NFL.com writer Nolan Nawrocki began his scouting report with four words, “Married with a child.” An anonymous source told the Journal Sentinel’s Bob McGinn “You wonder if he can lead just because he’s a little different…OK in the interview but not the type of guy you’d have a beer with.”
Derek Carr just reset the quarterback market. He is now the highest-paid player in the NFL. Carr will make $25 million per year. Three years ago, Carr was a second-round pick who was criticised for spending too much time with his family.
NFL culture is such that players are expected to be fully focused on winning at all times. Being a football bot who powers up on Sunday morning then powers down three hours later to prepare for the following Sunday is the ideal prospect. Carr was criticized for being a normal person. Football was a part of his life but it wasn’t his life. There were legitimate football reasons for teams to pass on Carr, but part of his fall could be attributed to the perception that he wasn’t fully committed to winning.
NFL culture also means that only players are held to this standard.
When John Harbaugh and Pete Carroll called Colin Kaepernick a starting caliber quarterback before passing on the opportunity to sign him, they weren’t fully focused on winning. They were going against their own evaluations, passing on getting a second starting caliber player at the most important position in football. Teams don’t always solely focus on winning. Teams are run by a handful of individuals: the owner, the head coach, the general manager. It doesn’t take a vast number of people to decide that winning isn’t that important.
Take Mike Brown’s Cincinnati Bengals as an example. Brown just let two of his best players walk in free agency while not spending any money to improve his team. Money has always been the priority for Brown, as it is for many of the billionaires owning teams. You don’t get to the point of being able to afford an NFL team without being obsessed with making money.
When it comes to Kaepernick, owners aren’t prioritizing money over him, it’s more personal than that. They are prioritizing their own visceral reactions to his protest over their respective teams’ chances on the field.
Some teams are punishing themselves more than others.
1. Denver Broncos
Paxton Lynch and Trevor Siemian are competing for the Broncos starting spot. Lynch was selected in the first round of last year’s draft after the Broncos’ pursuit of Kaepernick failed. Ironically, Lynch came out of college as a more limited version of Kaepernick. He was a strong-armed quarterback who stared down receivers in a simple scheme and offered athletic upside. When Lynch saw the field in 2016 he was a disaster. He was so bad that Siemian held onto his job despite suffering a midseason injury while not playing particularly well.
While Gary Kubiak is gone, John Elway remains from the same regime that wanted Kaepernick on the roster last year. The common rebuttal to this is that Kubiak’s departure meant the scheme has changed. This would make sense if Kaepernick wasn’t more scheme diverse and a better fit with Mike McCoy than both Siemian and Lynch. It would also make more sense if they were moving on from Lynch, a quarterback prospect who was drafted for Kubiak’s scheme.
Kaepernick has played under three coaching staffs in three different schemes. He excelled in two of those schemes. Jim Harbaugh and Chip Kelly don’t share any philosophical elements. Harbaugh relied on hard play fakes, half-field reads and put Kaepernick under center. Kelly kept Kaepernick in shotgun and asked him to throw the ball shorter while making more reads from the pocket. After showing off a limited skill set with Harbaugh, Kaepernick showed off development in 2016 as someone who could mitigate pressure in the pocket with his movement and make good decisions breaking down different coverages.
Siemian spent most of last season struggling to see open receivers and get the ball out on time. His best plays regularly came when he reacted well to pressure and delivered the ball late or in a broken play situation. Siemian isn’t a more advanced technical passer than Kaepernick. In 2016 the Broncos quarterback threw an interceptable pass once every 25.58 attempts, Kaepernick threw one once every 47.29 attempts. Siemian was responsible for 20 percent of his sacks, Kaepernick was responsible for 12.5 percent of his.
More importantly, Siemian’s arm strength and accuracy makes it such that he isn’t a viable starter at this level. Siemian was accurate on 81.07 percent of his passes to five yards last year (30th in the league), Kaepernick was accurate on 89.71 percent of his passes to five yards (4th). Surpassed five yards, Siemian ranked 17th with 63.04 percent and Kaepernick ranked 18th with 62.87 percent.
Kaepernick is a far superior player in every way.
For the Broncos to be a Super Bowl contender their defense is always going to be the foundation of their success. The defense isn’t what it was two years ago but it is good enough to be one of the best in the league with a competent complement. The Broncos offense is built to be effective as a run-first unit. The offensive line added Ronald Leary and Garett Bolles to create space more consistently for its deep group of running backs. With Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas as one of the best receiving tandems in the league, the offense doesn’t need to go to four and five receiver sets as often.
Adding Kaepernick is the difference between giving yourself a real chance of competing in the AFC and relying on a second-year quarterback who is changing schemes for the first time and who couldn’t beat out Trevor Siemian on two separate occasions last year to give you that chance.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars
Imagine arguing that Colin Kaepernick shouldn’t be starting in a league where Blake Bortles is entering his third consecutive season as a starting quarterback. Bortles is atrocious. Even if he actually fixes his mechanics this time around (don’t bet on it) and his accuracy becomes league average, he’d still be an atrocious quarterback because he can’t read coverages and constantly runs himself into pressure/sacks.
The Jaguars have essentially admitted that Bortles isn’t capable of carrying the offense. They specifically drafted Leonard Fournette to try and hide Bortles.
Fournette is going to spend most of his time running when the quarterback is under center. This will be a change for Bortles who has spent a lot of time playing from shotgun in his career to this point. Tom Coughlin looks like he is trying to create an offense that minimizes the quarterback’s responsibility by running the ball a lot on early downs before using hard play fakes to distort coverages and create half field reads with route combinations that complement each other.
Bortles has been so bad to this point in his career that it’s hard to be optimistic about him even in that favorable style of offense. We already know that Kaepernick can thrive in that offense. We know it because it’s used as a reason to criticize him repeatedly. He needs that type of offense to succeed. Even if that was true, why not add him to a team that already plans on using that type of offense?
This brings us to the weight issue. One of the popular criticisms of Kaepernick is that he has lost weight so he can’t play the way he did early in his career. He’s not Cam Newton. If you can find a highlight of Kaepernick using his bulk to run over a defender you’re better at internetting than I am. Kaepernick never ran power play designs between the tackles. He was a read-option runner who used his greyhound like straight-line speed to accelerate into space that was created by the play designs. More often than not he searched out the sideline or got down quickly to avoid taking hits.
Having a lighter upper body won’t prevent him from making those types of plays. He ran for 468 yards last year and had the highest average of his career because he has become a better decision maker. He runs now when the defense tells him its the best decision, not when he can’t find his first read or when pressure comes in the pocket.
The Jaguars have a quarterback who has repeatedly proven he can’t run the offense as designed, who has repeatedly proven that he can’t read coverages, that he stares down receivers, that he turns the ball over too much, that he runs into sacks too often. The quarterback who doesn’t do those things is the guy they aren’t trying to sign.
An upgrade at quarterback could theoretically propel the Jaguars into the playoffs. The defense has taken legitimate steps forward over recent years. Bringing in Calais Campbell and A.J. Bouye will give the defense a legitimate chance at becoming one of the best units in the league.
None of that will matter if Bortles is the Week 1 starter.
3. Houston Texans
Regardless of who is making the decisions in Houston, it’s obvious that they can’t evaluate quarterbacks. Between Ryan Mallet, Brian Hoyer and Brock Osweiler, we had plenty of evidence of that entering this offseason. Trading away multiple first-round picks for Deshaun Watson only serves to emphasize that issue more. Watson was a mess at Clemson. He could win college games with that stacked roster because college football is such a departure from the NFL game, but his performances will need to alter completely if he is going to sustain success in the NFL.
It’s hard to know how the Texans project Watson into their offense. He’s not a refined technical passer. You don’t see him go through multiple post-snap progression reads or throw with precision and anticipation into tight windows. He relied heavily on being a power runner in college, something he’s not big enough to do in the NFL.
The Texans have a roster that is built to compete in the AFC. Besides the Falcons in the Super Bowl and the Seahawks in the regular season, they gave the Patriots their best challenge last year. With Jadeveon Clowney continuing to ascend and J.J. Watt possibly seeing the field again, even if at 70 percent of what he was before, the defense should continue to improve despite the loss of A.J. Bouye. Offensively, Braxton Miller and Will Fuller could get better to diversify the offense but even if they don’t the Texans already have one of the best running backs and one of the best receivers in the league.
With Kaepernick in the backfield, the Texans would be able to stretch opposing front sevens horizontally on every running play. Lamar Miller is one of the fastest running backs in the league. The threat of Kaepernick to hold backside defenders would create wider running lanes and cutback opportunities for Miller on every drive. Add in the presence of DeAndre Hopkins to create yards at the catch point by adjusting to off target throws and Kaepernick would have a greater margin for error than he has ever had before.
The team speed of the Texans with Kaepernick could be overwhelming. Fuller can stretch the defense vertically, Miller has the potential to win one-on-one matchups in space by creating after the catch. The Texans would be able to beat teams in different ways.
Instead they will turn to the lumbersome, technically limited Tom Savage or the rookie Watson. Assuming Watson plays more games than Savage, the Texans will be trying to take a further step in the playoffs with a player who was severely mistake prone in college and who is not only adjusting to the speed of the NFL but also adjusting to a system that is completely different to the one he ran in college.
None of the listed quarterbacks would be an ideal fit in Bill O’Brien’s offense. That is because there is no such thing as an ideal fit when it comes to O’Brien. O’Brien expects his quarterbacks to execute straight drops and read isolation routes downfield from sideline-to-sideline more often than any other coach. He doesn’t emphasize screens or play designs that make the quarterback’s coverage read easier. Hard play fakes aren’t used to distort coverages either.
The chances of Watson not being completely overwhelmed in this system are low. For a roster that is built to compete right now, waiting around for a rookie quarterback is a problem. Kaepernick has already gone to a Super Bowl with a team that had constructed a similar identity. He has already played in multiple schemes and been effective in multiple schemes. It would have been much easier for him to transition into this role.
It’s not like Watson offers a higher upside than Kaepernick either. His skill set is being misrepresented because of the success his team had at the college level.
4. New York Jets
On the precipice of the playoffs in 2015, Ryan Fitzpatrick imploded during a Week 17 game against the Buffalo Bills. It was the perfect way to capture that season for the Jets. The Jets roster was built to contend for the Super Bowl that season. Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker were exceptionally good. Chan Gailey built a perfect offense to get the most out of the rest of the offense. The defense ranked fifth in DVOA, first in run defense DVOA.
Fitzpatrick was the reason they were fighting for a playoff spot in the first place, so it was fitting that he was the reason they never earned one.
Being that NFL teams are consistently incapable of evaluating quarterback play, the Jets sat through that season and felt enthused. They felt like they were going in the right direction and that Fitzpatrick was a big reason for their successful season. They didn’t recognise that their season had been an utter failure and Fitzpatrick was the dead weight preventing the rest of the roster from realizing its true potential. Even average quarterback play would have put them in the playoffs that year.
The Jets roster is no longer as talented as it was back then. Marshall was released, so was Decker. Darrelle Revis went from being still a good starter to a liability over the course of 12 months. At this point of the offseason the Jets are in position to spend time rebuilding rather than trying to compete. That didn’t need to be the direction of their offseason though.
Marshall could have been kept, so could Decker. Instead of giving Josh McCown $9 million to take snaps from Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty on the most confused quarterback depth chart in the league, the Jets could have signed Kaepernick with the same money to be their starter. Kaepernick would have diversified the offense, opening up the running game while re-energizing Marshall with better downfield accuracy. He would have given that offense an opportunity to be close to average so with a few more additions on either side of the ball they could have been more competitive.
Instead the Jets now have an offense that resembles the one the 49ers had last year. The 49ers just had more recognizable names. Maybe if the Jets were undertaking a tanking effort by making smart moves the decision to pass on Kaepernick for McCown wouldn’t look so egregious, but that wasn’t an option for Woody Johnson.
5. San Francisco 49ers
Brian Hoyer keeps getting jobs in spite of his play. Since leaving the Patriots five years ago, Hoyer has been signed by six teams. Not a single team kept him passed one season. The idea of Hoyer in the NFL is more appealing than the reality. Yet here we are again. This time he’s reuniting with Kyle Shanahan, Hoyer completed 55 percent of his passes while throwing 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions when he last played for Shanahan. Those numbers flattered him.
By moving on from Kaepernick the 49ers created another problem on a roster that has more problems than pieces to build on. It would be one thing to move on from Kaepernick to draft a top prospect but that’s not what the 49ers did. They moved on to Kaepernick so they could downgrade at the position in the short term with a player who offers no potential to be a quality long term starter.
Sure, Kaepernick was the one who opted out of his contract, but that was because the 49ers were going to release him. The franchise hasn’t shown any interest in bringing him back.
The 49ers weren’t going to become a Super Bowl contender or even a playoff team in 2017 with Kaepernick as their starter, the roster is simply too far away to expect that. He would have offered stability at the most important position as they look to develop an offense and team that can grow into a contender in the future. It’s why they added Pierre Garcon and retained Joe Staley, you need pieces that give the franchise some kind of direction as younger players develop.
Signing Garcon, retaining Staley, signing Dumervil, signing Jusczysk, even signing Hoyer himself tells you that the 49ers aren’t trying to completely bottom out. This isn’t an all-out tanking effort, so why acquire the clearly inferior starting quarterback?
There are other teams who should be desperate to sign Kaepernick. Some of those teams already have a good enough quarterback to start ahead of him, but his value as a backup is huge when you look at the landscape of backup quarterbacks across the league. It takes a rare scenario for a quarterback of this caliber to be available in March not least in late June.
Kaepernick’s career is probably over. It’s over because owners don’t only care about winning even if that’s what they try to sell their fanbases on.