With the San Francisco 49ers signing Colin Kaepernick to a six-year, $126 million extension with a record $61 million in guaranteed, a new arms race—no pun intended—has just begun.
Since news of the signing was released, there has been endless debate about whether Kaepernick is worth the money and deserving of such a contract after only 29 starts as a NFL quarterback.
There are valid arguments on both sides of that coin but the larger issue is the fact that quarterback contracts have escalated so quickly that the record-setting deal that Baltimore Ravens’ quarterback Joe Flacco signed just 15 short months ago, now seems like a relative bargain.
Kaepernick’s mega-deal and the guaranteed money has fallen to just number eight in the league, surpassed by Tony Romo, Jay Cutler, Matt Ryan, and now Kaepernick in a matter of mere months.
At this rate, in a matter of a few short years it is possible—and probable—that quarterback salaries will account for nearly a third of a team’s salary cap, forcing teams to make tough decisions on quality starters at other key positions and leading to a dearth of solid depth across the roster—see Joe Flacco.
First we should start with the question of Kaepernick’s status as an elite quarterback, which the value of this new contract would seem to confer. The 49ers tied themselves to Kaepernick through 2020 and made Kaepernick among the ten highest paid NFL starting quarterbacks, so it would appear that they are ready to answer that question in the affirmative.
I am not ready to say that Kaepernick is not among the elite quarterbacks in the league but neither am I ready to contend that he is. And therein lays the issue: there is just not a big enough body of work to justify this type of contract.
Kaepernick is about to enter only his third year as a starter and just his second full year as such after sitting behind Alex Smith for the first year and a half of his career.
The Good: Kaepernick is 21-8 as a starter with a solid TD-to-INT ratio of nearly three to one.
His career QBR is 75.6 is among the best in the league (a score of 50 is average and anything above 60 is considered to be high level/elite) and he holds a 4-2 record in the playoffs, leading the 49ers to two straight NFC championship games and a Super Bowl.
His QBR in the postseason is even better at 82.5 and over the past three years is the best among all quarterbacks. Kaepernick is most known for the plays he is able to make with his legs, his athleticism and speed, and the ability to make defenders miss, also has a strong arm.
From all accounts, his work ethic is second to none (although there are some concerns that he spends a bit too much time in the weight room).
The Bad: Really these are more of developmental questions that still need to be resolved and not unfixable attributes. But they are question marks that may not be answered as the 49ers’ would want them to be which is what makes this deal so risky and perhaps a bit of a panic move.
Kaepernick has completed just 59.8 percent of his career passes. Ideally for an elite quarterback we would expect this number to be closer to 65 percent. In a span of four games early last season, he completed less than 50 percent of his passes in three of those games.
In 2013, Kaepernick had ten games in which he threw for less than 200 yards. He did not show a great deal of improvement last year in his ability to run through his read progressions and lacks a strong pocket presence. It is a legitimate concern that, while his legs make him a more dynamic weapon, Kaepernick can be overly reliant on them and that may be a concern in the later years of this contract as he ages even if he is more adept at avoiding unnecessary hits than Robert Griffin III has proven to be.
Moreover the enormity of this deal doesn’t separate Kaepernick’s abilities from the success of the rest of the team. Kaepernick, despite his unique playmaking capabilities, has not had to carry this team on his back, like Tom Brady did last year due to a core of young and inexperienced receivers or Peyton Manning had to do in Indianapolis in the Colts’ lean defensive years, because he is surrounded by one of the most dominant defenses in the league and a power running game.
In fact, Kaepernick struggled early last year with a thin wide receiving corps that was missing Michael Crabtree and any type of depth. Only when Crabtree returned did Kaepernick’s numbers become respectful again and his level of play increase.
The probability of that struggle occurring again should be low as the 49ers added more offensive weapons to help him grow with the addition of Stevie Johnson and the return of Vernon Davis, Anquan Boldin, a fully healthy Crabtree and the drafting of power running back Carlos Hyde.
Yet, the threat of injuries is ever present and we’ve already seen that Kaepernick’s performance is below average when he is not surrounded by a high level of talent.
Realistically, no one expects Kaepernick to be a finished product after just three years in the league. But that’s precisely why it may have been wise for the 49ers to wait on offering this type of deal until they had another year of information and were forced to make a decision as to Kaepernick’s true worth.
Yes, that would have come with the accompanying risk that Kaepernick would exceed all expectations, put up stellar numbers, finally vanquish the division rival Seahawks and win a Super Bowl in the process, driving up the dollars even further.
The fact that both Kapernick and the Niners were in such a rush to get this deal done speaks to the larger issue at hand here.
The NFL has undoubtedly becoming a passing league in the last ten years due to new rules changes, safety concerns, the aesthetic value for fans who want more exciting action than ‘two yards and a cloud of dust’ offers, and a host of other reasons.
This trend shows no signs of abating and that means that the quality of a team’s quarterback is even more essential than it used to be. Rarely will a Trent Dilfer or a Brad Johnson be leading a team to a Super Bowl championship any longer – although defense still does win rings.
A career backup(Matt Flynn) may be able to eke out a half season of solid play and keep his team in the playoff race, but to be a contender year after year teams need the services of a franchise quarterback and those are few and far between.
Thus, we see teams that believe they do indeed have a franchise caliber quarterback – or at least a high quality starter – in their midst race to lock them up for years to come regardless of the cost and of the long-term viability of such a deal and its impact on their bottom line.
For instance, the 49ers’ Crabtree and guard Mike Iupati are both free agents after 2014 and tight end Vernon Davis and guard Alex Boone have both outperformed their current contracts and are expecting new ones.
With Kaepernick’s new deal how is it possible to keep the core of this team together for the next several years?
The impatience – and perhaps desperation – of teams to secure these quarterbacks with ever-increasing and–until now–unheard of contracts is almost equally matched by their lack of patience in a young quarterback’s development. The notion of a quarterback sitting behind a veteran for a year or two to learn the nuances of the game seem like a quaint historical relic of a game that has rapidly moved to bigger, quicker, faster, better and wants everything now.
Throwing rookie quarterbacks into action immediately and allowing them to sink or swim seems to be the norm and oftentimes results in them sinking with the team giving them little chance to recover from their growing pains before declaring them a bust and moving on.
Conversely, as mentioned above, if the young quarterback shows even flashes of being able to perform at this level , then consistency, longevity and the salary cap be damned, it’s time to sign him to an ego-gratifying deal before he even gets a whiff of free agency and another team has a chance to offer him more.
It’s been said that the moniker NFL actually stands for “Not For Long” and never has that been more clear than it is in today’s current climate. Enjoy it while you can, Colin Kaepernick, because it’s quite obvious that your contract won’t be the highest in the league for very long.