Could Colin Kaepernick return to the NFL? Five logical team fits

There's some legitimate momentum growing for something that once seemed impossible. Amidst all the turmoil generated in the wake of George Floyd's killing, the NFL is opening a door to the possibility of Colin Kaepernick's return. It first started last Thursday with the league pledging $250 million to combat systemic racism and historic injustices faced by black people, while also showing a willingness to work directly with Kaepernick on tackling those issues. Within hours of that announcement, Seattle head coach Pete Carroll -- whose Seahawks had considered signing Kaepernick in 2017 -- told local reporters that another team recently had reached out to Carroll to discuss that offseason visit three years ago.

Carroll wouldn't reveal the name of the franchise, but he did say, "I know somebody's interested, and we'll see what happens with that." He also acknowledged that his team isn't in the market for another signal-caller, with perennial Pro Bowler Russell Wilson set as the starter and Geno Smith as the primary backup. Carroll's situation speaks to the problem Kaepernick inevitably will face if there is indeed another opportunity in the NFL. Just because there are people thinking about it, that doesn't necessarily mean there's a natural fit with any specific franchise.

Kaepernick obviously has had a twisted history with the league ever since he began kneeling during the national anthem in 2016 to protest police brutality and other social injustices. Over the next couple years, both he and former 49ers safety Eric Reid -- who joined Kaepernick in kneeling -- filed grievances against the league, claiming their protests had resulted in owners colluding to deny them employment. Reid's contract with San Francisco expired after the 2017 season, but he eventually found work with the Panthers, signing late in September of 2018. Meanwhile, Kaepernick has remained unemployed since the end of the 2016 campaign. In February of 2019, both players reached confidential settlements with the league and dropped those grievances.

The most recent attempt to bring Kaepernick back into the league also resulted in controversy. The NFL arranged a workout for him in Atlanta last November, inviting all 32 teams to attend. That event never happened, as Kaepernick backed out 30 minutes before the start because of concerns about the workout not being open to all media and the structuring of the liability waiver the league wanted him to sign. He ultimately moved the event to a high school about 60 miles southwest of the original location, where he threw passes in front of representatives from eight teams, according to Kaepernick's agent. After the outing, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport relayed a consensus scouting report from evaluators in attendance. The workout consisted of 60 scripted throws, no runs and no agility work. According to Rapoport's sources, Kaepernick "was in good shape and he has a fastball." And while he struggled at times with accuracy -- an issue Kaepernick dealt with even during his finest days in San Francisco -- he looked "good enough to be on a roster, likely backup level."

Still, the common belief after that roller-coaster event was that the relationship between Kaepernick and the NFL was too broken to ever be healed. Now the league is extending olive branches and Kaepernick once again has to think about how much trust he wants to offer. We'll see if these latest attempts at reconciliation lead to a positive conclusion.

In the meantime, it's definitely worth pondering the franchises that would be the best fits for Kaepernick if he did return to the league. But seeing how the 32-year-old quarterback hasn't taken an NFL snap since January 1, 2017, two significant questions loom large:

1) How rusty is Kaepernick's game after three full seasons out of the NFL?
2) How much might a team's QB depth chart factor into Kaepernick's decision/willingness to sign?

Scanning organizations (and quarterback rooms) across the league, here are the five most logical landing spots for Kaepernick:

1
Baltimore Ravens
Baltimore Ravens

Yes, the Ravens have the reigning league MVP in quarterback Lamar Jackson. They also have Greg Roman, the offensive coordinator whose system vaulted Kaepernick to stardom in San Francisco. They have John Harbaugh, the older brother of Jim, the current Michigan head coach who was leading the 49ers when Kaepernick was playing the best football of his professional career. Most importantly, the Ravens have an exceptional roster that makes Baltimore one of the favorites to win the coming season's Super Bowl. That means the story of Kaepernick returning to the league wouldn't dominate the media spotlight, or turn into a distraction, in the same way it would in some other markets.

Of course, there is a checkered history here, as well. The Ravens were the most open team in the league when it came to discussing their interest in Kaepernick prior to the 2017 season. This was back when Joe Flacco was still their undisputed starter and they had no idea they'd be completely overhauling their offensive approach for a talent like Jackson, the team's second first-round pick in 2018. There have been several published reports about why Baltimore never signed Kaepernick -- most notably that numerous fans negatively reacted to the possibility and that a tweet by Kaepernick's girlfriend, one comparing an embrace between legendary Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and team owner Steve Bisciotti to a hug between a slave and slave owner in the movie Django Unchained, ticked off Bisciotti -- but there was real interest back then.

The Ravens are now so all-in on the read-option system that Jackson used to terrorize opponents that their backups are both athletic quarterbacks cut from the same mold as Kaepernick: Robert Griffin III and Trace McSorley. If any of those quarterbacks were to go down with an injury, it wouldn't be surprising to see Baltimore reach out to the exiled star.

2
Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville Jaguars

This is the team that makes the most sense if Kaepernick wants a shot at competing for a starting job someday. The Jaguars have high hopes for second-year quarterback Gardner Minshew II, especially after he produced a solid rookie season after being thrown into the fire in Week 1, finishing with 3,271 passing yards, 21 touchdowns and six interceptions. He certainly turned some heads when he took over for an injured Nick Foles. What we don't know is whether he's another version of Foles: A player who can perform at a high level in emergency situations but lacks the consistency to be an effective starter year in and year out. The Jaguars also don't have an impressive quarterback room after Minshew. Their main backups are Mike Glennon, a 30-year-old journeyman on his fifth NFL roster, and Joshua Dobbs, a player who has appeared in five games (with zero starts) over three seasons with Pittsburgh/Jacksonville.

Aside from the competition, the upside of Kaepernick landing here is that it's a small market. He could settle in, work on his craft and rebuild his career without hordes of reporters hanging on his every word. Jags owner Shad Khan also has been vocal about his own experiences with racism, so much so that he wrote an op-ed that appeared on his team's website. If Khan really is that upset about inequity, then he might want to give Kaepernick an opportunity to restart his career. It would send quite the message, especially since Jacksonville will now be the site of the Republican National Convention and President Donald Trump has been an extremely vocal critic of athletes who kneel during the national anthem.

3
New England Patriots
New England Patriots

This is where it gets interesting. The Patriots just lost Tom Brady and they're placing their current hopes on the development of second-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham, a player who has thrown all of four passes in his NFL career. Backing him up is Brian Hoyer, a career journeyman now on his third stint in New England. Stidham may be talented and he may have impressed the coaches in his brief time with that organization thus far. That doesn't mean the 2019 fourth-round pick is going to be successful. If anything, the confidence in Stidham suggests that he can bring some qualities to the position that Brady didn't possess, most notably an element of athleticism that is becoming more prominent in signal-callers all over the league. If athletic ability is a major selling point for Stidham, then Kaepernick should be on the Patriots' radar, as well. Kaepernick built his entire career off his ability to throw and run. Now, can he still be dynamic after three years away from football and with his 33rd birthday arriving in November? That's a great question to ask and a hard one to answer.

It's also clear that the Patriots want to give Stidham a fair shot, especially considering they didn't chase after Andy Dalton, Jameis Winston or Cam Newton when they became free agents. However, this is a new era in New England, and Bill Belichick is incredibly aware of how much mobile quarterbacks hurt his team in 2019. Maybe he wouldn't mind having one more on his side before this new season kicks off.

4
Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers

Anybody who watched the Steelers last season knows how bad their backup QB situation was. They lost starter Ben Roethlisberger to elbow surgery after Week 2 and then spent the remainder of the season trying to survive with Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges under center. The Steelers managed to go 8-6 over their last 14 games, but those two backups combined for 18 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. The addition of Paxton Lynch to this year's roster doesn't improve the situation, either. What's even more encouraging about this franchise is its history. The Rooney Rule is named after Dan Rooney, the former Steelers owner who died in 2017, and the man who once chaired the league's diversity committee. The Steelers have had only three head coaches since 1969 and had no reservations hiring a black candidate, current head man Mike Tomlin, when he wasn't the sexiest name in their search back in 2007. This is a team that hasn't been afraid to think outside the box when necessary.

That's not to say Kaepernick makes sense here because Pittsburgh would be looking to make things right between him and the NFL. The Steelers have legitimate concerns in their quarterback room and a starter who is 38 years old. At the very least, it's worth kicking the tires on Kaepernick to see what he might offer.

5
Houston Texans
Houston Texans

Head coach Bill O'Brien recently said he'll be kneeling to protest social injustice this coming season. He's also the team's general manager, so he has the final say on personnel decisions. AJ McCarron is a solid backup for Deshaun Watson, but there's nobody else on the roster who couldn't be challenged for a job. Just as with Baltimore, Kaepernick joining a franchise like this only makes sense if he's taking a patient approach toward re-entering the league.

There also are some ancillary benefits here. Houston is the city where George Floyd grew up and the Texans dealt with plenty of controversy related to player protests in 2017. The infamous comments made by now-deceased owner Bob McNair during that tumultuous year -- McNair said "We can't have the inmates running the prison" in a discussion about protests among owners and NFL executives, though he stated those words were taken out of context in an ensuing apology -- nearly resulted in outright revolt within that franchise. O'Brien had to do major damage control back then. The presence of Kaepernick might help heal a lot of old wounds and there certainly wouldn't be much concern about his views on social injustice inside the locker room. Watson was among the group of players who posted a video demanding that the league make amends for how players who protested were treated in years past. He also just led a petition that resulted in his alma mater, Clemson, removing the name of a prominent racist figure from an on-campus building. Add in wide receiver Kenny Stills -- who's been extremely vocal on these same issues since 2016 -- and Kaepernick doesn't seem like a radical acquisition at all. If anything, he would fit right in.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @JeffriChadiha.

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