San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has led his team to a Super Bowl appearance and two straight NFC Championship games in less than two full seasons as a starter. His career record of 21-8 includes three road playoff victories, which is more than Joe Montana and Steve Young had combined in their Hall of Fame careers.
The Niners have made it known that extending Kaepernick will be a high priority prior to his rookie contract expiring after the 2014 season, but it would benefit the team to take the wait and see approach before finalizing a deal with the young signal-caller.
The main reason the 49ers should wait on Kaepernick’s deal is simply because they don’t quite know what they have in him yet. Kaepernick’s first full season as a starter in 2013 was a classic case of a young quarterback going through a learning curve. His 412-yard, three touchdown Week 1 performance against the Green Bay Packers appeared to be an aberration as Kaepernick fell into a slump shortly thereafter.
From Weeks 2-10, Kaepernick would only complete 53.7 percent of his passes and average a league low 154 yards passing a game. He would throw seven of his season total of eight interceptions during this span to go along with eight touchdowns passes. The 49ers, in turn, struggled to find their way and lost four of the nine games.
Kaepernick did turn his season around, raising his completion percentage to 61.8 percent and yards per game to 232 as the 49ers ran off six straight victories to end the season. Kaepernick’s hot play continued for most of the playoffs until he hit a wall in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship game, turning the ball over three times in the final 10 minutes of the fourth quarter.
When looking at the season as a whole, the stats tell the story of a team trying to minimize their quarterback and center the offensive game plan around their running game. The 49ers attempted the fewest passes of any team in the NFL (417) and had the fewest first downs via the pass (148). For quarterbacks who started at least 15 games, Kaepernick’s completion percentage of 58.4 was the third-lowest in the NFL and his 3,197 yards passing was second from the bottom.
While Kaepernick has played well overall and has a high ceiling, the 49ers have to ask themselves if they can still be as successful paying him the going rate for franchise quarterbacks ($18-$20 million per year). He hasn’t shown himself to be the kind of quarterback who can win games on his own with his arm on a consistent basis like a Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. Kaepernick may still need a strong roster around him, which would be difficult to maintain if he is given a raise that would inflate his salary to roughly 14 percent of the team’s salary cap.
In the end, the 49ers may have no choice but to pay Kaepernick, but the smart move would be to see how 2014 plays out and then revisit the contract during the season. If Kaepernick takes a step forward in 2014, the team would feel better about committing so much money and so many years to their quarterback. If he struggles, San Francisco still has to option to franchise Kaepernick which would give him more time to develop without hurting their cap situation long term.