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49ers roster, 90-in–90 breakdowns: Colin Kaepernick

Breaking down the 90 players on the 49ers offseason roster in 90 posts (over 90 or so days). Today we focus on quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

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Each year, we run a series of post called "90-in–90" here at Niners Nation. The idea is that we’ll take a look at every single player on the roster, from the very bottom to the top and break them down a few different ways. This is to help give everyone a basic understanding of a roster. Of course, this roster will change, and some days we’ll have more than one so it’s not strictly one per day but Fooch is a crazy person who manages this blog with no rhyme or reason and it’s worked so far. Who am I to argue?

The 2014 season was a forgettable one for most members of the San Francisco 49ers, Colin Kaepernick included. The storyline for Kaepernick was regression, despite having his best statistical season. Kap threw for 3,369 yards, 172 more than he did in 2013. His completion percentage, 60.5% was the second best mark of his career. His first touchdown pass of the 2014 season had 49ers fans thinking Kaepernick might truly enter the elite stratosphere.

But we know how the 2014 story ends, and a deeper look at Kap’s numbers tell the story of a quarterback that had the worst season of his young career. He averaged just above 7 yards per attempt, putting him firmly in Alex "Captain Conservative" Smith territory. His deep passing completion percentage dropped from 45.6 percent, to 33.3 percent. Advanced analytics were no better friend to Kap this year. Football Outsiders ranked Kap 28th in DYAR, their metric for determining yards above replacement. In other words, Kap was not much better than your average replacement QB.1

Why he might improve

In case you’ve been under a rock this offseason, Kaepernick worked with quarterbacks coach Dennis Gile and received an assist from Kurt Warner. Improvements to his throwing base, a more relaxed throwing motion, and the positioning of his left arm should improve Kap’s touch and deep accuracy. Last year’s "regression" may have been the growing pains associated with a mobile quarterback’s transition to pocket passer. Couple the offseason work with a new quarterback’s coach that revels in working with a mobile QB, and you have a perfect storm of coaching that could improve Kaepernick’s consistency.

Improved touch and deep accuracy only matter if you have receivers that threaten the middle and deep thirds of the field. For years the only deep threat on the 49ers roster was Vernon Davis. But you can only run the smash concept, a vertical route, or a dig so many times before teams catch on and take away your go-to plays. Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith, Bruce Ellington, and Vernon Davis have complementary skills, giving Kaepernick more options in the passing game than he’s had thus far in his career.

Jim Tomsula’s coaching staff is implementing changes that could increase Kaepernick’s comfort level under center. With more emphasis on the zone blocking scheme, the 49ers can set up a team with zone runs, then hit them with quarterback option plays like the veer or zone read that feel like parts of the offense. Under Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman we all knew a veer, or veer action, was coming when Kap lined up in the Pistol; it was almost a dead give away. When zone runs are more of a staple the counter punch that comes from quarterback options becomes more effective.

The zone blocking scheme allows the offense to play with pace by simplifying blocking schemes for the offensive line. A 49ers offense that attacks with the run or pass means defenses cannot presume pass when the 49ers operate with pace. Even then, Kaepernick posted a QB rating over 100 in a loss to Arizona when allowed to operate an up-tempo offense.

Why he might regress

Kaepernick might be one of those quarterbacks that peaked when teams had limited film to study his tendencies. In every season since his breakout 2012 year, his deep pass completion percentage dropped. His NFL quarterback rating has also fallen each season, from 98, to 88, to 86. Past performance doesn’t necessarily predict the future, but Kap’s trend-line is definitely pointing down.

Perhaps most worrisome is what looks to be the development of what I like to call David Carr syndrome. You remember David Carr: highly touted passing prospect that was hit so often he felt phantom pressure, got happy feet, and rushed too many throws. As the second most sacked quarterback in football last year, Kaepernick exhibited some of these traits. Even with a clean pocket, Kap would bail from the pocket or rush his throw, making life harder on himself and the 49ers offense. With question marks all along the offensive line, Kaepernick could spend another season running for his life.

Final Thoughts

Captain obvious alert: The 49ers will only be a consistent playoff threat if Colin Kaepernick plays consistently well. No one doubts his ability to work, dedication to the game, and willingness to improve. Dedication, however, doesn’t necessitate results. In 2015, you shouldn’t look for Kap to make the jump into elite territory. Instead, look for a more consistent Colin Kaepernick.

  1. For a more in depth explanation of DYAR, check out the FO metrics explained.