With San Francisco 49ers’ training camp opening up in three days, Colin Kaepernick has received a clean bill of health from his thumb, knee and shoulder surgeries, according to Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee. This means that medically speaking, Kaepernick is fully loaded for bear and will not have any physical limitations, as he did throughout OTAs and mini-camp. The medical restrictions on the five-year veteran have led many to speculate that Blaine Gabbert has the early lead on the 49ers’ QB battle. That’s a complete non-news item, however, given that Kaepernick has not been fully healthy until this week.
This is excellent news for Kaepernick, but also could be terrible news for him. If Colin Kaepernick fails to perform up to his contract, he will be officially out of excuses. Ever since Colin Kaepernick signed his big money deal, he has failed to perform, but Kaepernick defenders have been able to point to mitigating circumstances surrounding him that deflected some of the blame. In 2014, the crumbling offensive line and a run-first offense were pointed to as his downfall. In 2015, it was his myriad of injuries catching up to him and uninspired play calling from Jeep Chryst.
Now fully healthy, and with a head coach whose style is best suited for a strong-armed, mobile and athletic quarterback, nothing is standing in the way of Kaepernick’s success. This puts Kaepernick at a crossroads. He already tried to get a trade out of San Francisco, but refused to take a pay cut to make a trade to Denver work. His only option to stay on his current contract is to produce. If he doesn’t, his future NFL earning capability is in extreme doubt.
The 49ers, in one of the most clairvoyant moves ever by an NFL franchise, set themselves up in case Kaepernick failed. His salary is mostly tied up in year-to-year salary rather than the signing bonus. His dead cap figure this year is $19 million, but It mostly evaporates next year, dropping to $4.9 million, then $2.5 million in 2018, then poofs. He’s off the books if the 49ers want him gone. And they will want him gone, which is precisely why they built in their escape hatch in his contract.
A revamped line and a new offensive scheme give Kaepernick further support. With the reinstatement of RT Anthony Davis, the return of injured center Daniel Kilgore, and first-round pick Joshua Garnett along the line, it should be better than the series of turnstiles the 49ers trotted out in 2015. Kaepernick started to devolve when the 49ers offensive line fell apart. It broke him, and he stopped trusting his eyes and became skittish and heard footsteps. This is the source of his downfall. A revamped and a more solidified offensive line will contribute to Kaepernick’s potential rebound in 2016.
However, if Kaepernick continues his downward trend in production, he will no longer be a 49er when the team breaks camp in 2017. It’s highly unlikely that he will be a starter anywhere else, either. If Chip Kelly, whose system is seemingly catered to a Kaepernickian quarterback can’t turn around his career, who can? He’s destined to the liminal space between starter and backup if the 49ers cut him loose after the season. If he doesn’t have a good camp, he’s already there, sitting behind Blaine Gabbert as the most expensive backup in the league; he will play out the string like RGIII in Washington last season.
With a clean bill of health, a rebuilt offensive line and a coach whose system seems tailor-made for him, 2016 is Kaepernick’s make-or-break season. He has nowhere to go, no space to falter, and no Plan B if things don’t go well. For 2016, Colin Kaepernick is out of options and out of defenses for his poor play. If he doesn’t perform, the team will cut him, and if that happens, it is the end of the line for Colin Kaepernick as a starter in the NFL.