SANTA CLARA, Calif. - For the first time since becoming the San Francisco 49ers' starting quarterback midway thorough 2012, and leading the team to the Super Bowl, Colin Kaepernick is adjusting to a new system.
It's reached that time for Kaepernick, 27, to take that next step in his career and evolve from a dual-threat novelty to long-term franchise cornerstone.
Of course, if you listen to and believe what 49ers brass says about its starting quarterback, Kaepernick has already reached that level. But if Kaepernick doesn't show progression in 2015, San Francisco could move on as soon as next season because the team won't be on the hook for guaranteed money.
"Colin just needs to be Colin. And I think Colin is really good," head coach Jim Tomsula said this week, leading into Monday night's season opener against the Minnesota Vikings. "I don’t know that you’ll ever meet a more driven person than Colin Kaepernick. I mean, he is driven."
Being driven and being a championship-caliber quarterback are not one in the same.
Kaepernick's work ethic throughout his career has never been questioned. However, his accuracy, patience and timing are up for criticism. When he helped the 49ers reach two straight conference title games, and that Super Bowl, after taking over for Alex Smith, he was aided by one of the league's premier offensive lines and defenses.
With so much change in Santa Clara this offseason, there's no guarantee Kaepernick will have those luxuries.
"I think I’ve improved personally. I think this team’s improved," Kaepernick said. "It’s something that everyone in here has worked everyday and tried to get better to make sure when we did get to Week 1 of this season that we’d be ready to go and ready to go out and compete."
After getting sacked 52 times last season, the second most in the NFL, Kaepernick will be relying on a make-shift offensive line that's been pieced together over the final two weeks of training camp. Lost are 2010's first-round picks left guard Mike Iupati and right tackle Anthony Davis, who will be replaced by Alex Boone and Erik Pears, respectively.
That's where new offensive coordinator Geep Chryst will earn his money: designing plays that play to Kaepernick's strength's, and avoid those that don't.
Kaepernick isn't the quarterback that should drop back 25-plus times each week and beat defenses with complicated reads and multi-receiver sets. Typically, he does his best work when the running game can compliment his big arm through the use of play action. Here's how the 49ers could get more of out him, with three points of emphasis:
Consider the following numbers when Kaepernick used play action, according to our friends at Pro Football Focus:
|% play-action||Drop Backs||Att.||Comp.||TDs||INTs||Comp. %||Yards||YPA||QB Rating|
|% PA||Drop Backs||Att.||Comp.||TDs||INTs||Comp %||Yards||YPA||QB Rating|
Not only was Kaepernick's play-action usage down significantly last season, but it wasn't nearly as efficient. That could be attributed to a number of different factors. The offensive line, lacking Davis at right tackle for most of the season, wasn't nearly as productive blocking for the run.
The tight end group, inlcuding Vernon Davis, had down year. And the read-option was largely ineffective for Kaepernick as the primary runner, which allowed defenses to play the pass more effectively.
So what does Chryst have in story to help out Kaepernick? A blocking scheme that relies more heavily on zone concepts that should allow for new lead back Carlos Hyde to flourish. At least, that's the plan.
"First off, (Carlos) had a great rhythm to things," Chryst said of Hyde. "There's just a comfort level...I think it's a different role for him and something that he's excited and looking forward to and has worked hard to be in that spot right there."
With Frank Gore getting the majority of the carries, while the running game was being used less overall, the 49ers averaged 115 rushing yards per game in their first 14 games, which would have finished 13th in the NFL.
But after they racked up 355 and 206 yards rushing over the last two games - skewing their final numbers significantly - their 136-yard average ranked fourth in the league.
If the 49ers get back to running the ball as effectively, and consistently, as they did in 2012 and 2013, the play-action game will be a strength of the offense, and not a detriment.
Along with being a unique threat with his legs when he first became the starter, Kaepernick was one of the game's most accurate throwers deep down field. But since his first season, his efficiency throwing the ball deep has declined precipitously. From PFF:
|Year||Att.||Comp.||Drops||Yards||TDs||INTs||Att. %||Acc. %|
This is where last year's decline of Vernon Davis reared its head the most. Davis was Kaepernick's favorite deep target over the previous two years, but he was a virtual non-factor, averaging a career-low 9.4 yards per reception in 2014.
Davis averaged 16.3 yards per catch in 2013, and scored seven touchdowns that went 17 yards or further in the regular season. He scored 13 touchdowns in 2013 and backed them up with two last year.
Do the 49ers need Davis to catch 13 touchdowns for Kaepernick to re-establish himself as a downfield thrower? It certainly wouldn't hurt. But that's also what Torrey Smith was brought in to do.
Smith's 15.7-yard average was a career low in 2014, which still ranked 13th of 110, indicating he's typecast for what the 49ers' offense needs to take pressure off the running game. But Smith also impacted the game downfield in another way.
Smith led the NFL with 11 pass interference penalties drawn against him in the regular season, totalling 229 yards. That hidden yardage could be the difference between a punt and kicking a field goal, or extending a potential touchdown drive.
"Explosion plays, that’s where you making your living," 49ers quarterbacks coach Steve Logan said in June. "Go look at any touchdown drive. Well, every now and then, you’ll get a 16-play touchdown drive, or a 12-play touchdown drive, it’s first, second, third-down, and you convert. But most touchdown drives are made up of first down, second down, third down, first down, explosion play, touchdown. That’s where we want to live. And Colin, he can give you that."
Of 57 running backs that qualified, Gore and Hyde ranked 54th and 53rd, respectively, in targets in the passing game last year. Combined, they were targeted 31 times on 577 drop backs from Kaepernick. Think about that. Kaepernick looked for his two best running backs on 5 percent of his passing plays.
Insert Reggie Bush, who has more career receptions than any active running back. His numbers over the last four years (hint: he was a bigger part of the passing game than Hyde and Gore):
While Bush's health might be a concern given his age, 30, and the fact he's played in all 16 games just twice throughout his nine-year career, he represents a missing piece to the 49ers' passing game.
Gore was a capable receiver, but his speed and quickness weren't the same last season as early in his career. Plus, he was a valuable pass protector, particularly picking up blitzes. Keeping Gore in the backfield to protect Kaepernick meant taking away a receiving option to help Kaepernick avoid a sack.
Whether Bush lines up in the backfield or the slot, Chryst plans on designing plays that give Kaepernick a quick outlet to avoid the pass rush. That would mark a drastic change from former coordinator Greg Roman, who rarely gave Kaepernick outlets and check downs to work with.
To conclude: Running the ball with more consistency in 2015 should open the door for a more efficient play-action game. That, and reasonable seasons from Davis and Smith, could lead to an improved down-field passing game. And, with the addition of Bush and an emphasis in creating outlets and checkdowns, Kaepernick should be put in a better position to avoid sacks than last season. It's simple, right?
Of course, this is all just a theory.
Chris Biderman is the Editor-in-Chief of Niners Digest and covers the 49ers from their headquarters in Santa Clara. Chris has been writing about the team since the spring of 2013. The Ohio State alum received his Journalism degree in 2011 and has been working in sports media since 2008. Chris, a Santa Rosa, Calif. native, is also a contributor to the Associated Press covering sports throughout the Bay Area. You can follow Chris on Twitter here.
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