Benched for Blaine Gabbert. Tossed on IR and given a myriad of surgeries and recovery orders to make sure the 49ers wouldn’t be on the hook for his contract that is guaranteed on April 1. The face of the franchise cast aside, with all his items in the official team store placed on sale. Denied access to the sidelines and kindly asked to stay away from the facility in general. With his mentor and long-time coach Jim Harbaugh already ousted, it seemed as though Colin Kaepernick had his days numbered in San Francisco. The Jets, Bills and Browns were all floated as potential suitors at one point or another in the process. The 49ers were tied to NFL draft hopefuls Carson Wentz and Jared Goff. Kaepernick was all but gone, with the entirety of NFL’s punditry reading the tea leaves and appropriately placing Kaepernick on another team for 2016. His tenure as a 49er was all but over.[Jeff]
That all changed Wednesday, with 49ers’ GM Trent Baalke announcing that Colin Kaepernick will be on the team on April 1, guaranteeing his $12 million 2016 salary. For the 49ers, Kaepernick and new head coach Chip Kelly, this is the right move. We’ve all seen the highs that Kaepernick can reach (Dom Capers and the 2012 Packers defense may still be futilely chasing him around the ruins of Candlestick). We’ve also seen the lowest lows of Colin Kaepernick (just ask Richard Sherman what happens when Kaepernick tries to throw to, “a sorry receiver like Crabtree”). The 49ers are making a gamble to the tune of $8.5 million, the cap savings this year if Kaepernick’s contract was voided by the franchise. This is a gamble well worth taking, given that with Kaep on the roster they still have the sixth most cap space after resigning Garrett Celek and Quinton Dial. While many will focus on the $12 million salary figure, the most of that is already paid, and the 49ers save only the $8.5 million against the cap if they cut Kaepernick. The options and possibility that Kaepernick provides the team combine to make it well worth their $8.5 million.
Colin Kaepernick had three separate off-season surgeries (non-throwing labrum, thumb and knee), and is looking to be healthy for the first time in a while, given that his 2014 was marred with an undisclosed foot injury as well. He has regressed hard over the last couple of years, but as late as early 2014 he was still a force to be reckoned with. The beatings at the hands of defenders while standing behind one of the worst offensive lines in football left Kaepernick broken physically and mentally. Colin Kaepernick saw ghosts, he got happy feet, and whether it was injury or coaching, he resisted the urge to take off and run. A mentally and physically healthy and renewed Kaepernick is worth the gamble.
Keeping Colin Kaepernick around also gives Chip Kelly two options at the quarterback position, with Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert engaging in a real competition for the starting role. With Kelly touted as a quarterback whisperer, there are those hopeful he can “fix” Kaepernick’s issues. Kelly had mobile quarterbacks in college, worked with Michael Vick and many think he can make Kaepernick work. Kaepernick is strong, fast and has a big arm. His weaknesses are making post-snap reads and finesse. The 49ers are hoping that these are things that he can be taught, and if he can’t, they’re going to carry a $15 million cap hit for their backup. A hit they can absorb at this point.
Not cutting Kaepernick will stave off using a draft pick on a quarterback, giving them additional draft capital to spend on an offensive lineman, in addition to their actual capital to spend on a top-flight offensive line option (whether that be re-signing free agent Alex Boone or making a run at pending free agent center Alex Mack). With Anthony Davis set to return for 2016, a shored up offensive line via free agency and/or the draft will rebuild Kaepernick’s confidence. He was disastrous for all of 2015 and most of 2014, but when he still had faith his line was one of the best in the league, he was still vintage Kaepernick. Look at his week one tape against Dallas, a defense he dismantled so thoroughly that people dismissed them immediately as one of the worst in the league, when it turned out they were one of the better defensive teams that season. Ditching Kaepernick to use a valuable pick on a quarterback while eschewing the core of the problem (a terrible offensive line) would be an unnecessary risk given how Kaepernick performed with a top notch offensive line.
Then we come to the Chip Kelly of it all. The constant drum beat with regards to Kelly’s offensive scheme since he’s reached the NFL is that he wants a mobile quarterback, but has been denied his ideal QB. While Kelly has been blocked from personnel control (for his own good, as this was his undoing in Philadelphia), he may have his quarterback. He may not; Kaepernick lacks the post-snap decision-making skills required by Chip Kelly quarterbacks, but his athleticism cannot be denied. When the 49ers interviewed coaches this offseason, you would be naïve to think that one of their top-five questions wasn’t, “how can you fix Colin Kaepernick?” In fact, it was rumored that Mike Shanahan stating his refusal to work with Kaep is what cost him the 49ers’ gig. The 49ers’ front office would be downright derelict in their duties if they didn’t give Kelly and Kaep an offseason to figure out if Kaepernick is their QB of the future.
In the end, it’s not like the 49ers are good. They aren’t knocking on the door of the playoffs; they’re barely knocking on the doors of respectability. Basically everything that happened to this franchise since NaVorro Bowman tore multiple ligaments in his knee in the 2013 NFC Championship Game to the last game of the 2015 season can be described as an extended tailspin, and they need a high variance play to get them back to prominence in 2016. A Hail Mary, if you will. Going with Gabbert and Wentz or Gabbert and Goff will give them the prospect of a marginally better roster, but they are gambling on Colin Kaepernick returning the team to the playoff discussion. If he can’t, Gabbert will shepherd the team to somewhere between 4 and 6 wins again and the 49ers part ways with Kaepernick next off-season, when he represents less than $5 million dead money against the cap. Having Gabbert and one of those quarterbacks gives them essentially the same possibility, but they have seen Kaepernick succeed before, and they’re wagering he can again.
Trent Baalke’s announcement that Colin Kaepernick will remain a 49er is not a vote of confidence in the signal caller, it is the 49ers making an official declaration of a gamble. They are betting on the Kaepernick they’ve seen, that his injuries, offensive line woes and sub-optimal coaching will help him return to the quarterback that took the league by storm. Even though Kaepernick will be in the red and gold next season, don’t be surprised if the gamble fails and it’s Blaine Gabbert under center in 2016 as Kaepernick gets the RG3 treatment.
In short, the 49ers are putting $8.5 million on Red 7.