San Francisco 49ers: Is Colin Kaepernick Considered an Elite Quarterback?

Bryan Knowles@BryknoContributor IIIJuly 3, 2014

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick passes during NFL football mini-camp in Santa Clara, Calif., Thursday, June 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Is Colin Kaepernick an elite quarterback?

That’s the question ESPN’s Mike Sando decided to ask.  To get an answer, he had 26 “league insiders” rank every starting quarterback in the NFL on a scale from 1 to 5, then averaged the results to come up with a final ranking.

This is not a particularly interesting exercise for someone like Peyton Manning or Geno Smith, but for a quarterback like Kaepernick, who just signed a new megadeal after having a slightly disappointing season working with a depleted receiving corps, it’s a good way to see how he’s perceived by the sorts of people who actually make decisions in the NFL.

Does Kaepernick's mobility outweigh trouble reading defenses?
Does Kaepernick's mobility outweigh trouble reading defenses?Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

According to Sando’s rankings (subscription required), Kaepernick is only the 14th-best quarterback in the league, saddled right between Matthew Stafford and Nick Foles.

Is that an accurate perception?  It’s hard to say.  Kaepernick certainly is still a work in progress.  While executives pointed out his big arm and ability to shred defenses with his legs, they mostly wanted to see him improve at reading defenses and playing within the pocket.

Pro Football Focus has been releasing their quarterback tracking stats, and they do have Kaepernick’s pocket statistics available:

NFC West Quarterbacks in the Pocket
NameAttCmpYdsTDINTSuccess %PFF Grade
Russell Wilson2951952,38518735.1%12.2
Colin Kaepernick3351992,62514733.7%6.3
Carson Palmer5503524,143242139.1%4.0
Sam Bradford3351471,55511438.1%0.7
Pro Football Focus

It turns out PFF ranks Kaepernick as the 14th-best quarterback in the pocket last season, which checks out with the insiders' rankings.  Case closed, right?

Well, no.  There are other signs that Kaepernick is better than his 14th-place ranking, at least according to PFF.

Kaepernick was the best quarterback in the league on rollouts last season, although that’s a relatively small sample size.  He’s also a top-five quarterback in 2nd-and-medium and 3rd-and-long situations, though he is significantly less successful on 2nd-and-short, thanks to a very low yards-per-completion figure. 

That last one I blame on the play-calling more than on Kaepernick himself; the 49ers need to run more routes past the markers on 2nd-and-short situations.  If no one’s running deep, there’s no one for Kaepernick to throw to.

Is Colin Kaepernick trending upward?
Is Colin Kaepernick trending upward?Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

When you add it all together, it feels like Kaepernick is better than a middle-of-the-pack quarterback.  No, I don’t think there’s a realistic argument to put him with the Mannings or Bradys of the world, but considering the lack of weapons he had in 2013, I think a low ranking is fairly pessimistic.

A truly elite quarterback will raise the play of all of his teammates.  You could stick Manning with a below-average receiving corps, and he’d still manage to put out great numbers.  Even the most dedicated of Kaepernick supporters would be hard-pressed to argue that he’s there yet.

However, if you prorate Kaepernick’s statistics when Michael Crabtree was healthy out to a full season, you see a very different quarterback.

Colin Kaepernick's 2013 Prorated Stats
No Crabtree22740156.5%2,963201086.3955184
With Crabtree26444659.2%3,47220891.31068244
Pro Football Focus

While Kaepernick’s scoring didn’t increase with Crabtree in the lineup, all of his production numbers did. 

The offense opened up, with more opportunities for Kaepernick to show off his arm.  The interception count dropped, thanks to better receivers diluting opposing coverage.  Kaepernick even had more attempts on the ground in games with Crabtree healthy, though that’s more likely due to the “leave everything on the field” nature of playoff games, as opposed to a specific schematic quirk.

When Kaepernick has actual starting receivers on the field, as opposed to the likes of Kyle Williams and Jonathan Baldwin, he looked like a much better quarterback.  Pro Football Focus gave him negative grades in four games (subscription required), all prior to Crabtree’s return.  Five of the nine games afterward resulted in positive overall grades.

Stevie Johnson should give Kaepernick a better target to throw to.
Stevie Johnson should give Kaepernick a better target to throw to.Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Add it all together, and combine it with the addition of Stevie Johnson, a healthy Quinton Patton and the potential impacts of Brandon Lloyd or Bruce Ellington, and you have all the ingredients there for a quarterback who will take a step forward in 2014. 

In my opinion, both the statistical evidence and the subjective evidence points to a quarterback who should be in the bottom of the top 10, not somewhere in the middle of the pack.

That potential might have been a factor in the grades given in Sando’s exercise.  Alongside the rankings, Sando published a piece (subscription required) explaining the grades on six of the more divisive quarterbacks, including Kaepernick.

It turns out, personnel people, including general managers and personnel evaluators, view Kaepernick as being a better quarterback than coaches do.  Ten of the 15 personnel people asked had Kaepernick as a second-tier quarterback, with the rest having him as a third-tier player.  By comparison, only four of 11 coaches had him that high, and one had him as far down as a fourth-tier player.

This may be a difference between perceived performance and perceived potential.  General managers and talent scouts are trained to look at what a player could become, while coaches are more likely to be looking at what a player gives you this specific week.

Therefore, if you think that most of Kaepernick’s value is in his potential, it makes sense that the personnel people would rate him much higher.  They see the talent in his arm and legs, and imagine a future in which he puts it all together.  Kaepernick’s ceiling is as high as can be.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Coaches, on the other hand, see Kaepernick as existing in a run-heavy system who struggled when players went down with injury.  He lacks polish as a passer and tends to go to his legs too soon.  They may be grading on Kaepernick’s performance last season, rather than what he has the potential to be in 2014.

If you only look at the personnel people’s evaluations of Kaepernick, he would have slid up a notch, though still would miss the top 10, perhaps thanks to the rings on the fingers of Joe Flacco and Eli Manning.  Coaches alone would have slid Kaepernick down to 17th, between Jay Cutler and Alex Smith.

So if the talent evaluators see a player ready to take a step forward and the coaches see a player who hasn’t yet proved his potential, we’re left with our original question: Is Colin Kaepernick an elite quarterback?

This is not a question that can be answered by looking back at Kaepernick’s game film or his statistics.  This is something that can only be shown on the field in 2014.  Kaepernick’s continued development, or lack thereof, could be the deciding factor between another loss in the playoffs or the sixth Super Bowl trophy in franchise history.

Bryan Knowles is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers.  Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.


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