Midway through the 2015 season, the San Francisco 49ers no longer viewed Colin Kaepernick as a starting quarterback. They showed it with their play-calling, which treated the fifth-year veteran like a panicked rookie. They showed it when they benched Kaepernick for Blaine Gabbert entering Week 9.
The 49ers lost faith that Kaepernick could lead their organization. He wound up being shut down for the season with a mysterious non-throwing shoulder injury and eventually underwent three surgeries. Four months later, Kaepernick is a coveted name on the trade market. He might just start at quarterback on the Thursday night kickoff game in Week 1 for the defending Super Bowl champions. This begs the question: Why is Kaepernick still a hot commodity?
On paper, free agency saw a better crop of quarterbacks than usual this year. Ryan Fitzpatrick set franchise records for the Jets last season, but NFL teams seemingly expect him to turn back into pumpkin if he's separated from offensive coordinator Chan Gailey. Kirk Cousins and Sam Bradford were never available, and Brock Osweiler's departure for Houston put Broncos general manager John Elway in a desperate position he wasn't anticipating. The Broncos were forced to start over from scratch and their trade for Mark Sanchez confirmed that. Now the Broncos have a functional, breathing quarterback. But they know they need more.
It's a never-ending seller's market at quarterback. There aren't enough quality options out there. That's why Bradford and Osweiler got $18 million per year, barely less than the pay of future Hall of Famers. Robert Griffin III and Brandon Weeden are the top names still available in free agency other than Fitzpatrick. The Broncos likely will draft a quarterback, but Kaepernick has been atop their wish list since before Osweiler even left town.
The Broncos and Kaepernick have been in an awkward dance for the last week since NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport first reported Denver would go after Kaepernick. NFL Media columnist Michael Silver reported the Broncos value Kaepernick at a fourth-round pick level, while the 49ers likely want a second-round pick. The Browns, meanwhile, reportedly are willing to give up a high third-round pick. In the meantime, Silver reported the 49ers are "chilling". The Broncos are standing firm, for now, on not paying too much for Kaepernick. His play last season has to be a big reason why.
2015 film is hard to ignore
Kaepernick was once seven yards shy of dropping 38 points on the Baltimore Ravens to win the Super Bowl. That was just before smart quarterback analysts believed Kaepernick could be one of the best of all-time (and not-so-smart analysts ranked him as a better long-term bet than Cam Newton and Russell Wilson).
It's easy to see why Kaepernick inspired such hyperbole. He's one of the best running quarterbacks in NFL history even though defenses now limit the impact of his legs better. Kaepernick has one of the strongest arms in the league and routinely would make four to five "wow" throws per game. No one has ever questioned his work ethic. But the dynamic young threat we saw in 2012 and 2013 is simply not evident on tape from last season.
We went back to watch Kaepernick's starts from 2015 on NFL GamePass to see if we unfairly remembered his play, and the findings were grim.
-- Take away all the subtle things Kaepernick can work on and you are left with the routine throw misfires. At least a few times every game, Kaepernick sails passes way over the head of his intended target. This often came on short throws, but also included plenty of throws deep into the sidelines (Kaepernick famously hit a 49ers staffer in the head).
-- These throws are a sign of something seriously amiss with mechanics. Kaepernick spent a lot of time during the 2015 offseason with quarterback gurus trying to fix his throwing motion, and his accuracy only got worse. It's hard to teach accuracy. Broncos coach Gary Kubiak and Bengals coach Hue Jackson are two of the best when it comes to quarterback fundamentals, and Kaepernick provides great tools to work with. But after 2015, it feels like they would be starting from scratch.
-- The 49ers built an entire offense around hiding Kaepernick's limitations. Perhaps first-time offensive coordinator Geep Chryst was out of his depth, but he showed no confidence in Kaepernick after some early season struggles. Chryst was on the record saying he wouldn't even let Kaepernick attempt downfield passes on third-and-13. This is a five-year veteran who signed a contract that was worth up to $126 million only the year before.
-- A lack of protection also didn't help Kaepernick. He faced quick pressure too often and didn't appear confident with what was in front of him. It led to frantic decisions. Even when Kaepernick was protected well, he was often tentative and left the pocket too quickly. He waited to see a receiver wide open instead of trusting the play design and anticipating throws. These are the skills that separate the Jay Cutlers of the league from the top-10 quarterbacks. Can that be taught?
-- The secret was out on how to stop Kaepernick. He was often forced to roll to his left and didn't respond well. Opposing defenses saw many of the 49ers' bootlegs coming. Kaepernick started eight games in 2015; the team scored seven points or less in four of them, with only a field goal in two of those contests. The 49ers had more punts than first downs in his game against Seattle. It wasn't modern football.
-- The most damning part of the tape was how much the 49ers limited Kaepernick. Against the Packers, he had one completion over seven yards. He was limited to half-field reads and short passes. The thrilling highlight reel player from a few years back rarely showed up.
More tools than RG3
We started writing this article with this idea: Is Kaepernick a better option than Robert Griffin III? The Browns and Broncos both think so. Silver said the Browns want Kaepernick to take a pay cut to join Cleveland, but they're willing to give up a third-round pick for him. The Broncos could sign Griffin but have shown no interest -- and their attitude makes sense.
Kaepernick has a more impressive body of work in the NFL than Griffin. Kaepernick has started 53 games, including six in the playoffs. Most of those starts showed promise. He still has all the physical traits that he did when he entered the league. Griffin, who has 36 starts, has been benched by two different coaching staffs and his 2014 tape was even grislier than Kaepernick's 2015 play. At least Kaepernick showed flashes of his skills last season in San Francisco. The guy is more than capable of spinning a beautiful throw.
Those are the types of throws that make a coach believe. They are the throws that ex-49ers coach Jim Harbaugh still dreams about. Kaepernick's $11.9 million salary is guaranteed if he's on the 49ers' roster on April 1, a possibility that seems increasingly likely. The 49ers, Broncos and Browns are in a three-way standoff. The Browns and Broncos aren't treating Kaepernick like a must-get because they know he is a reclamation project. If he was anything close to an average starter, he wouldn't be available in the first place. All three teams seem to know it, and the 49ers should be pleasantly surprised with his trade value.
A Kaepernick trade makes too much sense not to happen, especially for the Broncos. If they are willing to give up a fourth-round pick and $12 million for the chance to "fix" Kaepernick, Elway should be able to eventually negotiate a trade.
It's easy to see why the 49ers don't consider Kaepernick a starter. It's also easy to understand the temptation to ignore all the evidence. The Browns or Broncos are willing to press delete on Kaepernick's 2015 because there just aren't enough good quarterbacks to go around.