Kap's Unique Deal Could Change QB Landscape
There were a few stages of emotion and understanding as the details of Colin Kaepernick’s contract extension were revealed about a month ago. The real meat of the deal wasn’t released until the overnight hours, so much of the media missed the boat and reacted to the figures that were initially reported. Clearly though, this is a contract that has far-reaching impact, not just for Kaepernick, but for other quarterbacks for whom the jury may still be out on, so to speak. After letting the deal sink in for the last month, it’s time to parse through some of these details and determine some of the far-reaching implications.
What Happens to Harbaugh?
When the huge initial numbers of the deal came out, hocking a total of $125 million and $61 guaranteed for the young quarterback, it looked like a huge gamble by the San Francisco 49ers. If Kap didn’t take a step forward, and at least find himself in the Cutler/Ryan/Romo echelon of QBs, the Niners would be ruing the move in a few seasons. However, you could still positively spin it as the front office looking at Jim Harbaugh as the head coach until at least 2020.
In the 2011 draft, before Harbaugh had even coached a game for the 49ers, he passed on selecting Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, Christian Ponder, and Andy Dalton to move up and select Kaepernick early in the second round. Their fates are ultimately tied together, so seeing the Niners make a huge commitment to their quarterback would mean that the coach would be safe, right?
Of course, in the NFL, you MUST wait until the full contract details are out. By now, we know that Kaepernick’s $61 guaranteed and $125 million in total is mostly fluff. The fourth-year QB is essentially gambling on himself. He gets $13 million guaranteed right now, mostly in the form of a signing bonus so it doesn’t alter this year’s cap that much. So, if he gets injured during the 2014 season, he’s kind of covered.
However, in his subsequent seasons, Kap’s base salary is only guaranteed after April 1. If he doesn’t break into that upper echelon of signal callers, he could find himself without a starting job as early as next offseason. That’s obviously a worst-case scenario though.
That’s where the Harbaugh contract comes in. His deal is up after the 2015 season, so CEO Jed York and the rest of the front office may have taken that into account when negotiating this contract. They’re probably thinking they give the Harbaugh-Kaepernick tandem a couple seasons, and in the best case, they’ll re-up the head coach sooner than later, and move on.
However, it gives GM Trent Baalke and the front office options. If, by the end of the 2015 season, it’s clear Harbaugh that is moving on, which probably also means that Kaepernick hasn’t lived up to his deal, then they can leave. Salary-cap flexibility is paramount in the NFL, and that’s exactly what the deal provides.
For quarterbacks such as Dalton, and former Niner Alex Smith, this deal could be a template for what they could see in a contract extension. We all know the story with Dalton: he has weapons on offense, a talented defense and has momentary flashes that make you wonder if he could be great. And then, like a broken record, he completely falls apart in the playoffs. An incentive-laden, year-to-year deal should be the type of contract that should make both sides happy in Cincinnati.
Smith is another intriguing quarterback for whom this deal makes sense. Down the stretch of the 2013 season, Smith started excelling in Andy Reid’s system, but now that the QB is 30, how much can the Kansas City Chiefs really invest in him? He’s never had a great arm, and he’s had a tendency for having ‘happy feet’ in the pocket, so a deal that rewards him for helping K.C. make the playoffs, and subsequently allows the team to go year-by-year is the probable course of action. Of course, he may not take kindly to a one-year pact, instead opting to hit the open market and look for a longer-term deal.
Even borderline franchise quarterbacks rarely hit the open market when they’re still in their prime, so Smith is likely to remain a Chief.
Kaepernick’s deal doesn’t really affect the young guns such as Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson or even Robert Griffin III. They’re very likely going to command bigger guarantees, more money per year and none of this year-to-year business. But, it certainly gives these guys something to think about as they head into the time where they can start negotiating.
With the salary cap due to spike in the coming years, exploding up to and past the $150 million mark in the coming seasons, it wouldn’t shock me to see some of these young guys reach the $30 million mark in terms of per-year salaries. Even if Kap posts fairly modest numbers, continually helps the Niners make it back to the playoffs, stays healthy and hits all of his escalators and bonuses, he’ll still be a value because he might be making nearly $10 million less than his contemporaries.
Of course, there are ways to manipulate the cap and make numbers smaller than they appear to fit salaries, but we’ll see how much this truly alters the QB landscape. Judging by their play over the last season plus, I don’t think anyone could deny Luck, Cam or Wilson lucrative contracts with big guarantees. They’ve earned them. But, after seeing Kaepernick hand the Niners flexibility with this deal, could it occur to a few of these quarterbacks that that may be the smartest route?
That also assumes Kap doesn’t come back to the negotiating table before his deal is up. The 49ers hold all of the leverage of course, and ultimately control the quarterback for the next seven years. But, say he wins a Super Bowl in 2015 or 2016. Will he be content making less than market value for the final few seasons of the deal? Almost definitively no, so it’s very likely these sides sit down again in a few seasons and make another pact.
While some would disagree, especially those arguing that Kaepernick is taking a risk, this is a mutually beneficial deal for both sides. Kap is getting enough guaranteed money to make it worth his while, and is ultimately betting on himself to meld his physical gifts with the mental aspects of the game and emerge as a distinguished pocket passer. The Niners did make out well, as they won’t be hamstrung by restrictive, dead cap space if they choose to cut Kaepernick before April 1 of any season. And assuming the fourth-year quarterback takes the necessary steps forward in his development, the deal is a lock to be restructured at some point. The 49ers’ work on in-house contract extensions has been exemplary since Baalke took over, and this deal is no exception.