After Incredible Debut Campaign, What's the Ceiling for Colin Kaepernick?

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterFebruary 6, 2013

The San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick is every NFL fan's dream, and every defensive coordinator's nightmare.

Whether he's under center, from a full shotgun snap or in the pistol, Kaepernick's unique combination of size, speed, cutting ability, arm strength and pass accuracy can shred defenses on the ground, in the air or maybe even a little of both.

When he's at his best, as he was against the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs, he's nearly unstoppable. He has the confidence and game to force teams to lay back and try to defend the entire field.

When he isn't, he has the maturity to take what the defense gives him and rely on his power running game.

Most terrifyingly, he's working for a coaching staff that's smart and innovative enough to figure out how to maximize his skills.


What Kaepernick's Done as a Passer

Here's how Kaepernick's first season as a starter stacks up against other quarterbacks this year, using stats from Pro Football Reference

Listed above are the top nine quarterbacks, as measured by ESPN Total QBR, for this season. Kaepernick is just underneath the attempts cutoff for most rate stats, so removing that filter from PFR's tables reveals that Kaepernick was third best in the NFL.

On a scale of 1-100, Kaepernick earned a 76.8, which puts him below only Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Since Total QBR is an attempt to measure how much a quarterback is responsible for helping his team win, that puts Kaepernick's debut season in some incredible company.

By the old passer efficiency rating, Kaepernick's 98.3 was seventh best in the NFL, slotted between Brady and Ben Roethlisberger. Kaepernick's completion percentage was one of his "weak spots"; his 62.4 percent was good for eighth among these top QBR quarterbacks and 12th in the entire NFL.

Kaepernick threw a touchdown on 4.1 percent of his passes, behind all of these quarterbacks except Andrew Luck. Kaepernick's interception percentage, though, was a teensy 1.4 percent, tied with Aaron Rodgers and just behind Brady and Robert Griffin III.

Kaepernick led the NFL in raw yards per attempt and in yards per completion. This is incredible, because it means all of these efficiency stats above are being applied to a quarterback who's throwing further downfield and more often than anyone else in the NFL.

Manning and Rodgers were at the top of the heap in the old passer efficiency rating, completion percentage and interception percentage, but their average completions only gained 11.6 yards each, compared to Kaepernick's 13.3.

With a sack percentage of 6.8 percent, Kaepernick was hauled down much more often than Manning, which is how Kaepernick finished just behind Manning in adjusted net yards per attempt. Second best in the NFL is nothing to sneeze at, though, especially considering Manning was playing it very safe all season and Kaepernick was bombing it downfield.

For a little more context, here are the same top quarterbacks, with their current stats switched out for their stats in their first year as a starter. Cam Newton's record-setting 2011 season has been tacked on:

Total QBR only goes back to 2008, so Brees, Brady and Manning don't have stats for that. But Kaepernick comes out on top, with a Total QBR of 76.8. He did more for his team in more important situations than any of the best rookies in recent memory.

Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson were one and two in passer efficiency rating and completion percentage, but Kaepernick wasn't far behind them; he came in third and fifth, respectively. Kaepernick was right behind Griffin III for the lowest interception percentage at just 1.4 percent.

Kaepernick led all of these great rookies in yards per attempt, adjusted net yards per attempt and yards per completion.

The important thing to note here is that these are nearly all rate stats; they show how effective a quarterback has been with their attempts or dropbacks, not raw totals. Look at Andrew Luck's record-breaking passing yardage total: a whopping 4,374. He needed 627 pass attempts to pile those yards up, though; Kaepernick only had 218.

If Kaepernick produced at the same rates he did for this season but had as many attempts as Luck, he would have piled up an NFL-best 5,217 yards, as well as a sixth-best mark of 29 touchdowns against just nine interceptions.

The numbers don’t really do it justice, though. Let’s just sit back and watch what he did in the regular season:


What Kaepernick's Done as a Runner

In the regular season, Kaepernick was used as a runner judiciously. Between a few designed runs and scrambles, he had 63 attempts spread out over seven starts and 13 games. With those 63 attempts, he piled up 415 yards, an incredible 6.59 yards per attempt.

Averaging 6.59 yards per attempt is phenomenal for a running back. For a quarterback in the advent of the zone read, though, it’s only very good.

Griffin III and Jake Locker both averaged 7.1 yards per carry this season, Griffin on 118 attempts and Locker on 41. Cam Newton gained 5.8 yards per average carry, with a league-leading 127 carries. Mike Vick ran 62 times, averaging 5.6 yards each.

It’s in the playoffs, though, that Kaepernick shined:

Kaepernick ran 25 times in the playoffs for 264 yards, a whopping 10.56 yards per carry and three touchdowns. Of course, most of those came in that divisional-round game against Green Bay, and that’s where the question of his “ceiling” comes in.


What’s Kaepernick’s Ceiling?

Against Green Bay, Kaepernick achieved a kind of dual-threat quarterbacking nirvana, throwing and passing with devastating effectiveness. It’s tempting to think of this game as Kaepernick’s eventual ceiling, something that with time he can do week in, week out.

Part of Kaepernick’s performance, though, was due to the coaching and game plan; 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman dialed up many more pistol sets and zone-read runs than they’d used in the regular season. Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers basically opened the door for Kaepernick by not adjusting his own play calling.

What’s more exciting about Kaepernick’s playoff run was his performance in the NFC Championship Game. Against an Atlanta Falcons defense dead set against not letting him beat them on the ground, Kaepernick simply didn’t run. He beat the Falcons with pinpoint passing, completing 16-of-21 passes for 233 yards and a score. His passer efficiency rating in that game was a whopping 127.7.

Even more incredibly, Kaepernick’s astonishing 11.10 yards per attempt and 14.56 yards per completion in that Falcons game mean he wasn’t tucking his game into a box, moving the chains with safe, high-percentage passes. He was gripping it and ripping it, shredding the Falcons for huge chunks of yardage on almost every throw.

Kaepernick is still young, and his very slow start in the Super Bowl shows he’s capable of being rattled and not invincible. When his normally excellent protection breaks down, so do his numbers.

According to Pro Football Focus’ under pressure statistics (subscription required), Kaepernick was one of the league’s most accurate passers when pressured, putting 71.2 percent of his passes on target. He didn’t throw a single touchdown under pressure, though, putting him in very un-elite company (only Chad Henne and Mark Sanchez had more pressured dropbacks without a touchdown).

This is where Kaepernick has room to grow.

Kaepernick’s quality as a passer already puts him among the best in the league, and he clearly elevates his game when the stakes are highest. His running ability is top-notch, and just the threat of it strikes fear into the heart of defenses.

His coaches are willing and eager to find the best way to use his arm and his legs for maximum devastation without running him into the ground.

Kaepernick will likely never achieve permanent quarterback nirvana, throwing and running for triple-digit yards and multiple touchdowns every single game. However, he can become the best quarterback in the NFL.


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