Looking Ahead: Dealing With Colin Kaepernick
While the 49ers cannot begin discussing a contract extension with Colin Kaepernick until next year, there will be plenty of buzz about it during the 2013 season. The Niners are in a distinct championship window right now. They have a complete roster, and with Kaepernick on a cheap rookie deal for the next two seasons, there has to be some pressure on the franchise to capture a sixth Super Bowl title. But, without Michael Crabtree, we’ll see if coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman continue to push a run-heavy attack. So, with that in mind, let’s dive into the contract potential for one of the breakout stars of 2012.
After a very impressive 10-game stretch to close the season, there are certainly high expectations on Kaepernick going into his first full season at the helm of the Niners’ offense. The signal-caller was reliant on the emergence of Crabtree, but don’t be fooled; he has a rocket arm capable of making all the throws. It is up to the 25-year-old to make progress with his accuracy on touch passes, as well as with his reads. Roman simplified his progressions last year, so it will be interesting to see how Kaepernick adjusts and improves his game.
San Francisco’s offense will still be a run-heavy attack. Armed with one of the top offensive lines in the league, a very versatile backfield and Kaep’s own read-option package, the 49ers’ offense will be dangerous because they can control the ball, while confusing defenses with two tight-end sets and other exotic packages. Establishing the run with Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and then utilizing Kaepernick's arm, combined with Roman’s inventiveness in play-calling, will make for a very interesting and productive offense. And, of course, the Niners will again rely on their defense to stop opponents.
The loss of Crabtree may have a negative influence on Kaepernick’s stats in 2013, but how will it affect his potential long-term contract? Probably very little. If anything, Crabtree’s absence may hurt his own earning potential. Crabtree is also set to hit free agency in 2015, so while the 49ers would be smart to lock up the receiver on the cheap in 2014, negotiations may drag. Remember, Crabtree held out of training camp after being the No. 10 pick in the 2009 draft.
Over the past four months, the market has been set with high-end deals for top-tier quarterbacks. Joe Flacco, Aaron Rodgers, Tony Romo and Matthew Stafford have all inked significant deals, and Matt Ryan could be next in line. Unless Kaepernick takes a noticeable step backwards with his play, he ultimately will position himself for a deal somewhere in the range of these colleagues.
Is less than two years worth of games long enough to determine if Kaepernick is a franchise quarterback? Possibly, but it won't matter. Following the 2013 season, he'll likely have at least 26 NFL starts under his belt and, if he improves on his 2012 campaign, it would be abundantly clear to the 49ers’ brass that he is destined to be a Niner for life. If Kaep struggles in his first full season, then San Francisco can let him play out his final year and slap the franchise tag on him in 2015.
Another potential question is the long-term health of a mobile quarterback. The inability to stay on the field has long been a scar on Michael Vick’s career, but Philadelphia still gave Vick $35.5 million in guaranteed money after his 30th birthday. Robert Griffin III is another dual-threat quarterback that had his share of injury woes in his rookie season. It’s one reason the Redskins spent a fourth-rounder on Kirk Cousins, who may prove to be a starter in several years.
However, Kaepernick is built differently. At almost 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Kaepernick’s long, loping stride allows him to cover countless yards in the open field, reducing the chance of a blindside hit when he’s scrambling. Additionally, when the read-option wasn't effective during the 2012 season, he would take his medicine and concede a short gain. This makes me think the coaching staff was very clear with Kaepernick: if it’s not there, don’t force it.
There is still much to unfold, mainly the entire 2013 season, but the smart money should be on Kaepernick commanding a lucrative long-term deal after the season. With Crabtree, Mike Iupati, Aldon Smith, and Kaepernick all due to hit free agency in 2015, the 49ers are in a tough spot. It may take some tricky work with the salary cap to hammer it all out, but the third-year quarterback will sit at the top of the team's “must-sign” list.