Much has changed over the past 12 months for former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. What has not changed is the way NFL coaches and evaluators view him as a player -- one notable takeaway from my fourth annual QB Tiers survey.
Kaepernick scored almost exactly the same this summer as he did one year ago, before his national anthem protests and statements about police created sufficient controversy for Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti to ask fans for their prayers as the team debated whether to sign the QB.
The 2017 QB Tiers survey asked 50 coaches and evaluators to place 36 quarterbacks in one of five performance tiers, with Tier 1 signifying the best and Tier 5 the worst. Kaepernick came in 29th with a 3.88 average, placing him ahead of six potential starters. The 2016 QB Tiers poll, conducted before Kaepernick's first anthem protest, had him 28th, with a 3.83 average.
The coming weekend marks one year since Kaepernick first sat for a pregame anthem (he later knelt for them). Kaepernick opted out of his contract nearly five months ago and has remained unsigned, leading some to accuse the NFL of blacklisting him.
Here are five takeaways from my conversations this offseason with QB Tiers voters, a group that included nine general managers, 13 coordinators, six personnel directors, five other executives, five head coaches, seven other assistant coaches, three analytics directors and two national scouts:
Takeaway No. 1: Kaepernick would be on a roster right now if he were a similarly talented player at a different position
A long and growing list of players have declined to stand for pregame anthems. As the Fort Worth Star-Telegram detailed, nearly all of them remain on rosters. RB Arian Foster retired. That leaves Kaepernick, the only quarterback to use the anthem as a protest vehicle.
"Another guy at another position exercises that same right, he probably doesn't get the same feedback as the guy who is supposed to be the All-American guy at quarterback," a personnel director said. "I don't think that should have kept him from getting a job or coming in and competing. He made his statement, he was recognized for making that statement, and some people jumped on board with him and others were against his stance, but he made his point. Now you move on to the next thing."
It hasn't worked out that way so far.
"It is really not about his ability," an exec said. "It's about the risk of what happens to the team concept when you sign a guy -- a quarterback -- who has put his personal agenda ahead of what we are all charged to do, which is put the team first. As a team builder, I cannot risk that happening again, especially for a borderline starter who needs the entire offense catered to his style.
"Tom Brady or Philip Rivers would never consider making a stand on something like that, and it's just because it's not the place. I don't disparage what he did. I understand and I'm all for people standing up for a cause, just not while they're at work."
A personnel director said he agrees with Seahawks CB Richard Sherman's take, that Kaepernick is unsigned because teams want to keep players in their place.
"I think Kaepernick refuses to not be himself, in a way," this director said.
Takeaway No. 2: Some in the league question whether Kaepernick is serious about continuing his career in the NFL
These questions arose before Kaepernick first protested during the anthem. An offensive coordinator quoted in the 2016 QB Tiers survey said watching Kaepernick talk about football made him think something was missing and that the QB may have lost the desire to play. This was after reports surfaced that suggested Kaepernick had become increasingly distant.
A 2017 QB Tiers voter raised similar questions this offseason.
"Everyone else is worried about him working, but I never hear him say how much he wants to work," this voter said. "That hits a chord. People want to hear, 'I want to work in the league, I want to work for you, I want to do this more than anything.' It's like with Tim Tebow -- he'd rather be on the outside switching sports than be relegated to the [third team] and getting 20 percent of the reps."
Takeaway No. 3: What Pete Carroll said sounded weird, but there was something to it
Carroll said his Seahawks passed on signing Kaepernick as a backup in part because Kaepernick was better-suited to being a starter. But wait, wouldn't every team want a starting-caliber player in a backup role? The answer is not always yes when it comes to quarterbacks.
The Dolphins were content going into the season with No. 2 quarterback Matt Moore as a supportive mentor and sounding board for Ryan Tannehill. That didn't mean Moore was their second choice to start all season if an injury struck down Tannehill; in fact, the Dolphins signed Jay Cutler to be their starter after losing Tannehill. Instead, it meant the Dolphins preferred the Tannehill-Moore dynamic as long as Tannehill was starting. The same was true in Minnesota when Shaun Hill was the backup for Teddy Bridgewater. The minute Bridgewater suffered a catastrophic injury, the Vikings traded for Sam Bradford.
No. 2 quarterbacks are not necessarily the 33rd-ranked through 64th-ranked quarterbacks in the world, in other words. They are frequently developmental draft choices or supportive veteran backups with no future starting prospects.
"As far as his prospects as a backup, I don't think he is being blackballed in terms of rich white owners saying, 'We are not hiring this guy,'" a defensive coordinator said. "I think coaches are like, 'Look, if this kid is not starting for us, why are you bringing in distractions not for a starter? We have a pretty good sort of locker room and mesh here. What is the risk-reward?' I don't think anyone is to the point of making him the starter, and that is the bubble he is getting caught in."
Takeaway No. 4: Skill set is a factor
Many voters said they see Kaepernick as a Tier 3 player in a system designed for him, and a Tier 4-5 player outside that framework. They also said teams won't tailor their offenses for Kaepernick if he is only a backup.
"I like the arm strength and I like the athleticism, but the worst thing that happened with him was when people tried to make him a pocket passer," a personnel director said. "He is much better when he can waggle or boot and do some of those things."
Takeaway No. 5: This situation is simple and complicated at once
Simple because, bottom line, Kaepernick would have a job if there were no protest element. Complicated, because there are additional factors narrowing the chances that Kaepernick will sign.
"I do not think he is done," a head coach without a quarterback opening said. "I think he can still play. He is awkward. People want a certain look."