Is Colin Kaepernick done as a good NFL starter?

Sam Monson looks at 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick's concerning QB arc, and whether the talented passer can turn things around.

| 1 year ago
(AP Photo/Joe Mahoney)

(AP Photo/Joe Mahoney)

Is Colin Kaepernick done as a good NFL starter?

Take a look at 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s PFF grade over three seasons as a (mostly) staring quarterback: +22.9, +6.2, -10.1.

Those numbers are in chronological order, and the best mark, his first year starting, was earned largely from Week 11 on as he took over from Alex Smith. Kaepernick was at that time a dynamic weapon to be feared at quarterback, but now he is below average and getting worse.

He is coming off another negatively graded performance against the Broncos in the third preseason game — the traditional dress rehearsal game — in which many observers are left asking the question: Is Kaepernick’s time as a successful NFL starter over?

The 49ers and Jim Harbaugh understood Kaepernick’s game early on, and part of the reason he got the starting job over Smith in the first place is because Harbaugh felt that if he was going to be simplifying his offense for Smith, building in automatic checkdowns and generally trying to pare down what he asked of the quarterback, he might as well throw in the guy with all-world athleticism to run it.

The 49ers were built on the back of the league’s best offensive line (at the time) and a powerful running game. Add in Kaepernick’s big arm, ability to make key throws in the right situations, and the wrinkle he brought with his running ability (which factors into our grading of him), and you had a recipe for success.

The issues have developed as the 49ers have gone away from that recipe. The more they have placed on Kaepernick’s shoulders, the less he has been able to carry, and the support around him on the field has deteriorated.

In 2012 the 49ers had the league’s best O-line, but in 2013 and 2014 it was PFF’s ninth-best — and there has been a particularly notable drop-off in its run-blocking ability.

Heading into 2015 the group looks, at least on paper, weaker again. The left side of Joe Staley and Alex Boone remains intact and should be fine, but the right side now finds Erik Pears as a starter instead of Anthony Davis (who has taken a sabbatical from the game), and they look more like a league-average unit overall than the dominant group that Kaepernick had in front of him in 2012.

Playing quarterback in a pro-style NFL offense might be the hardest job in sports. There are maybe 10 guys on the planet at any one time who can do it to a really high level. There are another 10 who can get by or do it at that level for stretches, and then there are a bunch more guys who need a bit of help to get things done. Kaepernick falls into that last category. He can’t play the game like Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, or even Russell Wilson, but he can still be an effective force if he has the right coach to construct an offense around him as a kind of support structure.

We saw that Harbaugh was able to do that initially, before losing his way in the project, but is new head coach Jim Tomsula able to? If not, Kaepernick is on borrowed time as an NFL starter.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN.

  • Nomo73

    I think this article proves that you are done as a sports writer. The offense they’ve used in preseason has been vanilla on purpose and they haven’t even installed audibles. Find a new job.

    • Jacob

      The writer didn’t reference the preseason at all, he was looking at Kap’s regression the past three years.

      • Nomo73

        It was the Harbaugh/Roman Pop Warner offense that regressed over 3 years. Last season, Harbaugh was furious at York for trying to trade him and sabotaged the season by trying to devalue York’s two top assets – VD and Kap. He handcuffed Kap with a vanilla offense, forced him to stay in the pocket, took away short routes, etc. With VD who scored twice in the first game, Harbaugh simply erased him from the offense the rest of the season. Let’s see how much Kap has regressed under a coach willing to emphasize his skills.

        • sean

          Yes, the roman offense got very predictable over time. Many issues were not addressed throughout the season (delay of games)

        • JohnPaul Sein

          As a hawks fan i completely agree.. since Roman took the offensive head postition i have heard nothing but complaints from niner friends of mine.. and last year was no different.. i fully expect a VERY hungry Niners squad this year… Good luck this year San Fran!

          • Omar Hiramine

            You haven’t watch any of our pre season games huh? We might have THE WORST Oline in football right now …. Kaep has been running for his life and its going to be a long ugly season.

          • bob genghis khan

            worse then the redskins line?

          • [email protected]

            Remember this is more about evaluation then actual lock positions. They had guys flexing in on 1st string and 2nd stringers with the O-line. Tomsula is no idiot he knows not to put any of the goods really out there for people to study. I say wait to see the first game before you put the gun to your head. I feel they deserve that much!

          • JohnPaul Sein

            oh damn bro im soo sorry… that sucks

        • eYeDEF

          It’s hard to buy into your idea that Harbaugh deliberately sabotaged his own record and season just to spite York. Harbaugh was devastated after some of those losses. Your conspiratorial idea that he was intentionally making himself look bad so he could also make York look bad is just off the hook.

          • Nomo73

            Harbaugh knew he was going to Michigan from the beginning of the year and took pleasure in trying to devalue York’s assets. He didn’t care when he lost the first two preseason games 57-3, refused to even play Kap in preseason, and made sure he handcuffed him during it. VD scared him by scoring 2 TDs the first game so he completely took him out of the offense the rest of the season. Harbaugh is a very vindictive and cunning man.

          • crosseyedlemon

            As a Bears and Michigan fan I should be a huge Harbaugh fan but Nomo has it right. Harbaugh is an ego maniac and he holds grudges with a passion.

          • eYeDEF

            That is simply absurd. There’s good reason not to risk injury to your starting QB during the preseason. There’s tape and stats to clearly refute your conspiracy theory to conveniently scapegoat Harbaugh. Vernon Davis played like crap last year and took himself out of the offense. He was the worst catching starting tight end in the league and the proof is in his league high 18.75% drop rate. He only made one reception the nine times he was targeted deep, meaning 20 yards or more. He had a career low 55.3% catch rate, so only a little over half the time Kap would throw at him would he actually come down with it. And his 0.59 YPRR demonstrates that even when he caught the ball he wasn’t doing much with it. He had the second lowest YPRR of all starting tight ends. It’s just common sense for any QB to target less productive receivers less, and last year Davis was a disaster. Even his run blocking, normally one of his strengths, was atrocious last year as he finished among the worst run blocking tight ends in his PFF run block grade (-7.9!) when he usually finishes one of the best. And sorry but blocking is 100% on Vernon Davis. You could make a far better argument that Davis deliberately sabotaged his own season than Harbaugh would deliberately fuck with a player’s career and sabotage it for his selfish vindictive reasons that have nothing to do with the player. Davis’s head obviously wasn’t right last year from his contract dispute or some other issue we’re not privy to, or he was in steep decline. No way you can credibly claim Harbaugh had any hand in it.

            It’s even more ludicrous to claim he knew was going to Michigan at the beginning of the year when Brady Hoke wasn’t even fired until December. You’re reading and commenting on an advanced stat site that believes in the force of hard empirical evidence; tape and numbers. Not conspiratorial conjecture. Try not devolving into ranting indefensible and easily discredited arguments like a typical Bleacher Report toolbag. If you’re going to argue some grand conspiracy on Harbaugh’s part to tank the season, you’re going to have do a lot better than point to Vernon Davis’s abnormally shitty season after the first game that he was responsible for all on his own.

    • Brett A. Wheeler

      Learn what pro football is about. I’ve heard the “vanilla offense” excuse for over 40 years and when the regular season arrives, the same teams that struggled in preseason keep struggling.

      • [email protected]

        You could be right, but its to early to tell what’s going to happen when game 1 gets going.

      • zinn21 zinn21

        I’ve seen plenty of teams go 4-0 in preseason then 1-5 when the real games start and visa versa but frankly the Niners offense was atrocious in preseason. I can’t see them really being effective offensively when at RT you have Eric Pears.. Add the fact they play one of the toughest schedules in the NFL and travel East 4 times to play 10:00 their time, two of which are back to back Sundays..

  • Jacob

    I’m a 49ers fan, and I like Kap and I want/believe he will bounce back and prove himself. I understand where the writer is coming from, but some people just take a longer to mature. Steve Young was 30 when he finally started for SF and he has talked about how it took him a long time to understand how to be a QB in the NFL.

    I believe the bigger issue this season is the right side of the line. If they don’t figure something out, Kap won’t have more then 2 seconds to throw on every down.

    • [email protected]


  • James Jones

    Wow, must have been a slow news day when this was written.

  • james may

    Where in the hell do these so-called sports writers come from?He is talking about PRE-SEASON and Kap has not played that much to be talking about his qb rating,damn these talking heads are getting old and stupid.

    • Nomo73

      Furthermore, Tomsula, in an effort to reveal NOTHING to the opposing teams and to put extra pressure on his OL had the offense go through the entire preseason WITHOUT ANY AUDIBLES IN THE GAME PLAN. Every time Kap calls a play and sees 8 opponents in the box he’s stuck with that play. It’s BRILLIANT. Who knows how many of those plays could have been turned into nice gains with an audible called? NOBODY, and that’s the way JimmyT wants it. This guy is a thinking coach.

      • Omar Hiramine

        let’s hope you are right

  • gtiger

    The writer managed to insult both quarterbacks in the same article. The Harbaugh offense was built on the power running game. There was nothing sophisticated in its passing game. If there was, the sophistication would have shown up for the world to see. The proof was in the pudding. The 2013-2014 game plans for Kaepernick looked exactly like what Harbaugh had for Smith. If Harbaugh had greater ideas for his quarterbacks, why didn’t he make any changes?

  • grtpkg

    Just heard Greg Cossell on NFL network saying that Collin Kaepernick in NOT an NFL caliber QB and the 49ers will most likely release or trade him at the end of this year. He also said don’t be surprised if Blaine Gabbert becomes the started for the 49ers sometime during the season. Keep in mind that Trent Baalke did not want to draft Kaepernick but Harbaugh went to Jed York and lobbied Jed so Jed then told Baalke to draft Kaepernick. As Kaepernick’s contract is written the 49ers can release him with l a minimal salary cap hit.

    • Nomo73

      That will NEVER happen. Believing idiots from the East Coast on the 49ers will drive you insane. Looks like they’re shifting into 3rd gear. Chill…

      • Omar Hiramine

        it could happen and that is why his contract was written the way it is …

        • Tito Puente

          I hate the 49ers (and I hate Kaep twice as much).

          But they were VERY smart how they structured his contract, they can cut him whenever they want.

        • Nomo73

          That is NOT why the 49ers structured the contract that way. It was Kap who insisted that his contract be performance-based for two reasons. 1) He wanted to play on a championship team and by structuring it that way he enabled the team to sign other players (unlike the Midget to the north). 2) Kap is a different kind of guy and lives to challenge himself in whatever he does. He finds motivation in having to perform and it was his own desire to prove himself constantly that led to this contract arrangement. The guy has cojones and as for the season, he will be just fine.

          • Tito Puente

            Please, Kaep constantly misrepresents things to make it sound like he’s re-inventing the wheel. And even when Kaep claims ‘he insisted’ it be structured that way he acknowledges the 49ers were a huge reason San Jose’s superhero was so ‘magnanimous':
            Q: Since you had that press conference, there’s been a lot of talk about the 49ers having won the negotiations and maybe it wasn’t the best contract for you and maybe your agents got taken a little bit by the 49ers. What’s your response to all of that?

            “You can skew things however you want. At the end of the day, a lot of the way the contract is set up is how every other quarterback’s contract is set up. And the things that aren’t set up like those contracts are because we wanted them that way so we can sign other players.”

            (Who is the “we” in this passage? Do you think Kaep signs other players?)

            Kool Aid + Drank = Nomo believing Kaep isn’t a hypocrite who pretends to pious, one that is at least smart enough to realize (but only after he signed his deal and heard the chirping), that he looked even dumber than Ricky Williams did after he “insisted” Master P structured his rookie deal that way.


          • Nomo73

            So. Tito is a hopeless and lost Alexsexual. The “we” is the team, fool.

          • Tito Puente

            That was exactly my point, genius.

            Nothing better than someone else making your point for you, especially when they don’t even realize it.

            You claimed it was all about ‘Kaep insisting’ the contract was written this way — when even your musclebound idol admits it was the team that wanted that flexibility, so Kaep did what Kaep does, misrepresented the facts to make himself look better.

            Reading comprehension, it’s your friend.


          • Omar Hiramine

            Kaepernick’s signing bonus is a relatively small $12.3 million. Spread out over the life of the deal, that’s just $2 million a year in guaranteed cap hit. The non-guarantees aren’t. With his base salary going up every year (From 2015 on: $12.4M, $13.9M, $16.5M, $17M, $18.8M), Kaepernick is relatively cheap early on. And if he becomes ineffective—or just too expensive—the Niners can cut him at any time and be off the hook

          • Omar Hiramine

            i found that for you ^^^^^^^

          • tim

            So you hang out with him and get B.S. “news conference responses” from kaepernick? Or are you going off what you read or heard? You’re ignorant if you believe anything these “players” and “buisness owners” say. If he said that, it’s a real convenient cover for what really happened! People are supposed to take out trash, not praise, defend and keep it around!

          • Mike

            He’s had a ton of supporters that have backed him and been there to call people “haters” for saying he’s overrated. Keep believing though. The verdict is almost out on him. You’re getting closer and closer to delusional.

      • Doug Clinton

        Smoke another doob you kalifornia freek
        Kaperbitch sucks and you would know it if you stubbed out the doob

    • evo34

      HA. Blaine Gabbert could not start in the CFL. The guy shits his pants on every dropback before pressure even arrives.

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    • sdaddy101269

      BTW not sure you actually heard Greg Cosell say anything of the sort. He did however say this: ‘On Colin Kaepernick:

      People tend to forget with Colin Kaepernick, because he had such great success early, Joe, that he’s only been a full-time starter for two years. He’s still a young quarterback, he’s still learning the craftsmanship of the position, the subtleties of the position. With a new coordinator, I think Geep Chryst, my sense is, I think he’ll try and be a little more expansive and explosive with the pass game. So I’m anxious to see that. I think they’ll try very hard to get Vernon Davis back into it. So I think it’s important for people to remember that Colin Kaepernick is still a young quarterback, learning.

      • MosesZD

        lol. No. He was a one-trick pony and the NFL caught up to him. Limit the running game, keep him in the pocket and he’ll NOT do the rest…

      • Mike

        Lol keep believing in him. So many people have been defending him whenever he’s been called overrated. It’s getting closer and closer to people being delusional.

  • starg8r

    One of the interesting things in this article (if you want to cal this article “interesting”) is the mention of the O-Line. What a lot of people are forgetting (or intentionally not seeing) is that Kaep can’t do his job well if his O-Line folds under pressure all the time. It’s hard to stay in the pocket and look for receivers when your O-Line collapses and you end up scrambling. Can Kaep use improvement? Of course! But laying the team’s problems on Kaep’s shoulders is stupid! Last I checked, the NFL was a TEAM sport.

    • Omar Hiramine

      yes you are right and from what we’ve seen this pre season our online cant block for longer that 2 seconds … Kaep can even do a 3 step drop without DL or LBs being on his face … We might have the WORST oline in football.

  • Low Bounty Contact

    PFF 2015 pre-season Kaepernick QB rating split clean pocket v. dirty pocket: 65-47. A 56 average. A professional NFL QB needs a floor rating in the 90’s to generally be successful. I hope The Storm has decided it is time to start brewing. Go 49ers.

  • Brett A. Wheeler

    Over/under for 49ers total wins was 6.5 last I checked and I think that’s optimistic. SF could be looking at a top 5 pick in 2016.

    • Tito Puente

      Too bad Khalil Mack won’t be on the board!

  • Hekthore Warro

    As a Niners fan & Kap supporter, I’ve been disappointed how bad he looks every single season. At first he was a daring, confident duel threat passer who always take advantage of disconcerted defenses because they couldn’t be sure where does Kap gonna attack either with his legs or scrambling outside the pocket and throw a dart to a receiver. Many of my fellow fans tell that he’s still learning and it’s just matter of time to take the next step and preseason games mean nothing. Maybe it’s true but when you see he keeps making the same mistake even after he spend an offseason fixing those issues with Kurt Warner but also spent time with George Whitfield and he didn’t show improvement. I really hope he can shut down many critics once season starts but I’m saving my expectations until results are shown…

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  • evo34

    What kind of article is this? Ask a provocative question, and then don’t even attempt to answer it? This trash does not belong on PFF.

    • [email protected]

      The fact is they ask it and let us go at it in the comments sadly

  • Nick Bradley

    This article is deeply flawed. The 49ers have never been a great pass blocking team, and as pass blockers they’ve regressed to terrible since the end of the 2013 season. Much-hyped Mike Iupati was given horrible pass blocking grades by PFF, for instance.

    If you look at something like expected points, most of the 2014 drop off came from sacks.

    • eYeDEF

      You can blame the OL for some things, and the article does mention the issues with the offensive line. Ultimately, you can’t lay all the blame on the offensive line. It’s the QBs job to make adjustments to make completions getting rid of the ball sooner, or in Kap’s case as a mobile QB, to avoid the increased pressure with his feet in order to buy time to make completions. He hasn’t done a good job of that in spite of having the third highest time to throw of all quarterbacks in the league last season according to PFF sig stats. So he’s buying plenty of time with his feet in spite of the offensive line, but he’s still not getting it done.

  • Jim bradley

    Typical UNR Nevada Trash.

  • T.J.

    what was his QB rating last season, 86 ? With a low INT % and I don’t think the receivers were a collection of pro bowlers >> as a long time Jet fan, I’d love to have a QB with a 86 in a ‘down’ season…..

    • Riffle,Rod&Fly

      Yeah, some guys will always just attract more criticism. I’m not a big fan of Krapernick, but this is too harsh.

      Phillip Rivers disappeared into pedestrian QB world for a couple seasons of last his generous contract. The world forgave him immediately and he can begin slacking off under a new contract now if he pleases.

  • crosseyedlemon

    Harbaugh took way too much credit for the success the 49ers had and his personality has always been one that creates tension in others. Now that he’s shuffled off to Michigan I think the the 49ers as a whole and Kaepernick in particular are going to be more at ease. I won’t be at all surprised if the 49ers catch some teams by surprise. They are in the underdog role now and that can work to their advantage.

  • MosesZD

    So, here’s the deal. Too many times people confuse speed and strength with ‘talent’ when it comes to playing QB.

    He doesn’t have much talent. He didn’t have it college. He doesn’t have it now. He’s just too slow to read the field and has little, if any, feel for coverages and the passing game. Which is why it takes him so long to pass even though he locks onto his primary read over 70% of the time.

    And that’s not a knock, per se, on Kaepernick. That’s over 90% of the QBs drafted. Heck, even half the 1st rounders end up more like Rex Grossman and Jay Cutler than Peyton Manning and Aaron Rogers.

  • zinn21 zinn21

    If you look at Kap’s preseason 2013 and when he took over for Smith, his reads/passer rating were far better then the following years. That’s because there was some semblance of pass protection in 2013.. Now Kap drops back and it’s a virtual defensive jail break again and again. He has regressed because his first thought is not receivers but the defensive pressure. The old adage give any QB time and he will shred you is as true as ever. I am not saying Kap is the best passing surgeon in the game but if given the time, the confidence he will get protection and you will see a vastly improved passer.

  • sdaddy101269

    This is an awful article! Contradiction all over the place. first he writes: “The 49ers and Jim Harbaugh understood Kaepernick’s game early on, and part of the reason he got the starting job over Smith in the first place is because Harbaugh felt that if he was going to be simplifying his offense for Smith, building in automatic checkdowns and generally trying to pare down what he asked of the quarterback,” If that were the case why did Kaep lead the league in Yards Per attempt and Yards per completion??

    He then says Kaep is done then goes on to write:

    “in 2012 the 49ers had the league’s best O-line, but in 2013 and 2014 it was PFF’s ninth-best — and there has been a particularly notable drop-off in its run-blocking ability.

    Heading into 2015 the group looks, at least on paper, weaker again. The left side of Joe Staley and Alex Boone remains intact and should be fine, but the right side now finds Erik Pears as a starter instead of Anthony Davis (who has taken a sabbatical from the game), and they look more like a league-average unit overall than the dominant group that Kaepernick had in front of him in 2012.” As though ANY QB performs great without an oline ( See Brady first 4 games last year). Here what we know: Kaep is 4-2 in the playoffs and 3-1 on the road with 2 NFCCGs and a Superbowl appearance. that’s better than Luck, Dalton, RG3, Tannehill, Romo, Ryan, Foles, etc. Kaep an the 49ers will be fine this year.

    Sam Monson, your writing is more like a ‘Monsoon’, all over the place and not sure what gonna come next.

  • Aria Ravenlocke

    Hahahaha. Colin Kaepernick was never that good.

  • Dennis Davis

    Colin is the worst QB in the NFL; his stats prove it, his play proves it, his lack of leadership proves it, his teammates shun him and are embarrassed, he does not study the game or the next weeks opponent. But one of the worst coaches in the league still support him and Jim atands on the sidelines with a look of confusion and yells, “What in the hell is going on out there.”

  • Doug Clinton

    hope he gets cut, Brady has turds that throw better passes(I hate Brady BTW)

  • Robert Masters

    Maybe he should work on his game before his politics.

  • Alaskasbestinterest

    Collin Kaepernick is the reason I don’t watch the NFL, and many others joining me as disrespecting the flag and the Nation is their right, and me not watching them do that is mine.