Over the last two seasons there has probably been no bigger disappointment in the NFL at the quarterback position than 49ers starter Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick’s team nearly won a Super Bowl in 2012 and was close to returning in 2013. Kaepernick was rewarded with a contract extension that would pay him $19 million a season with the upside potential to earn more based on performance. Since that time his efficiency has crashed and in the last two weeks his play looks like that of a rookie who has never player in the NFL before. With questions circulating about his future let’s look at his contract and the 49ers options moving forward.
Kaepernick may have been the first quarterback in the NFL to receive a contract of this magnitude off such a small sample size of play. Kaepernick, at the time of extension, had only started 23 regular season games. The closest comparison I can think of for a player earning a large (for the time) contract was Chad Pennington in 2004 of the Jets who received around $9 million a year off just 21 games. Players like this are often hard to gauge because of that small sample of games.
Kaepernick’s case was similar to Pennington’s in that he was a replacement for an existing starter. Kaepernick’s style of play was a complete departure from that of Alex Smith and Kaepernick took to the league by storm, throwing for around 230 yards per game and being dangerous with his legs. His style of play was reminiscent of Mike Vick in his heyday with the Falcons, except Kaepernick looked to be a much more accurate passer. Kaepernick wasn’t as effective in 2013 as 2012, but the team was dominant and they made a big playoff run.
In general teams adjust to the way a player plays once they gain more and more footage on the player. Over the same period the young players usually improve as well to mitigate that, but this is the danger of a contract for the small sample player. Kaepernick is still the same athlete he was before he signed the big contract. The problem is that while the league has adjusted he seemingly has not grown as a player. With his team falling apart around him due to poor drafting, age, and unexpected retirements every flaw is now magnified 100x.
Luckily for San Francisco they seemingly took this into account when they signed him to his mega extension following the 2013 season. Kaepernick was the first ‘big money” quarterback to essentially get nothing in the way of real guarantees. The 49ers hedging of their bets on Kaepernick was clear in the miniscule signing bonus he received. Signing bonus money and fully guaranteed salary is what helps protect a player from release both from cap consequences due to acceleration of money and the mental impact of sinking so much cash into a player and then releasing him. Here is how Kaepernick compares to many of the other “big money” players at the position.
The only other quarterback to receive such a low number was Jay Cutler, who received no signing bonus but instead received a massive guarantee that was essentially the same as earning in the ballpark of a $20 signing bonus.
Kaepernick’s guarantee structure is very team friendly. Most of the players on this list had injury protected salaries that would all vest on the 3rd day of the League year, in the season after signing. Smith, for example, would have $45 million truly guaranteed by the 2015 free agent period. Kaepernick would only have about $23 million guaranteed that same season.
Kaepernick has vesting guarantees that don’t kick in until April 1 of each year, a very late date in the NFL vesting calendar. This gives San Francisco ample time to identify free agent targets, scout draft prospects, and talk trades without having to worry about being stuck with a quarterback they no longer want. This is very different than other players whose salaries lock in during February and March, such as Brees’ 2016 salary.
Moving Kaepernick before April 1 of next season would save the team $9.36 million in cap room and $14.3 million in salary. While that is a hefty number it is possible, given the payscale of the position that they would consider keeping him if no other option exists. His salary escalates to $16.9 million in 2017, which would require far better play to justify.
Kaepernick does have massive injury guarantees in his contract. The $61 million in injury protection is real and, if things spiral out of control, could play a similar role in what seems to be happening in Washington with Robert Griffin III. Though Kaepernick is not injury prone like RGIII there may come a point where the team want’s to see Blaine Gabbert take some snaps to not only better decide if they should pay Kaepernick $14.3 million but to also keep him healthy while they sort through the quarterback position. The only negative in that is benching Kaepernick would hurt his trade value so it would be best for some minor injury to allow them to deactivate him rather than an outright benching.
Of course if Kaepernick play’s better in the next weeks this discussion will quickly die down, and he’ll be a 49er for the next few seasons. But the way the 49ers set up his contract he is by no means safe to hold the job anytime past 2015.