The Kaepernick Question

Updated: July 23rd 2017

One of the more interesting debates this NFL offseason revolves around why former San Francisco quarterback does not have a job yet. The arguments tend to range primarily around 1) declining football skills versus 2) bias due to his political stance last season but also move into somewhat bizarre areas such as his vegan diet. This article focuses the discussion to the football realm and whether his football abilities, recent production, and market forces dictate he should indeed possess a starting job.

What Kaepernick is as a Quarterback

Before we examine where the free agent quarterback is in his development, we need to look at how he was viewed early in his career. Perhaps no statement demonstrates the sky-high expectations for Kaepernick better than a certain ESPN analysts’ famous quote (one I am sure he would like to take back) leading into the 2013 NFL season.

“I truly believe Colin Kaepernick could be one of the greatest quarterbacks ever,” – Ron Jaworkski.

Obviously this quote seems silly now but Jaworski was not alone in thinking Kaepernick could be a game-changer at the quarterback position. Kaepernick displayed a rocket arm combined with a tremendous athletic profile which was showcased during his spectacular 2012 playoff run in which he made one big play after another leading San Francisco to the Super Bowl.

So what happened? The most basic answer is that Kaepernick never evolved as a passer in the league.  Looking back at a few weaknesses reported in his NFL Draft Profile sheds some insight into the issue: “Has not been asked to make NFL progressions and reads. Misses too many short passes. Doesn’t have consistent touch on the deep ball. Release is somewhat elongated and can dip down to sidearm at times.”  Sound familiar?  It should if you have watched many San Francisco games.  Kaepernick still has major accuracy issues, struggles to make the most basic NFL-level reads, and never addressed his throwing motion.  In addition, he also breaks out of the pocket far too often from imagined pressure.  But do his weaknesses on film show up on in his production?  We can take a look at the numbers below.

We can clearly see his career play deteriorating from Table 1 below. QBR (ESPN) and DVOA (Football Outsiders) are respective measures of quarterback value per play from each site. Both measures are publicly available and rely on play-level data to assess quarterback play taking into account surrounding circumstances.  QBR, for example, splits responsibility for drops and yards per reception among quarterbacks and receivers on each play.  QBR and DVOA listed in Table 1 reflect Kaepernick’s QBR and DVOA rank among qualified NFL quarterbacks over the past five seasons.  His DVOA rank went from one of the best during his rookie season to one of the NFL’s worst over the last couple of seasons among starting quarterbacks.

Colin Kaepernick Jay Cutler
Year Games QBR Pass DVOA Games QBR Pass DVOA
2012 13 N/A* N/A 3 15 22 25 27
2013 16 8 25.5 7 11 3 35 13
2014 16 17 30.3 29 15 16 32.6 22
2015 9 29 0.4 35 15 10 45 9
2016 12 23 -0.3 30 5 N/A** N/A N/A
Table 1: Kaepernick vs. Cutler
*Not enough plays to qualify but ranked 4th.
**Not enough plays to qualify. QBR was far below Kaepernick’s and DVOA one spot ahead.

Possibly even more indicative of his struggles as a quarterback over the last couple of seasons is examining his expected points added on passing plays (Pass in Table 1). Kaepernick, quite literally, added practically no expected points in the passing game during the 2015 and 2016 seasons where he ranked at the bottom of the league.  To put this in context, he provided far less value as a passer in 2016 than other much-maligned starting quarterbacks including Brock Osweiler, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Case Keenan.

So what does Kaepernick bring as a quarterback? The answer is clearly the ability to take over games with his legs where his athletic abilities can truly shine.  The 49er accumulated more expected points from rushes than any other quarterback during the 2016 season despite playing in only 12 games.  He can bring value to a team relying on the run game where Kaepernick can be utilized substantially on play action passes limiting his deficiencies as a pocket passer and also on zone-read schemes to further emphasize the rushing attack.

The Market for Kaepernick

As detailed in my report on possible quarterback landing spots, Kaepernick faced a market loaded with players available who have starting NFL experience.  In addition, the former 49er’s limited passing abilities make him a niche player in the league with only a handful of coordinators and coaches willing to structure an offense around his skills.  Most rebuilding teams prefer a more traditional pocket passer to match with developing young receivers. This left very few teams in a position to utilize Kaepernick’s skills with coaching staffs willing to restructure their offense around him.

We also need to look at Kaepernick’s remaining completion for a starting job. Let us begin with Jay Cutler, another spited quarterback on the unemployed block.  Referring again to Table 1, it is fairly clear that Cutler has been the superior player in aggregate over the last few seasons.  The former Bear produced QBRs in the top half of the league in each of his last three qualifying seasons (2013-2015), each of which exceeded Kaepernick, while also amassing more production as a passer.  We also need to remember that the NFL draft has not yet occurred and that many teams will be looking toward rookies for near-term and future starters.

The demand for starting quarterbacks has only shrunk since the start of free agency. Buffalo restructured Tyrod Taylor’s contract.  San Francisco (Brian Hoyer) and New York (Josh McCown) signed cheaper short-term stopgaps, likely in preparation for adding a longer-term starter in the near future or further evaluating young quarterbacks on the roster in the Jets case.   Chicago opted for Mike Glennon.  Only Houston and Cleveland remain as viable starting options.  The Browns just released Robert Griffin III, a player with a similar skill-set to Kaepernick, making Cleveland an unlikely landing spot.

Kaepernick’s Expectations

I am not privy to Kaepernick’s thoughts but we can extrapolate his possible initial expectations based on his actions and reports coming out of free agency. Kaepernick opted out of his $14.5 milliion base salary with San Francisco in 2017.  Various reports also had the current free agent initially asking for a starting spot at about $10 million per season while teams signed other starting options for significantly less money.  It becomes fairly obvious that Kaepernick’s contract expectations did not match the thinking of NFL teams.

The Verdict

I do not doubt that some teams may have removed Colin Kaepernick from employment consideration due to his political views, but the data overwhelmingly suggests Colin Kaepernick’s unemployment relates primarily to his football skills. He has not performed as more than a lower-tier quarterback for years and his passing skills never developed in the time with San Francisco.  Kaepernick likely viewed himself as a definitive starter on the open-market where NFL teams probably viewed him as a backup or bottom-tier option competing for the starting job.  His employment opportunities were also likely hurt by the high number of quarterbacks with starting experience available this offseason.  Kaepernick will probably find a job eventually based on his early career success but that opportunity could very well come following the NFL draft where teams firm up their rosters.

Bio: Bernard Faller has degrees in engineering and economics.  He currently lives in Las Vegas and enjoys athletics, poker, and fantasy football in his free time.  Send your questions and comments (both good and bad) on Twitter @BernardFaller1.

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