How Kaepernick can improve with Warner

Colin Kaepernick will be working with former MVP and Super Bowl champion Kurt Warner this offseason in Arizona to improve his skills. We offer up some ideas on where he can improve the most.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Colin Kaepernick will be spending his offseason working with two-time MVP quarterback Kurt Warner in Phoenix, Ariz., as first reported by the Sacramento Bee.

Along with Warner, Kaepernick will study the position with quarterback coach Dennis Gile, who has experience in the NFL, Canadian Football League and the Arena League.

This offseason marks the first time Kaepernick has elected to do quarterback-specific work over general football training. He spent last offseason in Miami at Bommarito Performance Systems, as recommended native Floridians by Frank Gore and Anquan Boldin.

But after a disappointing 8-8 season where the offense failed to live up to expectations, leading to the organization parting ways with head coach Jim Harbaugh, it became clear Kaepernick needed to improve on the nuances and mechanics of the position. Those changes will be easier to make in the offseason than during the regular year.

“You still watch mechanics, what you can do better, but it’s more of a week-to-week basis,” Kaepernick said Dec. 23. “It’s hard to break habits in season. You don’t want to completely try to change something because it can throw off everything else you’re doing.”

Kaepernick will be spending his time at EXOS (formerly Athletes performance), along with teammates Quinton Patton, Bruce Ellington and Bruce Miller, according to CSN Bay Area. Warner will work with Kaepernick directly a couple of days each week while also grooming NFL draft hopefuls. That work is expected to conclude April 4, when San Francisco begins the start of its offseason program back in Santa Clara.

Steve Young and Trent Dilfer are also expected to work with Kaepernick, according to CSN Bay Area's report.

Kaepernick’s athleticism has never been questioned. His ability to break big plays, particularly in the read-option in 2012, led to his quick rise to stardom during the team’s run to the Super Bowl.

But as the sample size has grown, teams have figured out Kaepernick’s strengths and weaknesses. Defenses began spying Kaepernick with linebackers, while defensive lines focused on maintaining gap integrity while rushing the passer. Ultimately, it prevented Kaepernick from breaking big plays with his legs at the same rate he did earlier in his career.

Behind an offensive line that struggled with cohesion the entire season, Kaepernick was the second-most sacked quarterback in the league (behind Jaguars rookie Blake Bortles), while setting a new franchise record of 52.

The 49ers finished with the NFL’s 21st ranked offense, averaging 327 yards per game behind the 30th-ranked passing attack.

So what areas can Kaepernick stand to improve the most? We’ll offer up a few.

Pocket Presence

The pocket is a chaotic place. And the league’s best quarterbacks are able to stay calm while being rushed from multiple angles. The key is being able to stay in a good throwing position while keeping your eyes down the field and avoiding the rush at the same time.

It’s a difficult thing do to, particularly for a quarterback like Kaepernick that wasn’t asked to do much throwing from the pocket during his time at Nevada.

Instinctually, when Kaepernick feels pressure, his first move is to bring his eyes down and try to make a play with his legs. It would often lead to giving up his reads down field too early, running right into a spying linebacker or defensive lineman keen on not letting Kaepernick get up field.

The best quarterbacks make very subtle movements within the pocket to avoid the rush while keeping their eyes down field - and only leave the pocket if it’s the last available option. According to Pro Football Focus, Kaepernick was allowed an average of 2.96 seconds to throw from the pocket, the third-highest number for quarterbacks that took half their team’s snaps. His high sack total wasn’t just on the offensive line.

It wasn’t that Kaepernick was incapable of making the right reads, it’s that he gave up on them too soon and too often, perhaps having too much faith in his legs to bail him out. It will be a tough habit to break.

Manipulating the defense

Quarterback is an incredibly powerful position. When done correctly, a quarterback can use his powers to dictate where defenders go in order to create throwing lanes and open up windows for his receivers.

These skills are subtle, just like being able to move within the pocket to avoid pressure. Simple pump fakes or looking safeties off with his eyes are two things Kaepernick could do more to help his receivers get open that he struggled with in 2014.

Kaepernick did not utilize pump fakes effectively, allowing defensive backs to jump on his throws once he began his elongated delivery (which could also use some shortening). His interception he threw to Bears’ safety Chris Conte in Week 2 was a classic example.

Kaepernick stared at Boldin, who was running down the right seam, once he got the snap, allowing Conte the time to make a diving interception. Had Kaepernick looked left for a beat or two before looking back to Boldin, it could have been a big play putting the 49ers in plus territory.

San Francisco lacked receivers with the speed to separate from defenders, magnifying Kaepernick’s inability to manipulate defenses with his movements inside the pocket. If he can get defenders to hesitate slightly with simple movements, and have the confidence in his offensive line to give him time to look off safeties, he would take drastic steps towards improving as a passer.

Accuracy

When Kaepernick took the 49ers to the Super Bowl in his first season as a starter, he was accurate on 60.6 percent of his throws longer than 20 yards down field, the best of any quarterback - by a wide margin - to take at least 25 percent of his team’s snaps. That number fell to 45.6 percent in 2013 and all the way down to 33.3 percent in 2014.

Part of that was due to the offense’s decline of play-action use, which dropped each season, starting at 30.2 percent of passing plays in 2012 and finishing at 21.3 percent this year. Of course, Vernon Davis’ down season played a big part as well.

On all throws, Kaepernick was the league’s 23rd-most accurate quarterback in 2014, sandwiched between the Giants Eli Manning and the Rams Austin Davis.

Accuracy is a the most fundamental aspect of playing the position. And it might not be something Kaepernick ever drastically improves. Keeping his feet and shoulders square to the sideline more consistently would help guide his throws to where they’re supposed to go. That, again, comes down to pocket presence and not giving up on reads when he feels pressure.

Kaepernick was 26th in the league with a 60.5 completion rate - which suffered from his receivers’ 34 drops, tied with the fourth-most of any quarterback. His velocity on his throws has a lot to do with it.

There might not be a quarterback that throws harder, consistently, than Kaepernick, which makes things difficult on his pass catchers. It takes a unique set of hands to be comfortable snaring his throws. And those throws don’t always need to be so hard. Improving his accuracy on softer throws, particularly shorter throws, will improve his accuracy numbers in a significant way.

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