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.