Colin Kaepernick: To Draft or Not To Draft, That Is the Question
For some of you, seeing the name Colin Kaepernick during the offseason probably brings back bad memories of this time last year. Kaepernick, just off of a Super Bowl appearance, flashed thoughts of vintage Randall Cunningham in your head. The Packers vs. 49ers playoff game was never far from your memory, and week 1 of the season confirmed your thoughts. You were happy that you bought into the hype, and you thought you had a sure thing for years to come, but…
Then the next nine games happened, and Kaepernick had only one game with more than 200 yards passing, totaled just 11 touchdowns, and committed nine turnovers. He finished up the season strong, but you were burnt by that hype and want nothing to do with it now. That’s understandable, but things could get a lot better for No. 7 in 2014, and there are several strong arguments as to why you may want to put those bad memories away and give Jim Harbaugh’s favorite understudy a second chance.
Never Be the Smartest Person in the Room
In 2003, Michael Dell—the 41st richest person in the world (*hint* look at his last name)—told University of Texas graduates to never be the smartest person in the room, and if you are, find a different room. It seems like Jim Harbaugh may have been at that commencement speech. Harbaugh brought in noted quarterback guru George Whitfield as an intern coach to work with Kaepernick over the summer. Whitfield may not be smarter than Harbaugh, but he sure ups the IQ of whatever room he’s in.
Whitfield is young—he’s 36—and uses a unique approach to get the most out of his quarterbacks. He’s done things like make his players wear a patch over one of their eyes, use bean bags to help improve hand/eye coordination, and even taken some players out in the Pacific Ocean for passing drills.
Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, and Johnny Manziel have all benefited from this kind of mentoring, and the results speak for themselves. Roethlisberger went to Whitfield while suspended for four games during the 2010 season, and returned to lead the league in yards per completion—improving a half yard from the previous season—throw just five interceptions, and total a 97.0 passer rating. Whitfield’s specialties are mechanics and accuracy on deep passes, and both seemed to work in Roethisberger’s favor as he led the Steelers to their eighth Super Bowl appearance that season.
Whitfield worked with both Newton and Luck prior to their respective NFL drafts in 2011 and 2012. In Newton’s rookie year, he ranked seventh in the league at 13.1 yards per completion, and the following year lead the league at 13.8. The rookie Luck wasn’t far behind in third place at 12.9.
Kaepernick already throws the deep pass well—he ranked second in yards per completion in 2013 at 13.2, and was in the top five among starters in each of the last two seasons in Pro Football Focus’ deep pass accuracy percentage stat—but that doesn’t mean he can’t improve. Kaepernick is an unorthodox quarterback, and a little tweaking here and there would work wonders on a guy who, when playing at his best, looks unstoppable. An improvement in deep passing won’t hurt as he will have a new deep target to work with this season named Stevie Johnson.
A Tale of Two Halves
Fantasy football is a funny thing. Not only do you have to deal with the randomness of dropped passes, touchdowns, and injuries, you also have to manage headaches like a Bill Belichick backfield, or a guy playing well in games late in the year after you’ve traded him or your season is over. The latter happened to a lot of Kaepernick owners in 2013. During the second half of the season and the 49ers playoff run, I heard fantasy players say things like, “Why didn’t you play like that before I traded you/the fantasy season ended?!”
It really was a tale of two halves for Kaepernick last season. In the first 10 games of the season, he ranked 14th overall in total fantasy points with 161, and ninth in points per drop back with 0.53. The rest of the way, those numbers skyrocketed. He was third in total points behind only Peyton Manning and Drew Brees with 120 points, and fifth in points per drop back with 0.60.
|Colin Kaepernick||Total Points||Rank||PPDB||Rank|
Meanwhile, that second-half success extended into the playoffs. Kaepernick had 0.64 points per dropback in his three postseason starts. From game 11 through the playoffs, Kaepernick played against four of the top six defenses, with three of those games being away playoff games (six away total). He also played the Seahawks twice, and in the bitter cold of Lambeau Field during wildcard weekend. So what changes were made for the drastic improvement? Michael Crabtree came back from injury.
When Crabtree returned from an injured Achilles, he caused all kinds of matchup problems for defenses. No longer could Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin be double teamed, which meant someone was always in one-on-one coverage. During those first 10 games, Boldin ranked 24th in total points in point per reception leagues, and not a single other 49ers wide receiver ranked in the top 50. Boldin was also ranked 26th in points per snap, and 17th in points per opportunity during that time frame. In the next nine games, his numbers surged in all three categories.
|Games 1-10||Games 11-19 (Includes Playoffs)|
As you can see, Crabtree made a huge difference in Boldin’s production. Meanwhile, Davis’ declined slightly on a rate basis as some of his opportunities were taken by Crabtree.
Kaepernick improved immensely over the last nine games of the season, playoffs included, with a healthy Crabtree. That was despite the fact that he faced some very tough defenses and conditions during that time. Throw in the fact that Stevie Johnson is now the No. 3 receiver in San Francisco, and you have a very good case as to why Kaepernick could carry those numbers into 2014.
But, there’s also one more reason his numbers could improve even more.
Regression Is Coming
If there’s been any constant to the 49ers in the last half decade or so, it’s been an elite defense. Even before Harbaugh and company got to town, the team always had a hard-nosed defense that kept them in a lot of games. Unfortunately for them, that is probably going to change—even if the difference still means a top 10 unit—for the 2014 season.
We all saw that play in the NFC Championship game where Navarro Bowman’s body went one way and his knee went another. Some reports say he could miss eight or more games as he recovers. That in itself will be a big blow to the 49ers defense. Bowman was the No. 1 ranked inside linebacker in the league according to PFF grading, and he and Patrick Willis make up the best duo in the NFL by a pretty large margin. That’s blow No. 1 to their defense.
Another thing that doesn’t get talked about enough with the 49ers is the excellent pass coverage they had in 2013. The group ranked second in the league behind Seattle according to PFF, and some very good corners flew under the radar. While individually none of the corners stood out, Tramaine Brock and Tarell Brown made a solid starting duo. Carlos Rogers was a solid, if inconsistent, nickel back, and the trio made the defense withstand the loss of Chris Culliver well. The safety duo of Donte Whitner and rookie Eric Reid played above expectations, and the pass defense was not a worry. That will most likely change in 2014.
Brown, Rogers, and Whitner have all left in free agency. They’ll be replaced by the returning Culliver, rookie Jimmie Ward, and Colts castoff Antoine Bethea. Culliver, if healthy, will make a nice replacement for Brown as both performed at similar levels. The question marks are Ward and Bethea. Will Ward’s transition from a college safety to an NFL nickel corner be an easy one? Can Bethea replace the fifth best cover safety in the league while playing next to a guy with less than 20 NFL starts under his belt? Time will tell, but if they don’t, or someone gets hurt, the 49ers could be in for a lot more high scoring games than usual. Great for Kaepernick’s fantasy value, bad for 49ers fans in general.
There is also Aldon Smith’s looming suspension on the horizon. While he awaits a court date on July 25th that could see him serve jail time, what he receives from the league is still unknown. Rumors from just one game, up to an entire season, have been thrown around. No one knows what he’s going to receive, but he’s likely to get something, so for an undisclosed amount of games the 49ers will have to deal without having one of the best pass rushers in the game. That’s another good scenario for fantasy purposes. Another bad scenario for 49ers fans.
To Draft or Not To Draft?
So, that leaves the question: should you or should you not draft Kaepernick? With all of the information above, there’s a pretty good argument for doing so. Kaepernick improved immensely in the second half of last season, Crabtree will be 100 percent, Stevie Johnson joins the party, a quarterback guru will be in his head all summer, and the defense is most likely going to regress, leading to higher scoring games.
He’s being drafted as the 12th quarterback overall right now, and has an average draft position of 86. For his ceiling, and all he’s got going for him in 2014, he’s a solid value pick at that position. Gauge your league mates, their interest, and the flow of your draft, and see if he’s right for you. He looks like a very solid pick right now.
Gary Althiser is a diehard 49ers and San Francisco Giants fan. He feels weird talking about himself in third-person, but if you want to find him, he usually spends his free time on Twitter irrationally arguing about Alex Smith, or sobbing after NFC championship games. @NFLGary