I’ve debated on writing about Colin Kaepernick for a few weeks now because everyone pulls to one extreme or the other when talking about him, but I’ve gotten more than enough questions on him where I figured I would talk about it a bit. We are now at the end of May and Kaepernick still doesn’t have a job. There are many who feel that Kaepernick is being blackballed because of his refusal to stand for the national anthem last summer. Others claim he simply isn’t good enough to play in the NFL.
First of all it’s naïve to say that Kaepernick’s protest last year did not have an impact on his free agency potential. This is the NFL and in the NFL every little thing about a player is taken into consideration. We see that every year in the NFL draft when players are put under a microscope and the slightest little thing may turn a team off from the player. Giants owner John Mara, in an article on MMQB, said how he received much negative mail on the protest, so I’d say it’s pretty clear that his protest is part of the evaluation process.
Also it’s just as naïve to say that outright that he isn’t good enough to play in the NFL. The talent at the QB position is incredibly scarce and if you are willing to play as a second stringer you can last in the NFL for a long time. That is how you can explain players like Matt Cassel, Matt Schaub, Mark Sanchez, Matt Moore, Josh McCown, Ryan Fitzpatrick and countless others having a job year after year.
That said I think making the leap to being blackballed is a pretty big one. In recent years I can only think of two players who were probably blackballed from the NFL, Ray Rice and Greg Hardy. In no way am I comparing the situations it’s just two players who probably had the talent to play in the NFL but became toxic because of their off field issues, in this case both dealing with domestic abuse charges.
Hardy, and to a lesser extent Mike Vick years earlier, are good examples of the way teams view many of these issues. In general the more talent and upside a player has the more likely they are to turn a blind eye to anything negative no matter how bad the person. Hardy was surprisingly given a chance by the Cowboys while Vick signed with the Eagles shortly after being reinstated to the NFL. Both saw their careers go in dramatically different directions.
Hardy was a disaster from day 1. Not only did fans dislike him but there were plenty of teammates that had issues with him as well. Hardy finished his audition season with 23 tackles and 6 sacks, which were not awful numbers but a far cry from his 40 tackle, 15 sack season just two years earlier. Vick was met with protests, many of which carried through his career, but in 2010 salvaged the Eagles season and led the team to the playoffs. Hardy, who looked relatively average, was deemed to be too much trouble for the potential reward and has never been asked back to the NFL. Vick signed a massive contract extension despite the protests and played through 2015.
Kaepernick’s play has not allowed teams to completely look past the fact that signing him could be an issue with members of their fanbase, get negative press from certain media outlets, or lead to other distractions with constant questions about him. Kaepernick has been benched at times in each of the last two seasons, seen three head coaches be fired, while leading his team to a 3-16 record as a starter since 2015. Is the reward there? I think that is arguable.
Jay Cutler, who has all the physical traits teams look for in a quarterback, didn’t get a look either. Cutler had issues beyond the football field. He has a reputation for not being a great teammate, a good leader, or a decent presence in a locker room. The reward wasn’t there with him. Everything adds up in the decision making process for these teams. It always has. Cutler has now decided to pursue a broadcasting career.
I was not as surprised as most when Kaepernick did not get a big contract in the first run in free agency. In the NFL, especially at Kaepernick’s position, sometimes less is more when it comes to contracts. It is very understandable for someone to look at the contract of Brock Osweiler or Mike Glennon and say that it is ridiculous that Kaepernick was not signed. It’s also fair to look at a guy like Sam Bradford making a killing on pay day and a team being willing to trade a first rounder for him and wonder how is Kaepernick unemployed.
Unfortunately that is just how these things work. The NFL pays this position as much on potential as anything else. Kaepernick will be 30 years old and is still going to be looked at as a developmental prospect by many teams and that is an age, even at the QB position, where teams usually don’t go overboard for a player based on potential alone. The other players are 2 years younger than Kaepernick and their passing stats in their best years, prorated for a full 16 games, compare to Kaepernicks’s when the 49ers did make a big investment in him.
Kaepernick has not advanced beyond those numbers (he’s slightly trailing) which, at 30, makes him less desirable than the 28 year old that hasn’t gotten a chance to fail/fail to improve. That’s not to say that either of those two players are better than he is, it’s just to give a little context as to why they received the contracts that they did receive and why it was always unlikely for Kaepernick to score that kind of contract.
That said I certainly think it is odd that Kaepernick is not with a team. Perhaps I overvalued him at $7 million, which is the salary normally paid to a player competing for a starting job, but teams are generally willing to take a name as a backup for a few million. Some of this is probably Kaepernick being a bad victim of circumstance.
Many teams around the NFL would likely have never considered Kaepernick in the first place because of their own team situation. Perhaps there was a mishandling by Kaepernick’s agents. I would have assumed that Kaepernick wanted to play for a team where he could compete for a starting job. Going into the offseason the teams that would have matched that criteria (other than the 49ers who were ready to move on) were the Jets, Browns, Texans, and Bears. I would not have expected any of the other teams in the NFL to have initiated any talks with him regardless because it would be a waste of their time if they believed that Kaepernick had a chance for a starting job. That could have potentially been avoided if early on it was known that Kaepernick was willing to take on a different role.
This scenario in and of itself is not unique to just Kaepernick. Last offseason Ryan Fitzpatrick, off a very good year with the Jets, did not field any serious interest from any team in the NFL. Fitzpatrick could play the position, but teams knew he had no interest in returning to a competing role and that he wanted to return to the Jets. It would have been a waste of time for anyone to contact him. Somehow the Jets still paid him a mini fortune in July, but that’s a topic for another day.
The Bears went with Glennon and as I said before it’s understandable, even if it’s probably going to be one of the worst signings of the year. It’s that known vs unknown thing, plus Kaepernick’s “audition game” against the Bears was pretty bad. The other three teams are a different story.
Each of those teams was desperate for a quarterback. The Texans were holding out hope for Tony Romo but they seemingly had no interest in Kaepernick once that ship sailed. The Jets opted for Josh McCown while the Browns did nothing, unless you count trying and failing to flip Brock Osweiler as doing something substantial. Those three teams would be the perfect fit for a $7 million type QB that might be capable of starting.
When we talk about blackballing a player we are talking 32 teams deciding amongst themselves that they won’t touch a certain player. At least for that first wave of free agency we are only talking of maybe 5 teams that could have shown interest. I think there is a strong argument that could be made that those teams didn’t want Kaepernick in large part because of his protest, but that isn’t 32 teams.
Right now we are at a point where every time a team signs a backup QB Kaepernick becomes a story again. In some cases, like the recent signing of Fitzpatrick in Tampa Bay, that’s a viable story to wonder why someone would take one over the other, but in others, like Blaine Gabbert being a camp arm hoping to make a team with a strong showing, it’s not a reasonable comparison. There is really no reason that Kaepernick should settle for a 3rd string contract.
Just based on the way that the NFL works I don’t think you can get too wrapped up in him not having a contract until July. There are a few issues at play here that have to do with the salary cap. Barring an injury Kaepernick, at this point, is most likely not going to compete for a starting spot and is looking at landing a more traditional backup role. Given his skillset it would be likely that he would opt for free agency after just one season so odds are his cap number and cash salary will be equal unless a team gets into the Saints “void year for all” contract strategy. That number should be around $4 million.
Most backup QB’s also receive contracts that have large incentives that kick in if the player goes from backup to starter. Usually the bigger the name the bigger the incentives. Because Kaepernick played so much last year it will be hard for all incentives to not count on the cap this year unless they were tied to his being in the playoffs. Some incentives are always tied to that but some should be placed on more traditional things like yards or snap counts. You could be looking at a bigger cap charge closer to $7 million based on his play last year.
There are a few teams that could use Kaepernick in a backup role where $4 million would be problematic. Those teams include the Cowboys, Rams, Lions, and Ravens. It could also make things tight for the Seahawks and Bills if the numbers are bigger.
So really we have two dates to look at when it comes to Kaepernick. On June 2nd the cap accounting rules change and the Cowboys, Lions, and Bills all would pick up cap room and make things more reasonable for offering a contract. The next date would be around July 27 which is when most teams begin training camp. Many teams kind of go on vacation in June and get back to work in early July signing extensions and making cap related decisions. For some teams that is when the money would open up for Kaepernick. I think after both dates if he is not in the NFL then there is a far bigger case for his being blackballed.
For whatever reason there are some who write/talk about Kaepernick as if he needs this incredibly strong locker room to fit in. That’s nonsense and if that’s a line being fed by management that’s just wrong. Kaepernick wasn’t a drug abuser, in trouble with the law, fighting with teammates, etc… I don’t believe there are many people in the league that took major issue with his demonstration and many people supported it. If anything Kaepernick became more popular with his teammates in San Francisco when in the past he may not have been. If those are reasons teams are really avoiding him then they are just making excuses.
Will Kaepernick bring distractions to a team? I think it depends on the market and the QB situation. There are many people who disagreed with Kaepernick’s protest. Does that lead to negative campaigns against the team? How often are players, coaches and team officials going to be asked about him not standing (if he opts to kneel again, which he said he will not)? Does it end in the preseason, week 1, or does it go all season long if fans don’t take to him? If he is not playing what kind of questions will be asked as to why? I tend to think most of it dies down relatively quickly, but I also lived through Tim Tebow in NY and the tip toeing around him went on almost all season.
If Kaepernick still fails to get a contract by the start of camp then I would say that there is something more going on around the league. It is, in my opinion, impossible for 32 teams to all just say they have no place for him as a backup for their team. He has too much talent at a position where teams overpay year after year. But until that point we should all wait and see.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.