At first glance, it appeared that quarterback Colin Kaepernick flat out robbed the San Francisco 49ers by inking a contract extension said to be worth up to $126 million with $61 million guaranteed.
Those astronomical figures would make Kaepernick, a player who has participated in some big games on a great team but has yet to validate himself as one of the league’s best, the richest quarterback in NFL history by guaranteed dough. However, dig a little deeper, as Pro Football Talk did on Wednesday, and it’s clear that the 49ers may have been the ones conducting a robbery.
While the deal is technically worth $61 million guaranteed, only a little over $13 million of it will be guaranteed upon the signing. That’s because Kaepernick’s base salaries over the next four seasons and some of his pay in 2018 are just guaranteed for injury. Only after April 1 of each year does his salary become fully guaranteed.
Essentially, that means the 49ers can choose to cut ties with Kaepernick in advance of April 1 in any season until 2018 and at any point in the subsequent seasons. Kaepernick was set to enter 2014 on a one-year deal before the extension. Nothing has really changed from that perspective. If he struggles, there’s no guarantee he’ll still be the 49ers’ starting quarterback in 2015, much less on the roster.
Beginning next offseason, the 49ers will possess the luxury of deciding on Kaepernick’s status every spring. If he blossoms into the duel-threat star San Francisco envisions, he’ll stick around. If he has difficulty ever solidifying himself as a consistent player while attempting to strike up the right balance to beat opponents with his arm and legs, the 49ers can move on with limited ramifications if need be.
Without a doubt, Kaepernick is rolling the dice here. He’s willing to wager that his play won’t taper off at any point from now through 2020. It’s the ultimate incentive-laced contract, with no room for complacency.
Don’t get me wrong, Kaepernick still cashed in with a big payday. Seeing as his base salary jumped from under $1 million per year to well over $10 million annually is quite the feat for a quarterback who’s only played three seasons and has yet erase all doubt about his prospects of emerging as elite. And it’s not like the 49ers are looking for an easy way out of their commitment to Kaepernick. They’ve provided themselves with one, but obviously still believe he’s franchise-quarterback material.
Misleading deal or not, they had no incentive to lock him up long term if they didn’t believe he was the answer. Obviously, GM Trent Baalke and company have reservations. They wouldn’t have been so diligent in constructing an annual exit strategy if that wasn’t the case.
A quarterback of Kaepernick’s mold has yet to display the consistency and durability necessary to hold down a starting spot for years. Running quarterbacks are frequently exposed to possible injury and typically lack the pocket-passing prowess to become an unstoppable force like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees have been for so long.
That doesn’t mean Kaepernick can’t change how the quarterback position is perceived with a lengthy, successful career playing his game. But it does signify that he comes with a buyer beware stigma until himself or another high-volume runner emerges as a truly elite quarterback for an extended period.
Even if the 49ers deem Kaepernick the right man for the job at the conclusion of every season from now until 2020, they’ve also instituted some clauses in the deal to potentially reduce how much they actually pay.
Up to $12 million can be withheld from Kaepernick if he doesn’t play at least 80 percent of the offense’s snaps and the 49ers don’t reach the Super Bowl or Kaepernick isn’t named a first or second-team All-Pro in at least one year of the deal. Frequent runners typically sustain injuries throughout the course of a season, and Kaepernick can be stripped of $125,000 for every game missed due to injury beginning in 2015.
The contract, on its surface, has the appearance of a major win for Kaepernick. The fine print, however, reveals something else.
The 49ers had to pay Kaepernick substantially more than they were to keep him around, but allowing themselves so much flexibility while doing so set the bar for team-friendly quarterback contracts.
It’s a decent deal for Kaepernick. It’s a great deal for the 49ers.
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