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In our latest Round Table, our staff was asked what the San Francisco 49ers can hope to expect from newly named starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick, having signed a restructured contract, replaces Blaine Gabbert, who had won the offseason quarterback competition and then led the 49ers to a 1-4 start this season. Kaepernick's start on Sunday against the Buffalo Bills will be his first since November 1, 2015.
Stewart M. Cockrell
I think there is a lot of risk/reward to Colin being the starter.
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The risk, of course, is that he is playing one of the better defenses in the league in his first start in nearly a year. Coming off three injuries he cannot play tentative. I don't think he will, but if the Bills get after him early, it could be a long day for him. The biggest risk is he gets hurt early and we are right back where we were. If anyone thinks that the team will be less prone to turnovers under Kaepernick, I think that is fools gold. I see him having at least one if not more turnovers in the game. That could be rust, or it could just be Kaepernick being Kaepernick.
The reward, however, is huge and is why this move has upside. Kaepernick is clearly a better athlete than Gabbert and if he gets free on a scramble he can eat up more real estate than Gabbert. That is a big reward. Kaepernick will also likely push the ball down the field a bit more than Gabbert was willing to. This is good news for Torrey Smith as he needs to be involved more. If Kaepernick can find some accuracy on deep plays down the field, it could open things up for us in the running game.
The biggest upside for the 49ers is he plays them into a respectable record and gives the franchise hope. Worst case, they confirm what they likely already know in that he isn't the future QB of the team and we move on from both Kaepernick and Gabbert.
Jesse R. Dumas
The risks the 49ers take these days all seem to pan out wrong, so lately I have been tempering my expectations as such. However, I think Kaepernick will come in with a renewed sense of confidence. Blaine clearly sucks, that cannot be lost on Colin. He's sat and watched this guy fritter away opportunity after opportunity and he has to be champing at the bit to go out and show just how much better he is than the sad sack who took his job.
I'm thinking back to his first couple of years sitting behind Alex Smith and how he exploded once given the opportunity and I see similarities to this situation now. Confidence looks good on Colin Kaepernick and I think we'll see more liveliness out of the offense over the next few weeks, more big plays, deep shots, and hopefully less 3 and outs.
Whether or not he can sustain that is another question altogether. As good as he can look when he's got confidence with him, he as absolutely horrid when it's gone. Starting off against a tough Bills defense could torpedo the whole damn thing, but if he can move the offense and the team responds to that positively, he'll get things going in the right direction.
If you are looking for a miracle turnaround for this season, you may want to temper your expectations a bit. The move to Kaepernick might improve the offense some, but it really seems like a move to see what the quarterback has left and if he can be a long-term solution for the 49ers. While injuries have played a part, his passer rating and Pro Football Focus grade have been declining since 2012. His success will be entirely dependent on his motivation to do so and with so many distractions surrounding the 49ers' new starting quarterback, you have to hope he can stay focused while on the field.
With all of that being said, the move was the right one to make. Blaine Gabbert has been awful this season. Each game he demonstrated new ways to frustrate fans. The 49ers offense needed a move like this to shake things up and even if Kaepernick fails in his return to the starting lineup, I cannot imagine that San Francisco will be that much worse off. At least head coach Chip Kelly will finally know for sure what he has in Kaepernick.
One of the benefits of the switch is that we might see more openness to get the ball downfield without fear of the football being so off target. Kaepernick may also feel a lot more comfortable behind an offensive line that has improved in its pass blocking this season. Kaepernick had clearly lost trust in that unit last season when he was sacked 28 times through nine games.
My first thought is to consider the Packers game in week 3 of the preseason. Rust is real. Kaepernick hasn't played football since September 1st, and he hasn't played in a regular season game. Against Green Bay, his timing appeared off and he had difficulty making quick decisions in the passing game. The game called to mind frequent criticisms about Kaepernick's accuracy and velocity in the quick game, as well as assertions that he could not work through his progressions quickly enough to function as a conventional NFL quarterback. To compound issues, the 49ers appear lacking in perimeter talent, they've struggled to make room for the running game, and the best weapon at TE has had consistent issues catching passes, especially from Kaepernick.
My next thought is to consider Kaepernick's 1st NFL start when he dismantled the Chicago Bears. Granted the league was taken completely by surprise by Kap's emergence, but he came off of an uneven performance replacing Alex Smith in the middle of the Rams game to dismantle the Bears after one week of practice with the #1 offense. That 49ers team wasn't loaded with weapons on the perimeter, either. Personally, I'd take Torrey Smith over Kyle Williams as a deep threat, though Michael Crabtree is a much more inspiring possession receiver than Quinton Patton. It's completely logical to assume that much of Kaepernick's success in that game came from how differently the offense looked with him as QB, the more prominent threat presented by the 49ers run game in 2012 and slightly better talent in the overall receiving corps.
A more recent, and more inspiring, performance might by the week 4 preseason game against the Chargers. While Kaepernick with and against backups, he got rid of the ball on time and accurately. The QB who previously won with his legs and the deep ball demonstrated the ability to move the ball in a rhythm offense. While rust may indeed be present, due to limited practice reps and the 6-week layoff since his last game action, Kaepernick should perform successfully in the offense if he can continue to execute the quick game. It will take time, but I think we can expect to see improved offensive production resulting from the threat of Kaepernick's running ability and deep ball, combined with what we should hope is a sustainable ability to find and hit open receivers quickly on shorter, early down route packages. I wouldn't expect any wins until the run defense can keep step up, but there should be some hope on offense.
I don't think it's so much that they're expecting big things out of him; it seems that this will finally give them an opportunity to see how much he has in the tank, and then feeling 100% comfortable cutting him at season's end.
I see so many people arguing Kaep vs. Gabbert vs. Ponder when the reality is they're all below average, and we need to admit the future QB of this franchise is not on the roster at this time.
With that being said, you need to give Colin at least 5 games before getting an honest evaluation on what he has left.
If he does stink it up in those 5 games, I would like to see Ponder close out the season and see if he can remain on the roster as a viable backup. Too much damage has been done with Gabbert and Kap staying on next year as backups, even though that's all both will be when they join their new teams in 2017.
I truly believe that the 49ers can expect a pleasant surprise from Colin Kaepernick as the starter. This is not a response based at all on emotion, fandom, or any of the things that some commenters will say below. I think it's completely rational to expect Kaepernick to succeed for a number of reasons.
First of all, love it or hate it, Chip Kelly's offense has been producing open receivers: they just have not been found consistently by the quarterback. I think the idea that Kaepernick is not an accurate passer is one of the biggest misconceptions about any NFL player period. Kaepernick struggled with a number of specific throws, usually related to touch. He struggled with fade patterns, like the obvious nightmare final Super Bowl series when he couldn't give Michael Crabtree a reasonable chance at a reception. He has struggled when throwing to covered receivers where anticipation and an early throw was needed and he had to "throw the receivers open." He also struggled, at times, when throwing the ball into the area behind the linebackers but in front of safeties, where the ball would have to be dropped in before defenders can close. This is what he struggled with at times in the past, and must continue to get better at.
Let's talk about the throws that he does not struggle with: throwing into tight windows to open receivers. You cannot be a baseball pitcher and not have the ability to throw the ball repeatedly to a spot. When a receiver comes open on the field and Kaepernick sees it, I would venture to say that only Aaron Rodgers and maybe a couple more quarterbacks can throw those passes with the combination of accuracy and velocity that Kaepernick has shown throughout his career. He literally makes amazing throws under those circumstances. It is what he became known for besides his running ability when he became a starter. How many fade patterns have you seen in Kelly's offense? I can't recall seeing any. Most seem to be of the variety where receivers come open in windows based on route combinations and provide the quarterback with defined windows to throw into. I believe he will excel in hitting the same open receivers that Gabbert consistently missed.
Also, Blaine Gabbert is leading all NFL quarterbacks in rushing attempts. Think about that for a minute. In 2014, Kaepernick carried the ball 104 times (6.5 attempts game), which was the most attempts of his career. So far this season, Gabbert has carried the ball 39 times (7.8 attempts per game). At that pace, Gabbert would carry the ball 125 times over 16 games. It's very reasonable to expect Kaepernick to make some big plays carrying the ball that many times.
Finally, despite what people would like to believe, Kaepernick does not throw a lot of interceptions: he never has. A few multi-interception games where he completely melted down tend to stick in people's minds, but those were the exception and not the rule.
Consider last year, in by far his worst season, Kaepernick threw 5 interceptions while appearing in 8 games: 4 of those came in one game versus Arizona. That means there were 6 games last year in which he didn't throw any interceptions while he was playing this worst football of his career. In 2014, he threw a career-high 10 interceptions, which is still not a lot. All 10 of those interceptions came over the course of 6 games. There were 10 games that season in which didn't throw one interception. In 2013, when he threw only 8 interceptions, there were also 10 games in which he didn't throw one interception. So, the idea that he throws a lot of interceptions is simply not the case.
If he takes care of the ball as he generally has throughout his career, he will make some mistakes, of course, but I believe those mistakes will be greatly outweighed by the big plays and points that he racks up.