We are in the midst of a sports information boom, and though it means fans get what they want when they want it, it also means that we can get too much—at least when it comes to surmising the abilities of recently drafted quarterbacks.
No position in sports has a steeper learning curve than that required in the transition of a college quarterback to an NFL quarterback. The players are bigger, faster and motivated by the strongest of all factors: money.
The season is longer and the games more physically demanding, which means that the chances for injury are greater. At the same time, the season is nearly overbearing—20 games if you count a full slate of preseason games. It can be a draining experience.
Through all this, a rookie quarterback—even one as physically gifted as Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert or Andy Dalton—has huge task of adjusting skill sets to the needs of NFL play.
Specifically, these skills are: fast releases yet pinpoint control; pre-snap recognition of confusing defensive schemes, with the right audible and protection calls; and the ability in the hectic pocket during the play to decipher coverage schemes and make correct decisions.
In that perspective, it is worth our consideration to compare the college history and successes of Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers second-round draft pick, with some current and recent NFL quarterbacks.
The point isn’t to project Kaepernick’s chances as much as to assess what he brings to the 49ers, and then look to other QBs with similar skills and see how they panned out.
Kaepernick is 6’5” and 233 pounds. That’s large, and though other QBs like Cam Newton and even Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger are even heavier, neither has the speed of Kaepernick, who has been timed at 4.5 in the 40.
Those who saw Kaepernick at the University of Nevada can understand why Wolfpack coach Chris Ault ran the pistol offense. It gave Kaepernick plenty of space in which to read option plays—hand off or keep. Often times he kept the ball and simply outran the linebacker or defensive end who was assigned to cover the QB.
In looking over his college numbers, nothing stands out in Kaepernick’s like the 6.9 yards per rush attempt number, and the 4,112 yards he racked up running in four years. Those numbers alone would put him among the best running backs in college.
But for a quarterback? Astounding.
All of which translates into a “so what” response by those who know the NFL. There are no full-time spread offenses in the NFL because it brings on too many hits on the quarterback. I have the feeling that a DeMarcus Ware or Ed Reed would love nothing more than the chance to take a full-speed hit on a QB in open space. From a defensive perspective, it sort of sets the tone.
So, there is no doubt that Kaepernick will have to learn the pass-first mentality of NFL quarterbacks. At the same time, his speed enables him great escape skills, which no doubt is what impressed new 49er coach Jim Harbaugh. Furthermore, being 6’5” enables him to see the field, which is already an advantage he has over 6’0" teammate Alex Smith.
Stepping back, Kaepernick can take a look at Randall Cunningham, the former UNLV star who went in the second round in the 1985 draft. At 6’4” and 212 pounds, Cunningham possessed remarkable speed while also being quite elusive. And his escape skills were essential to his personal as well as his team’s successes.
In 1990, Cunningham averaged eight yards per rush attempt for the Eagles when he made the Pro Bowl. But Cunningham’s play early in his career led to injuries, and he lasted 16 years in the game only because he was able to discern the right time to take off. His best year might have been in 1998 when he led Minnesota to a 13-1 record as a starter. He finished the season with a 106 rating and had only 32 rush attempts all year.
In other words, Cunningham learned that to survive it’s best to run only when needed.
The pistol was an amazing offense that enabled a skillful player like Kaepernick to excel. All of which will not have much impact on what he will need to do in the NFL.
Bill Cunerty, the former junior college coach who now works in Southern California as sort of a guru to aspiring NFL quarterbacks, points out that the spread offenses so prolific in college today do not make it any easier to succeed in the pro game.
Here’s the difference, according to Cunerty: In the spread offense, on any given pass play the second option for a quarterback might be “take off.” In the NFL, that’s the last option. Players trained to follow the college instruction might be missing a wide open second or third receiver while also endangering his career (due to the likes of DeMarcus Ware and Ed Reed, as noted above).
When Cunerty watched Alex Smith in his college days at Utah, he had the same question: Are his skills going to be transferable to the NFL? And so far, the question remains.
It has to be said that Smith is best when required to make short, accurate passes while on the move, usually in open space. Smith is not as successful when forced to sit in the pocket and try to throw over or through the pass rush.
That Kaepernick is taller might provide one edge over Smith, but the NFL position still requires recognition skills never before seen in the college game.
I had a friend who played for San Diego State. He was a defensive back who had the size, speed and family history (dad played for Bear Bryant at Kentucky) to draw attention from NFL scouts.
So he was sized up by pro scouts, and he hated it. Why? Because pro scouts do everything they can to compartmentalize all facets of physical performance—from strength to speed to vertical lift to maneuverability. And it does nothing to speak to how well you play during a game.
That’s why we hear about Kaepernick’s throwing motion—sort of a semi-sidearm sling. It is not the pro-scout preferred, off-the-ear, lock-and-fire we see in classic quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers.
And all we have to remember in this same criticism came down on a son of a college coach who had nothing but success throughout his history in the game. His name is Phillip Rivers, who in seven years, despite his awkward throwing motion, has made the Pro Bowl three times for the Chargers.
Going back even further, Sonny Jurgensen of the Redskins had a funky motion; he is only considered one of the greatest passers of all time.
In other words, it’s not how the ball is released; it’s where the ball ends up. In Rivers’ case, more often than not the ball ends up in the open window that enables his receiver to make the catch.
From about 2002-04 you could make the case that the best running back in the NFL was Michael Vick, who was the Falcons quarterback. No player had the here-then-gone speed of Vick to go along with amazing elusiveness.
Of course, that’s why he was a Pro Bowler in ’02 and ’04 (the latter year, he averaged 7.5 yards per attempt). Vick’s speed is still his greatest asset, and it makes defenses a little wary when making an all-out rush. If they miss, Vick can cover a lot of open space in a very short time.
There is nothing more frustrating for a defense than to provide the right coverage as it collapses the pocket, only to have the QB escape and turn a potential loss into a big gain.
Kaepernick has that skill, a la Vick. But he also has to learn to throw first, and Vick, an eight-year vet, is still in the process of learning that skill.
Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Democrat made a solid case about the difficulties quarterbacks taken in the second round have encountered. The examples include names of starters and non-starters like Kellen Clemens, Quincy Carter, Drew Stanton, Brian Brohm, Charlie Batch and others.
Branch noted that of the 16 quarterbacks taken in the second round from 1996-2010, only two—Drew Brees and Jake Plummer—made it to the Pro Bowl.
The question is, why? And the answer seems to be need. Various drafts over the years brought on a rush of quarterbacks, and when a team feels the need to add to the position but finds that the best players are already taken they “over-reach” and take a player who has less of a chance to bring appropriate value. The names above provide plenty of proof.
The question is whether Kaepernick fits into the Brees-Plummer mold or, in time, finds himself in the long list of second-round “almosts.” In that aspect, the indications are that Kaepernick is a conscientious, motivated individual who is participating in informal team workouts. He is doing everything he can right now to make progress.
We may not know how it turns out for years, and much of what he does rests in the hands and coaching acumen of Harbaugh. Kaepernick has the talent but let’s wait a little bit before we make too many pre-mature judgments about his future.