Rejoice, sports-talk radio hosts of America. There’s a chance that Colin Kaepernick, the most controversial quarterback in America, is coming to your city. He’s opting out of his contract with the 49ers and becoming a free agent, potentially giving you hours and hours of material.
At first glance, Kaepernick is taking a foolish risk. He signed a $126 million contract in 2014; now he’s ditching the last few years of that, despite going 1–10 as a starter in 2016 while espousing political views that a team might not want from its QB.
However, as Deadspin explained, Kaepernick’s $126 million contract was never really worth $126 million. Even when he first signed the deal, most of the money was guaranteed only in the event of an injury, meaning that as long as he stayed healthy, the team was free to cut him at any time with no financial drawbacks. But even that mild guarantee seemed to frighten the 49ers: They didn’t start Kaepernick last year until the week he restructured his contract to remove all future guarantees, taking them off the hook even if he did suffer a disastrous injury.
Even with Chip Kelly, a coach whose past successes indicated he should have loved working with a speed-oriented QB like Kaepernick, the team appeared to fear the possibility of being saddled with paying him long term. So after the team purged its front office and coaching staff, Kaepernick’s future became even less steady. While new coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch said they’d be open to keeping Kaepernick, it’s likely they’re searching for a new franchise QB for Shanahan to turn into the next Matt Ryan. If they would have found their guy, they probably would have cut Kaepernick instead of paying him $17 million to be a backup.
Kaepernick was the last remaining link to a time when the 49ers were good. But that era ended with the departure of Jim Harbaugh and subsequent hirings of auto mechanic Jim Tomsula and failed football revolutionary Kelly. The future of the franchise stopped featuring Kaepernick a couple of seasons ago, and he’s smart to get out of his own accord rather than become a casualty of a rebuild. If he were to stick around, the Niners might hold on to him until after the league’s quarterbacking opportunities were filled.
Now, Kaepernick is not the league-changing player it seemed like he might be in 2012, when he led the 49ers to a Super Bowl appearance.
But the 49ers didn’t go 1–10 with Kaepernick because of his poor play. They went 1–10 because of their league-worst defense — they gave up 30 points per game! — and an offense nearly devoid of talent. Kaepernick’s receiving corps was Jeremy Kerley, Quinton Patton, and a shadow of Torrey Smith.
All things considered, Kaepernick played well in 2016. He finished in the middle of the pack as a passer: 16th in adjusted yards per attempt, which was better than two Pro Bowl quarterbacks; 17th in QB rating; and 13th in touchdown percentage. Plus, he avoided picks, throwing 16 touchdowns against just four interceptions. And his running capability is still the best of any QB in the league. He finished second in total rushing among quarterbacks despite starting just 11 games, and posted the best yards per carry of any player with at least 50 carries.
He’s an average passing quarterback, which makes him a precious commodity. I mean, Brock Osweiler made more money this year than I will receive in my entire life on the hopes that he could approach average quarterback play despite little evidence that he could. (He couldn’t.)
Before Kaepernick opted out, Bleacher Report ranked the best available free-agent quarterbacks and put Mike Glennon second. Mike Glennon. And they weren’t necessarily wrong! Teams in need of a quarterback have a few options — taking a flyer on Tony Romo, waiting to see what happens with Jay Cutler or Tyrod Taylor, using a first-round draft pick on a questionable prospect like Mitch Trubisky — but Kaepernick is one of the most reasonable options available.
NFL owners might be disconcerted by Kaepernick’s activism, but the one thing they find even more disconcerting is losing. His refusal to stand for the national anthem has been called a “distraction” thousands of times, but Kaepernick didn’t cause locker-room strife — his teammates gave him a dang award. He didn’t get into any off-field trouble — instead, he donated a million of his own dollars to charity. And through it all, he remained focused on football. He continued to fight for victories until Week 17 even though his team’s season was doomed by a horribly incompetent front office.
If anything, Kaepernick was a model football citizen last year, and even the most staunchly conservative front office should be able to see that. Regardless of whether or not NFL teams believe Kaepernick deserves a platform, he’s good enough at football that he’ll probably get one.