Colin Kaepernick's journey from fresh-faced upstart to $126 million sensation to NFL pariah has unfolded without evaluators fundamentally changing what they thought about his skills.
What has changed, acutely, is how evaluators perceive Kaepernick's mindset and prospects for development. Although those perceptions changed long before Kaepernick, a free agent, ever knelt during an anthem in the name of social justice, his controversial protests are obviously a significant part of this multi-variable equation.
My notes from four years of conversations with 21 league insiders form an oral history of a career that is both remarkable and confounding.
It has been a year since Kaepernick took the league by storm, helping the 49ers come oh-so-close to winning Super Bowl XLVII. With another postseason approaching, San Francisco improves to 9-4 with a 19-17 victory over the eventual Super Bowl champion Seahawks at Candlestick Park. Kaepernick completes 15 of 29 passes for 175 yards in a defensive battle. In the bigger picture, thoughts begin turning toward the type of deal Kaepernick might command in 2014, relative to what other young quarterbacks might get. The gap between public perception and league perception seems significant.
"When I watch Russell Wilson play, I can adamantly say everyone in the league missed on him, including the Seahawks," a GM from another team says at the time. "He is the guy, and you do whatever to keep him. You watch Colin Kaepernick -- that is the farthest thing from the truth. You like some things, but there is so much inconsistency. Russell Wilson is a great decision-maker, smart, great arm, great touch, can throw with timing and anticipation, and on top of that, he has great lateral quickness. To me, Colin Kaepernick has a bazooka for an arm, but you don't see all-the-time great ball placement. Everything is a 90 mph fastball with him."
Meanwhile, an agent says he wasn't convinced that the 49ers were "all-in" on Kaepernick. There were rumblings that 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, Kaepernick's highest profile defender in public, would prefer a more prototypical quarterback.
"I don't think he's a very good quarterback," a contract negotiator says of Kaepernick. "I think he is an incredible athlete. He won the Green Bay game [2012 playoffs] because he was an athlete. Seattle exposed him. Play zone and give him windows, he can rip it. Play man and get physical with his receivers, he is not Peyton [Manning] dissecting the D. ... There are very smart people in the NFL who coach up defenses. You might get them the first time, but not consistently. I'm not sure what San Francisco does because Harbaugh has shown he can plug in anyone. [Offensive coordinator] Greg Roman has done a great job."
Kaepernick's star takes a hit in the NFC Championship Game when Malcolm Smith intercepts his late pass to Michael Crabtree, sealing Seattle's victory. It's the second consecutive season in which San Francisco makes a deep playoff run with Kaepernick behind center. There's no doubt that he has overtaken Robert Griffin III among young dual-threat QBs, but he's still chasing Wilson.
"RG III and Kaepernick are similar from the standpoint of, if you have them as your QB, you get nervous every Sunday, but the things they can do physically are so unique that, as a defense, you cannot scheme them," a former GM says. "Kap is a damn good player. He lost two of three to Seattle when it mattered, but still, the guy is a good player. I'm sitting there watching him run 55 yards on them. They have good defensive players, and they could not tackle him."
An informal poll of defensive backs produces harsh feedback on Kaepernick. It turns out that DBs respect quarterbacks who can consistently win with their arms.
"I mean, he is a guy who is OK, but you look at his game, and it's his legs," one safety says. "He has a strong arm -- don't get me wrong -- but I don't know if he can make every throw."
The 49ers sign Kaepernick to a six-year, $126 million deal. Kaepernick becomes the first quarterback from the 2011 draft to sign a lucrative extension (San Francisco winds up paying Kaepernick not quite $40 million of that total). Cam Newton and Andy Dalton will sign multiyear extensions down the line.
"I don't think Andy Dalton is near Kaepernick," a GM says. "You don't worry about Andy Dalton when you get ready to play those guys. With Colin, he can beat a defense with his arm. Now, does he read coverages great? No. But if things are clicking for him, he can throw fastballs. He can overpower a defense with his arm, and he's had some great games. You look at New England two years ago, he went up and down the field. Green Bay, one time he beat them throwing, another time he beat them running."
A defensive coordinator praises Kaepernick for finding ways to win in 2013, even when some key players were injured.
"Those kinds of guys who show that type of grit at quarterback, as a defensive coach, that does have a factor to me," the coordinator says. "It is not all based on their stats. Kaepernick, from a throwing sense, I don't know if he will be regarded in the same neighborhood with those [top-tier] guys. He might play to his ceiling and be really good."
"When I watch Russell Wilson play, I can adamantly say everyone in the league missed on him, including the Seahawks. He is the guy, and you do whatever to keep him. You watch Colin Kaepernick -- that is the farthest thing from the truth." An NFL GM (December 2013)
July 3, 2014
Kaepernick ranks 14th among starting quarterbacks in my first annual Quarterback Tiers survey of coaches and evaluators. He is the lowest-rated player in the second of five performance tiers, but the arrow is presumably pointing up. His 2.5 average in a poll of 26 league insiders places Kaepernick between Matthew Stafford and Cam Newton.
"He can affect the game on so many levels," a defensive coordinator says. "He's been to a Super Bowl, been in a championship game. He has kind of revolutionized some stuff. He is a different kind of [second-tier QB] than most of them, more multidimensional."
July 8, 2014
Which young quarterbacks might one day ascend into the top tier? Kaepernick appears with Cam Newton, Russell Wilson and Matthew Stafford in a 2014 Quarterback Tiers postscript. A theme is emerging. Defensive coaches fear what Kaepernick can do to their schemes, while offensive coaches fear the sinking feeling they would have if forced to play from behind with a running quarterback at the controls.
"I don't think [Kaepernick] can throw it well enough [to become top tier]," a coordinator says. "He throws one kind of ball: flat and hard. You miss out on touch throws, arm angles, those kinds of things. But if anybody can get really close, he can, because he is a wonderfully high-character person who has not been changed an ounce by what has happened to him. He is a breath of fresh air as a person -- a better person than player -- and I think that really will go a long way for consistency over time."
A veteran defensive starter who played with Kaepernick concurs during a conversation at training camp. This is by no means a league-consensus view, but the tone regarding Kaepernick has never been as optimistic, before or since.
"I think Kap can be a one," this defensive starter says, referring to the top tier, "but it is going to have to be them taking the training wheels off and allowing him to do what he can do. If they allow Kap to really run the thing, get away from the run a little bit more, I believe he can be a one because he has all the tools, and he scares defensive coordinators to death. Just being back there in the pocket, he can run and beat you for 80, or he can throw it and beat you for 80. He is wired right. He is the hardest worker on that football team -- hands down. I can confirm that. He wants to be one of those great guys. It is a matter of him going out there and doing it."
Dec. 13, 2014
The 49ers are two games into a four-game losing streak in what will be Jim Harbaugh's final season with the team. They will suffer a 17-7 defeat at Seattle the next day. By now, Kaepernick has incurred NFL fines for swearing on the field and wearing headphones to news conferences in violation of a league sponsorship agreement.
"Kaepernick never makes the refined play," a defensive assistant coach says. "He throws the ball only one way. He is a huge limitation. It is fun when you can have him run around, but he cannot beat the zero blitz to win the game."
With Robert Griffin III's injuries catching up to him and draft talk focused on how Marcus Mariota might fit in a pro-style offense, an offensive coordinator projects the outlook for Kaepernick, another quarterback known as much for his legs as for his arm.
"There are two things," the coordinator says of run-dependent quarterbacks. "When you pay [the quarterback] and the defense goes to the middle of the pack, are they good enough passers? And then the toll of the hits over time. Those things will determine the longevity of a guy in that offense."
Harbaugh is long gone from San Francisco at this point, having departed as part of a 49ers shakeup announced Dec. 29, and the 49ers' roster has deteriorated markedly. A veteran coach with ties to the former staff saw disconcerting changes to Kaepernick in 2014.
"Kap went off the reservation last year, fundamentally," this coach says. "He got a little bit diva delusional and forgot what got him there. Harbaugh was an enabler for him. That was his guy. That was a tough situation."
"Kaepernick never makes the refined play. ... It is fun when you can have him run around, but he cannot beat the zero blitz to win the game." A defensive assistant coach (December 2014)
The 2015 Quarterback Tiers survey featuring input from 35 league insiders has Kaepernick ranked 18th, four spots lower than the year before. Coaches and evaluators agree that Kaepernick has never shown an ability to beat opponents from the pocket, which is a big concern.
"This [past] year, Harbaugh allowed Kaepernick to get exposed a little by trying to have him be the centerpiece of the offense instead of what he does naturally: running," a pro personnel director says. "He had him pressing to throw the ball. It showed his arm strength but also his inaccuracy as a thrower. That is not going to get better. He cannot be a [second-tier QB] by being a dropback quarterback."
The 49ers' diminished personnel and offensive-coaching changes heighten concerns about what lies ahead for Kaepernick.
"They do have a pretty good O-line, and they do run the ball well," a different personnel director says. "They see eight-man fronts. Decision-making and accuracy should be easier for him, and they had a coordinator [Greg Roman] who did a great job creating space in the run game and creating confusion, so teams were simple. When he got behind and had to read defenses, he had his struggles."
Oct. 15, 2015
The 49ers are three days removed from a 30-27 defeat to the Giants that dropped their record to 1-4 under new coach Jim Tomsula. The Fox broadcast crew mentioned on the air that Kaepernick had been more engaged the previous week. News stories written by Bay Area reporters suggest the same thing.
"I heard he walks around the building all day long with his headphones on, eats lunch with his headphones on, doesn't talk to anybody," an offensive coordinator from another team says. "Maybe they addressed it."
Tomsula announces that Blaine Gabbert will replace Kaepernick as the team's starter, one day after a 20-3 home defeat to Seattle dropped San Francisco's record to 2-5.
"I think they are catering to a traditional quarterback style with their throws, with their plays," a personnel director says. "When Kaepernick was having success, they were doing different things. They were not having him just drop back, sit in the pocket and make throws. They have gone to so much more of a classic dropback now that it doesn't matter if it was Gabbert or whoever. It is really crazy because they paid Kaepernick all that money."
With Frank Gore gone and injuries affecting Carlos Hyde and Reggie Bush, the 49ers no longer have a formidable running game to build a cocoon around the quarterback. Kaepernick will undergo surgery on his left shoulder later in the month.
"A lot can be said about the total change in offense and change in staff and change in support," a different personnel director says. "I think that is a big issue as well. You have an individual who has regressed, but there are a lot of contributing factors beyond just him getting worse."
Three months after the 49ers introduced Chip Kelly as their third head coach in three seasons, they move forward with Kaepernick on their roster after a trade never materialized. Kaepernick shows up for the offseason program and is rehabbing from January surgeries on his right thumb and left knee.
"My feeling is that their plan was to move on from Kaepernick," a team contract negotiator says. "If I am the new coach and I want Kaepernick, I don't give a s--- what happened before I got there. I sit the guy down and say, 'How can we fix this? I believe in you.' None of that has happened. And I think Chip was confident he could get a quarterback at 7 [in the draft] until the Rams moved ahead of them. Now, I think they are kind of scrambling."
Aug. 9, 2016
The 2016 Quarterback Tiers survey featuring input from 46 coaches and evaluators ranks Kaepernick 29th overall. Only Gabbert, Mark Sanchez, Robert Griffin III and Case Keenum rank lower than Kaepernick, who has dropped from 14th (2014) to 18th (2015) to 29th in the annual survey. He's a fourth-tier quarterback now. One evaluator puts him in the Sanchez category.
"Kaepernick is very disappointing, just watching him play last year," a personnel director says. "Panicky. Whether he was not comfortable in the system or whatever, he was like a guy who didn't belong at the position, like he had never seen defensive coverages before. He didn't trust in his offense, didn't trust in the line, didn't trust in his receivers, and a lot of time, he didn't trust in what his ability was."
Most insiders correctly predict that Kelly will name Gabbert the starter -- not Kaepernick.
"There is something missing there with him," an offensive coordinator says of Kaepernick. "I don't know what it is. Maybe it is the desire to play. That is the feeling that I get from watching him and when he talks about football and all you hear [around the league]. I just don't know if he loves the game, and for me, a guy who has talent like that to be so inconsistent, if he doesn't love it, he is never going to be that great. That is what I see."
Aug. 14, 2016
Kaepernick sits in protest during the national anthem before a preseason game. He will repeat this before a game six days later. The sitting goes unreported until an Aug. 26 game. Kaepernick gives a fuller accounting of his actions to NFL media after the game.
"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick says. "To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. ... If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right."
"Whether he was not comfortable in the system or whatever, he was like a guy who didn't belong at the position, like he had never seen defensive coverages before." A personnel director (August 2016)
The 49ers have fallen to 1-3 with Gabbert as their starter. Kaepernick, who appears leaner than his 230-pound listed weight, will not attempt a pass in a game for a couple more weeks. By then, Kaepernick and the 49ers will have agreed to a reworked contract that allows him to opt out of the deal after the season.
"Kaepernick looks like he is 215 pounds," a pro personnel director says.
Dec. 2, 2016
The 49ers have a 1-10 record, including 0-6 with Kaepernick. Kelly will bench him during a game at Chicago two days later. Conversations with league insiders turn to Kaepernick's future. One insider says that he could see a team such as the New York Jets giving Kaepernick a two-year deal similar to what Robert Griffin III got from the Browns. Instead, the Jets sign Josh McCown in March.
"If I am him, I'd try to stay where I'm at," this director says of Kaepernick. "He struggled a little bit. There is still the Kap who has done some good things in this league, but some of the stuff the last two seasons has not been good. Was it scheme, how they played him?"
March 1, 2017
Kaepernick opts out of his contract, allowing him to become a free agent. Reports suggest that the 49ers would have cut him if Kaepernick had not opted out. A conversation from December with a league insider suggested that there would be little interest in him.
"Who wants that headache?" a personnel director asks. "Low market."
Kaepernick ranks 30th out of 32 qualifying quarterbacks in Total QBR over the past two seasons. The market for him is indeed low. It's also low for several veteran players ranked higher than him on that QBR list. Cutler (20th) retired. Ryan Fitzpatrick (22nd) remained unsigned until recently. Brock Osweiler (23rd) was exiled to Cleveland. Still, shouldn't a player with Kaepernick's credentials have a job by now?
"I think the protest stuff gave people a little pause because anytime you did mention his name, it is a little polarizing," a personnel director says. "I think that added to it, but the tape itself wasn't as good. Now, granted, there are some lesser quarterbacks who got with teams, so [the anthem protest] had to be the reason, in my opinion, why some people shied away from him."
"I do think he is getting kind of screwed," a team exec says.
Yet, remember: Before the anthem protests, people in the league were questioning Kaepernick's commitment to the game. It has been percolating for a while.
"Although, at that time, the commitment questions were around, 'Is he so into himself?' and the other things and kissing the biceps," an exec says. "Then it became about social justice."
These things all seem connected to what people in the league have been sensing, symbolized by his wearing headphones to news conferences, appearing taciturn during interviews and generally becoming less agreeable. The anthem protest added a politically polarizing dimension.
"I don't think it is much the anthem stuff," an exec says. "You heard some stuff: Was he a worker, as is required at that position at the top level? And then, this is all kind of third-hand at best, that he was not ready to play coming off the surgeries last year and then obviously was not physically at his playing weight, his playing strength, those types things."
The coordinator who lauded Kaepernick's impeccable character in July 2014 is no longer a fan.
"I thought he was fabulous [coming out of college]," this coordinator says now. "I thought he had an 'it' factor to win a game. This was a guy I wanted. His technique was jacked up from the beginning, but as a kid, I really liked him. I bet that kid is still in there somewhere. I think he went the wrong way, and then people got mad at him for it, so he burred up his neck and dug his heels in, and now he is trying to kiss everybody's ass to get a paycheck now that he ain't getting paid, so I'm not buying any of his s---."
League insiders see Kaepernick having value in offensive systems tailored to his initial incarnation as a dynamic running threat, but they question his ability -- anyone's ability, really -- to hold up physically for the long haul in such an offense. These insiders see several other factors working against Kaepernick in combination.
"The difficulty with that guy or a quarterback with a different skill set is how you structure the offense around him if he is a [backup]," an NFL team exec says. "You have to incorporate the skills of a certain player the more he plays. The less he plays, it is harder to do that."
"You bring him in, and it is a media onslaught," a personnel director says. "It is not good or bad. It's just, every time there is a social issue or anything that comes up, they are going to call him, they are going to want his feedback. Is that wrong? No, it's not wrong. But he has thrust himself out there, much like Tim Tebow has with other various items or agendas. Is it really worth it?"
"Let's just say he's Tim Tebow," an offensive coordinator says. "Do you want that circus coming to town?"
You do if the payoff is big enough.
"There you go," the coordinator replies. "What sets him apart? ... He is not a real accurate thrower. His arm is a very strong arm, but it's not a real supple arm. Like if we are talking about Wilson, we are talking about throwing it from a number of different platforms. He can get it out sideways, over the top, can run left and throw right. I just don't see that with Kaepernick -- the greatness in his arm, aside from having a gun. That is not what you need all the time."
Bringing a Tebow-like circus to town would be worth it, and then some, if Kaepernick still projected as a starting quarterback with upside. The reality is that even before the anthem controversy, 46 league insiders voted Kaepernick the 29th-best starter -- barely ahead of Mark Sanchez, who was cut by Denver before the season.
"You watch him on tape, and he never has been able to progress," a quarterbacks coach says. "Greg Roman and Jim Harbaugh really made him. He needs to run that system. And that system lasted for two years. Washington took the idea and did it with RG III. Colin thrived in that. And then it took defenses one offseason to figure out how to shut it down. That is why you don't see it any more. You get your quarterback belted, so it just isn't a viable option. And then with Colin now, he is slimmer, and he has never been an accurate passer. You take away the element of being able to run the ball, and he can't throw it, I mean, then what do you have left? There are many other better options."