are still a huge part of his game, as evidenced by 937 yards on the ground in the regular season and 507 in six playoff games.
Steve Young, who was another mobile quarterback and became one of the great pocket passers en route to the Hall of Fame, said during a June appearance on ESPN's NFL Live that throwing from the pocket has to become Kaepernick's No. 1 weapon (h/t ProFootballTalk,com):
"That’s going to be a very difficult thing for Colin to master," Young said. "He’s going to have to tie his legs in training camp. Literally, he should tie his legs, physically, so he can’t do anything but throw from the pocket."
There were reasons for Kaepernick's drop in accuracy from season to season. His favorite target in 2012, Michael Crabtree, missed the first 11 games of the year with a torn Achillies. By the quarterback's own admission, he didn't have the same burst as he did the previous year.
In addition to missing Crabtree, the 49ers were running out a group of receivers who lacked the ability to stretch the field (Anquan Boldin) or were in the twilight of their career coming off a serious injury (Mario Manningham).
Boldin was fantastic and an invaluable piece for the 49ers last season, but he's at an age where it's best if he's your No. 2 or slot guy.
The front office clearly recognized the need to surround Kaepernick with more weapons. General manager Trent Baalke drafted speedy wide receiver Bruce Ellington and traded a conditional draft pick to Buffalo for Stevie Johnson.
|No. 1||Anquan Boldin||Michael Crabtree|
|No. 2||Michael Crabtree (Coming off injury)||Anquan Boldin|
|No. 3||Kyle Williams/Mario Manningham||Stevie Johnson|
It should be noted that Manningham and Kyle Williams weren't with the 49ers when the 2013 season ended. Manningham was placed on injured reserve, while Williams was claimed off waivers by Kansas City in November.
Looking at the 2014 group, which doesn't even include Kaepernick's favorite red-zone option Vernon Davis because he's a tight end, there's no reason the young gunslinger can't get back to the passing levels he was at two years ago and exceed them.
The other part of Kaepernick's growing development is trust. Kevin Lynch of SFGate.com made a great point after the 49ers' loss to Baltimore in the preseason opener about why the team was limited in the passing game last year, besides not having Crabtree around:
In order for the passing game to be more prolific, Kaepernick needs to gain more confidence in his receivers. That’s something that hasn’t always been easy for him. Receivers have to prove their worth before Kaepernick will rely on them. We saw this last year with Kyle Williams. At times, particularly early in the season, Williams got open. But Kaepernick rarely looked his way.
This year seems different. Kaepernick has established a chemistry with Stevie Johnson and Quinton Patton, but no team wins anything in training camp.
We have been spoiled by quarterback play over the last five years. Some of that can be attributed to defenses not being able to touch the opposition without a flag being thrown, but it doesn't hurt to have guys like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers under center.
Outside of Colin Kaepernick, who is San Francisco's most important offensive player in 2014?
However, the NFL is also becoming more diverse. Teams like the 49ers and Seattle Seahawks are building rosters that are physical and rely heavily on the running game. As a result, their quarterbacks aren't going to get the same opportunities to throw the ball more than 450 times in a season.
That's why a quarterback like Kaepernick has to be so precise when pass plays are called. He's been brilliant as a passer at times and looked lost at other times. The results on the field have been largely positive with a Super Bowl appearance and one pass short of playing in another one.
Kaepernick is still in the embryonic stages of his development with less than two full seasons worth of starts under his belt. There are going to be a few growing pains here and there, but now is when he should go from a solid athlete who happens to play under center to one of the top throwing quarterbacks in the NFL.
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