As the reigning ESPY winner for Best Breakthrough Athlete, Colin Kaepernick’s red-hot debut in 2012 was a real shot of life for the San Francisco 49ers, which had been without a difference maker at quarterback for well over a decade.
As one of the more compelling stories in the NFL this year, there are a lot of people curious as to what steps he can take to get better. Considering the singular set of tools he has to work with and the environment he is in, Kaepernick has untold potential.
As training camp gets underway in Santa Clara, Calif., we’ll take a look at how the 49ers quarterback can improve in his first full season as a starter.
Rapport with Receivers
In every conceivable way, Kaepernick leaned on No. 1 wideout Michael Crabtree in the passing game, going to him on nearly 40 percent of Crabtree's routes run. From Weeks 11-17, only one other pass-catcher in the NFL was targeted more, and that was big Brandon Marshall in Chi-Town (44.2 percent).
In Kap’s 10 career starts, he targeted Crabtree a team-high 94 times, while the second-most targeted 49er WR was Randy Moss (39). This carried over to clutch situations as well, with 13 of those targets coming in the red zone, whereas no other player had more than four, per NFL Live.
As the icing on the cake, Crabtree was also looked to by Kap a total of 27 times on third down, which happened to be three times more than anyone else on the roster.
The last two tidbits of info are vital because it demonstrates that Kaepernick depended on Crabtree to score poins and keep San Francisco’s offense on the field.
While this nascent connection looks promising for the future, the hindrance the 49ers now face is that Crabtree is slated to miss substantial time in 2013 with an Achilles injury, as originally reported by USA Today’s Mike Garafolo. For the young signal caller, this will be a real obstacle. Kaepernick has suddenly had his safety blanket ripped out from under him.
Whenever the Niners had to have a play, No. 15 was the one to make it, which, in turn, resulted in unbalanced ball distribution and predictability. Moreover, if the team fails to adapt with Crabtree out of the lineup, that lopsided plan of attack could send them off a cliff.
Crabtree’s injury immediately shifts the attention toward San Francisco’s rising star behind center and his ability to establish a rapport with the other receivers. Kaepernick has to be able to spread it out to the stable of pass catchers on the roster, many of whom are new to the team.
At the moment, wide receivers Quinton Patton, Ricardo Lockette, Anquan Boldin and tight end Vance McDonald are all fresh faces that expect to get in the mix right away. A.J. Jenkins, Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham are also returning to the squad, but saw very limited action with Kap on game day last year.
Outside of TE Vernon Davis, the 49ers quarterback is essentially starting from scratch.
Basically, Kaepernick needs to shake off the loss of his top guy and focus on the task at hand, which is to replace No. 15 by helping younger players realize their potential. If he puts the time in, the aforementioned corps of receivers will thrive and adequately replace Crabtree's production in the aggregate.
That is what players like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees have done, time and time again. They make their receivers better, and thus, the pieces around them are interchangeable on an annual basis.
In order to become that type of flagship player, Kaepernick must open lines of communication with his receivers and in a very detailed manner explain what they need to do on and off the field if they want to see the football. With his knowledge of the offense and command behind center, Kap can work with them in a variety of ways to catch them up to speed.
And since time is of the essence, he would be wise to spend extra hours after practice working with his guys, as well as bonding away from the facility in a social setting. The fact that Ricardo Lockette has been living at Kaepernick’s house is probably a good thing, via CSN Bay Area.
For those tracking Kap’s progress, Lockette brought insight as just one new receiver finding his way in red and gold. Having worked closely with the 49ers quarterback, he believes the difference in his own game is “night and day” since he started his one-on-one training with Kaepernick.
One of the main reasons Lockette cited was the ability to learn the playbook from someone he can relate to:
Just different ways of breaking the play down. Instead of going through it as if, ‘Okay, you do this if the safety does this,’ you know, how the coaches explain it, Cover 4, Cover 5. [Kaepernick] says, ‘Hey, remember it this way. Okay, this car is this color, your favorite car is red, so when you hear red, you run a Corvette,’ or something like that. Just like that, just break it down is how we do it. And that’s how we’re going to make plays happen. We’re going to make it as simple as possible and play as hard as we can into Sunday.
The 25-year-old Kaepernick will be able to connect with a fairly young group of pass catchers. Of the 14 tight ends and wide receivers competing in camp, 12 are in their early-to-mid 20s, with Anquan Boldin, 32, and Kassim Osgood, 33, being the only exceptions.
It will be essential for Kaepernick to simplify the playbook for the new guys on the roster, but fortunately, there may be a generational advantage. The time spent together will also help them tap into each other’s thought processes, allowing that unspoken chemistry to take place.
Judging by Lockette’s encounters with the 49ers quarterback, it appears as if Kaepernick has realized the urgency here, and in all likelihood, is probably taking this approach with several players. Of all the things Kap does this offseason, this may be the most important thing he can achieve heading into 2013.
If he does it right, No. 7 can actually capitalize on the injury to Crabtree.
Last year, Kaepernick rarely looked anywhere else. This way, he can learn to spread the ball around and progress through his reads, while developing a timing and trust with the other players. Perhaps a blessing in disguise, Crabtree’s injury timetable cleared the road for a lot of other up-and-comers to get reps.
As he matures heading into his first year as a starter, Crab not being there will force Kap to explore the gamut of his receiving corps.
Call A Non-Conference Veteran or Retired Quarterback
Regardless of a player’s pay grade, being in the NFL has its advantages. Once you’ve been admitted to that exclusive fraternity, a Rolodex that includes some of the best to ever do it suddenly becomes available.
Imagine having a prestigious catalog of Hall of Famers, Super Bowl winners, players who have overcome injuries, MVPs, and legendary coaches and executives in the palm of your hand. The one-of-a-kind stories and experiences they have in their memory banks range far and wide and are invaluable to those who possess that knowledge.
For anyone that is humble enough to close their trap and listen, there is a lot to gain.
Sharing information in the NFL is not a new concept, either; it’s just another way to secure an edge. Take a look at Bucs coach Greg Schiano, who has willingly gone under the wing of Patriots coach Bill Belichick (via ESPN), or how Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice offered to work with A.J. Jenkins after he was drafted.
It’s never a bad thing to ask questions from those who have been where you want to go. Heading into his first full 16-game schedule, Kap should feel encouraged to explore his resources. Two players that had similar starts to their careers that may offer some sage advice would be Tom Brady and Joe Montana.
It is hard to get better than Brady and Montana, who are two of the most accomplished quarterbacks in the history of the league. As players who never relied on arm strength to win games, they can help Kap with his mental approach, as well as his underneath game on the field. Obviously both are well versed in the West Coast offense.
Also, when it came to making clutch plays in big games, there will be a legitimate frame of reference (See: Super Bowls 16, 19, 23, 24, 36, 38 and 39).
For Kaepernick, it could not hurt to start building relationships and surrounding himself with winning quarterbacks that handled their careers the right way. By taking lessons away from their first-hand experiences, he can circumvent any speed bumps or at least be prepared when they come.
1. Quarterback/Center Exchange
Coming out of the football program at Nevada, Kaepernick had very limited work directly behind center. This was not a prevalent issue in his 10 NFL starts, but the foreign nature of it did catch up to him. On a few occasions, before he fully secured the football, Kap was either looking downfield already or turning a moment early to hand it off to the tailback.
On this sneak against the Patriots in Week 15, Kap rushed up the middle to get past the first-down marker, hoping to beat the New England front off the snap. However, that hastiness on his part caused him to neglect ball security, which resulted in him losing control under the pile.
In the same game, the 49ers were in scoring position inside the New England five-yard line. Kaepernick never got his hands around the snap from center Jonathan Goodwin, bobbling and fumbling the ball roughly three yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Fortunately, veteran running back Frank Gore had the wherewithal to scoop it off the ground and find a lane to the end zone.
Few were quick to point to the low temperatures and pressure of playing in New England as the reason for the botched snaps. Weather and a high-profile opponent notwithstanding, Kaepernick must maintain his standard level of play in all conditions, especially with the Super Bowl being held at MetLife Stadium this season.
All in all, this imperfection should quickly, but Kap must exercise patience and stress the importance of the little things.
2. Short-to-Intermediate Routes
As most now know, the 49ers quarterback has a mighty cannon of an arm, but frankly, it can get to be a little much on throws that require touch. Going forward, Kaepernick has to learn that he cannot bullet 100 percent of his passes.
In training camp this year, reps that involve the bottom half of the route tree will help him develop a better understanding of how much velocity to put on his on short- to mid-range attempts. It will also lessen injuries to his receivers' fingers (See: Randy Moss, dislocated finger).
In terms of accuracy, the quarterback did a first-rate job leading his underneath receivers to open space. However, if he can take a little off his throws, this modified West Coast offense can reach new heights with Kap behind center.
Here is a detailed breakdown of Kaepernick’s proficiency attacking different parts of the field, via ESPN Stats and Info:
Only 12.5 percent of his pass attempts have been incomplete due to an over- or underthrown pass this season, the lowest in the league (including playoffs).
When he’s off-target, the result is almost always an overthrow. Only four of Kaepernick’s 101 incompletions (including playoffs) have been the result of an underthrown pass.
He’s the most accurate passer in the league on throws more than 20 yards downfield and has completed at least one of those throws in all but one of his starts this season.
3. Clock Management
If Kap can sharpen this aspect of his game, he can become lethal and take this team far for years to come.
It is inherently difficult to manage games against the clock, which is why the all-time great quarterbacks are best known for the work in the clutch. Kaepernick is still very young and inexperienced, so that callus has yet to be formed.
He can do two-minute drills until he is blue in the face, but the real strides will occur against regular-season competition. Kaepernick has to learn by doing, and he is going to fail a few times in the process, but the finished product will be well worth it.
Overall, he has to be more cognizant of time left before halves, as well as the play clock on a down-by-down basis. When the team is marching down field and needs to conserve time, Kaepernick has to play smart football by working the sidelines and throwing the ball away when necessary.
4. Ball Security (Rushing)
According to Pro Football Reference, Kaepernick had nine fumbles in 2012, losing two of them. Considering he only had 10 starts, that is quite a bit, regardless of his status as a dual-threat quarterback. If he is going to continue to play his unique brand of football, he will need to minimize risk.
Remember, the very first thing coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff addressed prior to their inaugural campaign was the importance of ball security. That has to continue, even though they’ve added an explosive new element to their offense.
Moreover, teams are now fully aware of Kaepernick’s abilities, so defensive coordinators will be instructing their players to tomahawk or get a helmet on the ball. As a runner, rarely did Kap tuck the rock properly (high and tight).
More often than not, the tip of the ball was clutched between his four fingers and wrist. On top of that, it swayed in a back-and-forth motion, away from his body, correlating with his stride.
This would have been more problematic had any player been able to get a hand on Kap. But over the course of a full schedule, with his style, defenders will have their opportunities.
Having said that, Kaepernick has to be prepared to have a target on his back. One player he can talk to about that is Frank Gore, who only lost three fumbles in 585 touches from 2011-2012, per ESPN stats.
5. Throwing Downfield Late
Perhaps the biggest distinction between Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick is the fact that No. 7 looks down the field in the passing game. In only 10 starts, Kap led the league in completion percentage, yards per attempt and Total QBR on passes 20-plus yards downfield, via Trey Wingo on Twitter.
Again, this is a feature of his game that has high upside, but can still be polished up a bit.
In the clip above, you can see Kap roll out of a play-action fake, plant his foot and deliver the ball downfield. On this particular down, Kaepernick is looking for Randy Moss on a seam route, but by the time he winds up to throw, the Patriots safeties read the play and squeeze No. 84 in the end zone.
Coming over from the free safety spot, Devin McCourty gracefully swipes the ball away from in front of Moss.
Given the play design, pattern by the intended receiver and room from the line of scrimmage to end zone, it was clear that too much time passed from snap to release. Kaepernick either did not recognize that his window had closed or he deliberately forced a throw he should have never attempted.
It happened again on this play versus the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII. On play action, Kaepernick was again looking for Moss, but was late on the trigger and the pass sailed slightly above the target (maybe due to last-second indecision, altering the trajectory).
After Moss beat strong safety Bernard Pollard’s jam inside from the slot, there was a window between two Ravens (linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs) where No. 84 was open on the deep crosser. That ball should have been there on a dart, ready for Moss as soon as he crossed behind Lewis.
However, the play-fake held things up, the ball was late and Baltimore’s legendary free safety, Ed Reed, had enough time to read Kaepernick and position himself behind the intended receiver.
Circumstances also played in a role in some of Kaepernick's turnovers.
Moss, who was intended to supplement the vertical production, became more of an enigma than on the field anything. According to ESPN Stats and Info, Kaepernick threw three interceptions on 42 attempts to the deep-ball specialist (one pick every 14 targets). The quarterback threw one interception for every 121 attempts to every other receiver.
This information is definitely worth noting. For instance, if Ricardo Lockette is this year’s Randy Moss—running those designed routes as the outside receiver—then Kap is going to have to work on his timing down the field with him, particularly on play action. He must have that internal clock telling him when he can and can’t take shots down the field.
Dylan DeSimone is the San Francisco 49ers Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. A former NFL journalist and fantasy football writer for SB Nation, Niners Nation and SB Nation Bay Area, Dylan now writes for B/R.
To talk football with Dylan, follow him on Twitter @DeSimone80.