There are two things you can count on during every NFL offseason: borderline-unbearable over-analysis of a handful of top prospects for two solid months leading up to the NFL Draft, and a steady stream of fluffy press for nearly every current NFL player that isn’t spending time in restrooms with Johnny Manziel and rolled-up 20s or otherwise finding themselves caught in situations that end with spending time in front of a judge.
For those on their best behavior away from team headquarters, the offseason is a time for hope and positivity. The league’s youth are getting mentored by a former-great at their respective position while working out at one of the Florida- or Arizona-based performance institutes, adding that skill to their game that will finally allow them to make the leap and deliver on their upside. Elder statesmen are going vegan or reinventing their games for one last hurrah before riding off into the sunset. Everyone is in the best shape of their lives and have added or cut the requisite amount of weight to prepare their bodies for the grind that awaits them in the fall.
Which brings us to Colin Kaepernick. In a three-month period that resembled something of an NFL slasher film, reports on Kaepernick’s workouts in Arizona have been some of the only positive words written about the 49ers. Quarterbacks coach Dennis Gile, Kaepernick’s primary tutor throughout the workouts, made the rounds with Bay Area media, gushing over Kaepernick’s mastery of new concepts in 10 short weeks out in the desert. Kurt Warner, who met with Kaepernick roughly once per week during that time, discussed the strides Kaepernick has made on NFL Network. Even former-Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate has offered up praise for Kaepernick recently.
While it’s certainly refreshing to hear some positive news, it’s also difficult to put much stock into these types of stories. That’s not to downplay the work Kaepernick has been putting in this offseason, but rather to simply remind you to add the proper amount of context when reading those stories.
Keeping that context in the back of your mind, the details we have on Kaepernick’s areas of focus while working with Gile are encouraging. That focus centered primarily around improving Kaepernick’s biomechanics. Having sound mechanics in place should theoretically allow Kaepernick, in Gile’s words, to become "more consistent, more efficient" on all types of throws, but most importantly for Kaepernick, throws requiring something less than the 90 mph fastball.
Kaepernick’s arm strength affords him the ability to reach all areas of the field with the football, but throwing with touch consistently is something he has yet to add to his inventory of passes. "I think that was his biggest challenge while watching his film, was the touch balls," Gile told 95.7 The Game. Touch is an important tool for quarterbacks to have in their toolbox, and though most associate that skill with the short passing game, it’s something that is required for throws at every distance.
Bill Walsh asserted throwing with touch is most important on passes to the intermediate area where quarterbacks will find it necessary to put the ball over a second-level defender but in front of a third-level defender. That throw is one Kaepernick has struggled to complete to this point in his career.
Trailing the Raiders late in the fourth quarter, Kaepernick has an opportunity to get the 49ers in prime scoring position inside the 10-yard line. Michael Crabtree is running a corner route from the No. 3 spot in the trips alignment (inside-most slot receiver) to the left of the formation. Kaepernick has a window to complete this ball, but he must get it up and over the sinking flat defender and in front of the cornerback peeling off the deep sideline route. Despite being provided with a clean pocket to throw from, the trajectory of Kaepernick’s pass is too flat and the ball sails over Crabtree’s head out of bounds.
Kaepernick’s lack of touch also hindered his ability to complete deep passes in 2014, particularly down the sidelines. According to Pro Football Focus, Kaepernick completed just 15 of 52 passes (28.8 percent) outside the numbers that traveled at least 20 yards in the air, tallying more interceptions (4) than touchdowns (3). As I found when assessing the decline of San Francisco’s deep passing game late last season, many of those incompletions came on inaccurate throws on fade routes like this play against the Saints:
Crabtree, split wide to the right of the formation, beats the press coverage and is able to get a step on the cornerback. Without safety help,1 a well-placed pass dropped over the top of the corner puts six points on the scoreboard. Instead, Kaepernick doesn’t get enough air under the football, the pass sails wide, and Crabtree has no chance of adjusting to the ball. With Torrey Smith coming to town, it will be crucial for Kaepernick to use the proper amount of touch on these deep sideline passes so that Smith has an opportunity to run underneath the football and make a play.
Touch can obviously make a marked difference on underneath throws as well. Kaepernick has very few examples of even attempting underneath touch throws — because Kaepernick’s legs often replaced his checkdown, nearly all of his underneath throws are at full velocity. In one of the few instances in which he did look to find his checkdown, it’s easy to see where Kaepernick’s new biomechanics can potentially make a difference.
Kaepernick gets fantastic protection against Seattle’s four-man rush, giving him plenty of time to survey the field. After his first hitch step, he hasn’t seen anything he likes down the field. Kaepernick moves his eyes down to Frank Gore, who has just released out of the backfield, and looks to dump the ball off to his back. You can see how unnatural Kaepernick’s footwork is making the transition from looking downfield to finding his checkdown. The result is an awkward jump pass with too much heat, and Gore is unable to bring it in. A catchable pass out in front of Gore gives the 49ers four or five yards on first down (possibly more if Gore makes the first defender miss), keeping the offense on schedule to move the chains.
We’re more than four months away from figuring out whether Colin Kaepernick’s time with Dennis Gile and Kurt Warner has any noticeable impact on his performance. But when that time comes, these are the situations and types of throws you should be seeking out. Can he drop the ball in a void between second- and third-level defenders? Does he get enough air on deep throws down the sideline so his receivers have ample opportunity to make adjustments and run underneath the football? Is he able to subtly move within the pocket and throw a catchable pass to his checkdown? If Kaepernick can consistently answer yes to these questions, he just might make that leap.
When watching this play from the All–22 angle, you can more easily see that because the safety to Crabtree’s side of the field initially moves forward after the snap, he’s in no position to make any sort of play on that route. I decided to use the TV angle because you get a better view of the ball’s trajectory. ↩