This is the age of the young quarterback. Buoyed by the draft class of 2012, we have a surplus of promising young signal-callers. Around The League and "NFL Total Access" will count down the top 10 quarterbacks 25 or under we'd want leading our franchise.
No. 3: Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers
Why he's here
He didn't blink. Facing a huge deficit on the biggest stage possible, Kaepernick played lights out even before the lights went out. A couple of throws got away from Kaepernick early in the Super Bowl, his 10th career NFL start, but the second-year pro otherwise put on a clinic against the Baltimore Ravens. Kaepernick makes difficult throws look so easy. Early mistakes did not stop Kaepernick from squeezing the ball into tight windows requiring his considerable arm strength. His outstanding overall performance got ignored because of how the game ended.
Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh says his quarterback, Joe Flacco, has the "guts of a burglar." The same holds true for Kaepernick. Down 10 points at halftime of the NFC Championship Game against the Atlanta Falcons, Kaepernick played his best (five incompletions, 233 passing yards to lead the 49ers past the Falcons). Down 28-6 in the Super Bowl, Kaepernick pulled off a number of throws that other quarterbacks couldn't make.
It's not about the read option, which wasn't particularly effective or noteworthy in the 49ers' final two games. It's not about Kaepernick's running ability, even though he broke the NFL record for rushing yards by a quarterback in a game when he ripped the Green Bay Packers for 181 yards in a divisional playoff win. Kaepernick can spin it as well as anyone from the pocket or on the move. Teams often play zone coverage against Kaepernick so defenders don't turn their back to him. But his accuracy and arm strength slice up the gaps in those zones.
Yes, he has started just 10 games in the NFL. But he was as effective as any quarterback in the league during that stretch. The common reaction when the 49ers didn't take the lead late in the Super Bowl: surprise. We already expect greatness from Kaepernick.
Why he's not higher
The first thing you notice about Kaepernick is the pregame warm-up "toss." The dude fires it as fast as he can to receivers barely 10 yards away. Niners receivers have been known to avoid catching passes from Kaepernick in practice because he hurts their fingers. It's a funny story, but he sometimes needs more touch on passes during the game.
Kaepernick also can work on his timing and anticipation. As you can see in the play below, he sometimes has to "see" the throw before he makes it. His incredible arm strength usually makes up for it. However, that occasionally causes Kaepernick to pump fake, and the ball arrives late. This happened a few times in the Super Bowl, and it cost the 49ers points.
This play to Moss was typical. Most plays to Moss slowed the offense down, with Kaepernick showing poor chemistry with the veteran. The 49ers' offense will be better off without Moss this season.
If Kaepernick has a flaw at this point, it's only experience. Defenses haven't adjusted. The St. Louis Rams did a nice job playing three deep in coverage against him, with a lot of men on the line of scrimmage and plenty of blitzes. It was an effective strategy. (Then again, the Packers got plenty of free rushers on Kaepernick to little effect.) Kaepernick also needs to improve his ball security -- he had 10 fumbles in his 10 starts.
What will Kaepernick do when his first read is taken away? This is an area he improved on during the season, as the Week 17 throw against the Arizona Cardinals to the right shows. But the reality is that Kaepernick didn't need to go to his second read that much.
Ten starts are not a lot to judge. Kaepernick hit the NFL like a supernova, with excellent talent around him, and it will be fascinating to see where he goes from here. His work ethic already is legendary, and I expect to see a different player in 2013. I also expect defenses to attack Kaepernick in new ways.
When Kaepernick sees an opening as a runner, he bolts. He's decisive, and his foot speed seems to catch defenses off guard, even when they know it's coming. His "arm talent" is special, but the ability to eat up chunks of yardage on the ground sets Kaepernick apart. He'd be my choice as the most valuable runner of all the young quarterbacks, and it's a crowded field. His runs only are a part of the 49ers' big-play threat.
The video above shows why the 49ers benched Alex Smith. Whether it's through the air or on the ground, Kaepernick strikes quickly. San Francisco beautifully mixes a power running game with a quarterback who can score from anywhere on the field. It's hard to imagine Kaepernick as anything but a player who makes multiple Pro Bowls and remains a top- 10 quarterback for much of his career. That's the floor, and he should be there this year.
Kaepernick easily could be No. 1 on the list, and he strongly was considered for the spot. The closer to the top this list gets, the more arbitrary these rankings feel. The top quarterbacks are closely bunched, with the entire top five having a chance to eventually be the best in the NFL.
Kaepernick is in the best position of any of them to win titles quickly because of the coaching staff and talent that surrounds him. The 49ers know how to maximize Kaepernick's incredible skill set.
There are no right answers to the debate over which young quarterback is the best -- at least not yet. They are all so early in their development. That's what makes this particular moment in NFL history so special. This group has a chance to go down in history together, and we all get to watch.
Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.