NFL1000: Is Colin Kaepernick Still Starting Quarterback Material in the NFL?

Doug Farrar@@BR_DougFarrar NFL Lead ScoutMarch 27, 2017

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) during the second half of an NFL football game against the New York Jets in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

In the story of Colin Kaepernick's NFL future, there are two clear narratives.

The most obvious narrative is that because of his political views and refusal to stand for the national anthem during games in the 2016 season, the league is blackballing Kaepernick. No team will sign him, the thought goes, because owners and executives are offended by his stances. My B/R colleague Mike Freeman has been all over this story for months, and the quotes he's collected from people in high positions in the NFL would lead you to believe there's some fire behind this smoke.

According to a recent Freeman piece, about 20 percent of the NFL's decision-makers "genuinely believe he can't play." Another 20 percent are afraid of the blowback from a Kaepernick signing, fearing the reaction of fans, advertisers and even President Donald J. Trump. The rest of the league?

"The rest genuinely hate him and can't stand what he did [kneeling for the national anthem]," one AFC general manager told Freeman. "They want nothing to do with him. They won't move on. They think showing no interest is a form of punishment. I think some teams also want to use Kaepernick as a cautionary tale to stop other players in the future from doing what he did."

If that's true, we have a larger problem on our hands. America should not be a country where bosses collude to prevent qualified people from working just to present a negative example to others.

The second narrative is just as clear. You'll hear over and over that Kaepernick has regressed as a passer. He can't get it done in the pocket. His decision-making is terrible, and he's nothing more than a running quarterback who isn't a complete player at his position.

This is the narrative that needs to be broken down more thoroughly. Collusion is nearly impossible to prove, but the tape doesn't lie.

I wanted to break down Kaepernick's tape from 2016 and find out if there's enough to make him worthy of whatever drama his signing might prompt, and in which system he would succeed.

We know Kaepernick has been divisive off the field. But has he actually struggled *on* the field?
We know Kaepernick has been divisive off the field. But has he actually struggled *on* the field?Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

First, let's throw out "system quarterback" as a pejorative. Nearly every quarterback is a system quarterback—the few players who can succeed in multiple schemes with different personnel can be counted on one hand. Tom Brady is the only example in NFL history that comes to mind among players who have done so at a championship level. Quarterbacks need to be managed and manipulated by coaches and their concepts for optimal success, and that applies to everybody.

So, where can Kaepernick succeed, and how good is he?

He started 11 games last season, completing 196 of his 331 passes for 2,241 yards, 16 touchdowns and four interceptions, and he added 69 runs for 468 yards and two touchdowns. He did so on a 49ers team that finished the season 2-14, and whose leading receiver (Jeremy Kerley) caught 64 passes for 667 yards and three touchdowns.

Some may think former head coach Chip Kelly's short passing game inflated Kaepernick's 2016 stats, but the tape suggests otherwise.

Late in the 2016 season, Kaepernick was doing two things his naysayers insist he can't do: adjusting to pressure in the pocket and making accurate deep throws despite that pressure.

This 45-yard completion to Quinton Patton in the third quarter of San Francisco's Week 10 game against the Arizona Cardinals is a great example. From the end zone view, you can see Kaepernick adjust and move in the pocket to the pressure and make a great deep throw to Patton (No. 11)  over the head of cornerback Justin Bethel (No. 28). Patton is running a deep over route from the left side, and he's not the fastest guy in the world, so this takes enough time for the protection to break down.

Watch how Kaepernick moves in the pocket to keep the play alive (as opposed to bailing outside the pocket). He has tight end Vance McDonald (No. 89) as the first backside read on a quick slant. That's an easy throw, but he doesn't take it. Instead, he looks safety D.J. Swearinger (No. 36) off to McDonald, assuring that Patton will have one-on-one coverage deep. Then, it's a perfect strike downfield.

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This 18-yard touchdown pass from Kaepernick to McDonald in Week 11 against the Patriots shows two things critics often claim Kaepernick doesn't have—the ability to throw with touch and arc to match the timing of a route, and the awareness to throw with anticipation to beat coverage. McDonald is dragging from left to right, pushing off safety Devin McCourty (No. 32) to get separation to the right side. McCourty catches up, though, and Kaepernick needs to zing this one in there right on point before McCourty (one of the NFL's better coverage safeties) converges and jumps the route.

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Kaepernick could have put a bit more on this throw—McDonald had to slow down a bit to bring it in, which helped McCourty—but he still put his receiver in a position to win.

This is not to say everything is peachy keen when watching Kaepernick's tape. There are times when he regresses, especially on his reads and mechanics, and looks amateur. Three of his four interceptions in 2016 were his fault (the pick against the Dolphins was a drop by Torrey Smith), and there were clear field-reading and mechanical breakdowns at times. His interception in Week 16 to the Rams was a clear overshot to McDonald. The pick against the Saints was an inexcusable misread of a linebacker's drop into coverage.

But the Bradley McDougald interception in Week 7 against the Buccaneers was the most worrisome, as it showed mechanical failure, a bad read and Kaepernick going against his ideal instincts.

Here, McDougald (No. 30) is shadowing McDonald on an intermediate out route, and Kaepernick moves to his left to escape pressure. He's moving against the momentum of his own body, which forces him to make an arm throw to the sideline. It isn't a pretty result—he throws with his front foot extended, underthrows the ball and McDougald is able to jump the route easily. He was closing on the route with inside position as Kaepernick made the throw.

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Just as troubling here is that Kaepernick had a free lane and tons of space to pick up yardage if he wanted to run. This was a 2nd-and-13 situation, so throwing the ball wasn't the only option. It's fair to wonder whether Kaepernick's mission to be a pocket passer got in the way of his base instincts here.

Is Colin Kaepernick a top-10 starting quarterback at this point in his career? No way. His mechanics are inconsistent at best and balky at worst. He does needs a specific system to succeed, though the same could be said of several current starters in the league. But this is a guy who threw 16 touchdowns and four picks on a team that was circling the drain from a talent perspective due to several horrid drafts led by former general manager Trent Baalke. Kaepernick is worthy of development, as he's shown the ability to progress in circumstances both good and bad.

What is the ideal system for him? Well, the system he had under Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco from 2011 through 2014 featured deep passing, play action, a strong run game that included Kaepernick and a blocking scheme that combined old-school elements of power/counter/trap protections with read-option ideas that kept defenses on their heels, especially defenses that featured a lot of press man coverage. Why was read-option stuff particularly effective here? Because when man cornerbacks trail receivers in press coverage, they have to turn their heads to the quarterback, which is when Kaepernick could frequently take off.

Now, Kaepernick runs less play action than he did in the Harbaugh days, per Pro Football Focus, he doesn't throw deep as much and his running ability isn't as integrated with a strong run game.

After thorough tape review, Kaepernick does still seem to have a lot to offer for the right team. He needs to be in an environment where he's not singled out for his beliefs, working for a coach who has a proven track record of allowing his players to be who they are. He needs an offense that creates deep plays off play action and threatens defenses with quarterback runs. Kaepernick is a decent pocket passer at best, so whoever signs him will have to deal with the hybrid reality of having a quarterback who can do multiple things. But he can still do those things.

Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman recently said on ESPN he believes there's something to the idea of the league blackballing Kaepernick. Insisting that Kaepernick could "be a starter on probably 20 of the teams in this league," Sherman want on to say this:

It's difficult to see because he's played at such a high level, and you see guys, quarterbacks, who have never played at a high level being signed by teams. So it's difficult to understand. Obviously he's going to be in a backup role at this point. But you see quarterbacks, there was a year Matt Schaub had a pretty rough year and got signed the next year. So, it has nothing to do with football. You can see that. They signed guys who have had off years before.

Would Kaepernick be a good fit on Sherman's team? Yes, for multiple reasons. The Seahawks have an established quarterback in Russell Wilson, so there's no pressure to start Kaepernick right away. Seattle's passing playbook relies heavily on play action, and many of Wilson's deep passes come from play action. In addition, the Seahawks have designed runs and designed improv plays for Wilson—they plan for chaos when Wilson bails out of the pocket. And with Seattle's abysmal offensive line, whoever plays quarterback for that team is going to have to improvise out of the pocket.

I've spoken with several Seahawks players over the years (including Sherman) about the environment head coach Pete Carroll created, and to a man, Carroll's players have said how much they appreciate him letting them be who they are.

Seattle would be a good fit. New England would be an interesting fit. Any team with an established quarterback and a head coach successful enough not to care what the world thinks would be a good fit.

There are a handful of those situations in the NFL. We'll just have to wait to see which narrative wins out, and whether Kaepernick is allowed to compete fairly for his NFL future.

Based on the tape, he does still deserve that opportunity.

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