by Cian Fahey
It hasn't been a good season for the young NFL quarterback.
Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson, the most decorated of those who are still considered young, have both received criticism for their inconsistency this season. Cam Newton isn't being given much slack for the horrible situation in which his franchise has put him, while Ryan Tannehill's success is largely being overlooked. Geno Smith and EJ Manuel have been benched, while Mike Glennon appears set to be benched for the second time in his career this weekend. The rookies? The rookies have largely looked like your typical set of rookie starters.
One quarterback who hasn't received much attention, be it positive or negative, is San Francisco 49ers starter Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick signed a huge contract extension during the offseason and he plays for arguably the most successful team in the NFL over the past four years. One would assume that he would be a hot topic amongst media members because of those permutations alone. Instead, Kaepernick's share of the attention has been washed away amongst the controversies, injuries, and suspensions that have engulfed the franchise in San Francisco.
At this stage of his career, Kaepernick is supposed to be rounding out his development to turn into the player who he is going to be for the rest of his career.
He has been in the NFL for four seasons, starting 31 regular season games and six playoff games over the past three years. Just this week he turned 27 years of age, an age that should reflect the beginning of his prime and the abandonment of his youth. Any development in Kaepernick's play moving forward should be considered unexpected. At this stage of his career, he has already proven that he is one of the 25 best quarterbacks in the NFL, so he should be considered a quality starter. However, that term is very vague and doesn't give you a good idea of what Kaepernick is.
Kaepernick is a quarterback who has extreme strengths and extreme flaws. There isn't another quarterback throughout the whole NFL who can stretch his skill set so far in both directions. It's easy to see the former Nevada prospect's positives, as he has arguably the strongest arm in the NFL, with precision accuracy and the ability to run away from more than 90 percent of the defenders in the NFL if given space. Kaepernick has the ability to manipulate the trajectory of his passes and the body control to make accurate throws without proper technique or balance.
Yet, in spite of all his positives, the negatives are still prominent. The negatives are still the same as they were when he initially took over the starting spot from Alex Smith.
The former second-round draft pick lacks subtlety with his movement in the pocket and he fails to consistently find open receivers down the field because of that. In the past, behind the 49ers' outstanding offensive line, the offense was capable of dictating the play and forcing the defense to be so reactive that Kaepernick's flaws were essentially irrelevant. Now that the offense around him is crumbling somewhat, he is being tasked with masking his teammates' flaws, and to do that he must be a more well-rounded player.
Ever since Week 1, this has been evident in Kaepernick's play, but it was highlighted for everyone to see last week against the St. Louis Rams. Prior to the start of this season, the Rams were expected to have a dominant defensive line that would potentially set a new sack record. Once the season began, that quickly became a distant memory as the Rams set a record for the wrong reasons with just one sack over the first six games of the season.
Against the 49ers in Week 9, they sacked Kaepernick eight times. Of those eight sacks, Kaepernick should have avoided five, could have avoided one and had no chance on two.
The Rams' first sack came on a play that the quarterback should have negated with a quick throw. The Rams have two rushers who penetrate the pocket, but Kaepernick had time to get to the top of his drop and set his feet. Instead of setting his feet at the top of his drop, he immediately looked to run because he saw the free defender coming towards him. Without even needing an exceptionally quick release, Kaepernick could have easily checked the ball down to one of his two open receivers underneath. No receiver was open down the field, but this play came on first-and-10. Checking the ball down in this situation would have been a smart play.
On this play, the defense blitzes Kaepernick with five defenders. Just before the snap, both Rams linebackers jump forward and the safeties rotate to hint their intentions for the quarterback to see. Although this was a third-and-10 play, Kaepernick needed to quickly throw the ball into the flat where his receiver had space to run with a teammate in position to block for him. When Kaepernick holds the ball, he turns his eyes back to the other side of the field where he has a receiver running a slant route. That receiver is open, even if it's unlikely to go for a first down. A pass would give the play a chance and avoid the inevitable sack that comes with the quarterback's hesitation.
For his next sack, a blown assignment on the right side of the line gave Kaepernick no way of avoiding the arriving defender.
To this point, Kaepernick has simply held the ball too long and failed to make good, quick decisions. His lack of subtlety in the pocket would soon show up though, and it cost him a potential touchdown score. On third-and-3, the Rams sent another exotic blitz at the quarterback, but it was initially picked up by his offensive line. Kaepernick cleanly got to the top of his drop before setting his feet and surveying the field. He didn't drop his eyes immediately, instead locating the deep receiver running a post route into wide open space.
With any kind of accurate anticipation throw, this play would give the receiver a chance at running to the end zone untouched.
Instead of subtly shifting his feet and moving up into the pocket when Robert Quinn comes around the edge, Kaepernick panics and completely abandons his technique, scrambling through the pocket of space in front of him. Instead of setting up a relatively simple throw for a quarterback of his talent, Kaepernick follows his instinct as a runner to scramble outside of the pocket where he is dragged down for a loss.
Kaepernick's rushing ability has created many big plays for him throughout his career, but his instinct to run instead of adjusting in the pocket has also cost him key conversions and big-play opportunities down the field on a regular basis.
For his next sack, the Rams blitzed Kaepernick again without masking their intentions before the snap. Kaepernick had two options to negate this blitz in his line of vision at the snap. His first option was his slot receiver, who was uncovered directly behind the blitz and running a slant route that would have converted the second-and-1 situation. The second was the outside receiver to that side of the field who was running into space because the outside defender expected Kaepernick to make the obvious throw inside to the slot receiver. That defensive back put himself in no man's land as he couldn't cover either receiver, but Kaepernick attempted to scramble instead of throwing the ball early.
This inability to manage the pocket subtly against pressure caused another sack and cost Kaepernick another potential big play down the field. On this play, he had four options late in the game. Two were very good options in this situation, while two more were simpler options to avoid a negative play. Kaepernick had plenty of time to reset after the edge pressure was pushed past him.
Kaepernick had a chance to avoid the first of his last two sacks, but would not have been expected to. His final sack came close to his own end zone on a two-man route where the protection failed too quickly for him to ever have a chance to get rid of the ball.
Subtlety and the ability to manage a pocket under pressure while reading coverage down the field appears to be something that is more of a natural trait than something that can be coached. Kaepernick simply struggles in those areas and it limits his upside as a quarterback.
That is who Kaepernick has been since he entered the league, whereas this year's rookie class has given us a prime example of a player who is the complete opposite. Teddy Bridgewater of the Minnesota Vikings has had a quietly impressive rookie season to this point. His production has been significantly hampered by the offense around him and by his inability to accurately throw deep passes for relatively easy big plays, but his performance from the pocket has been consistently outstanding.
Bridgewater may be playing behind the worst pass-blocking offensive line in the NFL. Former top-10 draft pick Matt Kalil's career has seemingly fallen off a cliff this season, while fellow offensive tackle Phil Loadholt isn't living up to his reputation. Without Adrian Peterson and Kyle Rudolph, and with the underperforming Greg Jennings and the completely ineffective Cordarrelle Patterson, Bridgewater has been asked to carry his supporting cast from the very start of his career.
Unlike Kaepernick, Bridgewater isn't a phenomenal athlete. He is an above average athlete for an NFL quarterback, but he excels because of his technical ability, intelligence, and awareness rather than his fast feet or strong arm.
From his very first snap in relief for Matt Cassel against the New Orleans Saints in New Orleans, Bridgewater has shown an ability to give every passing play a chance to succeed as designed with his work in the pocket. He has missed throws because of accuracy too often, but very rarely has he been the biggest reason for a sack, or missed an open receiver down the field because he was too slow breaking down the coverage from the pocket. Bridgewater is making his offensive line look better and taking care of the football better than most rookies would in this situation.
As they often do, the Vikings used play action at the beginning of this play to slow down the rush against the Washington defense. Bridgewater has nifty, quick feet that allow him to execute these fakes with haste before turning back to break down the coverage. On this occasion, the fake to Jerrick McKinnon appears to slow down the pass rush on the left side of the offensive line, where the team's left guard and left tackle have been put in one-on-one situations.
When Bridgewater gets to the top of his drop, Washington has two defenders beating their blocks. Kalil has allowed the edge rusher to get around him, ready to close on Bridgewater if the quarterback stays in his current position. The Vikings right guard is in a worse situation as he has been blown away by a defensive lineman forcing his way past the blocker's outside shoulder. Bridgewater never drops his eyes from the coverage downfield, but he is able to feel his way forward and to the left, putting himself in the perfect spot to negate each rusher.
The edge rusher is forced to stop and change his angle, putting Kalil in between the defender and the quarterback. The right guard is now directly in line between the defensive lineman and his quarterback, giving him a chance to set his feet and establish a wall with his body that would at the very least require the defensive lineman to reverse his momentum before overpowering/running around him.
From this pocket of space, Bridgewater is able to comfortably deliver an accurate pass down the field because he doesn't hesitate. Two pass rushers were closing from his left and in front of him, but they were never close enough to disrupt his throwing motion. It's the kind of subtle movement that needs to be pointed out to someone who isn't specifically looking for it, but it's also the kind of subtle movement that allows players such as Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers to continually make their offensive lines look spectacular despite those respective quarterback's lack of athleticism.
Being an effective pocket passer in the NFL requires a balance between aggression and patience. Understanding when to get rid of the ball quickly and when to hold onto it is so complex that it should really be considered an art. Not only does a quarterback need to manage the pressure closing in on him, but he also needs to know which receiver is open and where that receiver is, or if that receiver has a chance of gaining worthwhile yardage relative to the other potential outcomes of the play.
If the quarterback isn't aware of what the defense is trying to do, he is more likely to fall into coverage traps for turnovers or hesitate himself into submission for sacks. It's very difficult to find a quarterback who has mastered this area of the game, and Bridgewater hasn't yet, but he is showing signs of ability that you simply don't expect from rookie quarterbacks or even young quarterbacks with experience in the league.
With Kaepernick, we see a quarterback whose instinct is to move his feet and set himself up to run away when he sees impending pressure. Kaepernick essentially predetermines what he is going to do to react to pressure. The best quarterbacks in the league don't do that. The best quarterbacks in the league will scramble if they understand they don't have an option downfield before the pressure closes on them. The best quarterbacks in the league won't move their feet if they see an impending hit arriving, they will keep their feet planted and hold the ball for the requisite time to find their receiver downfield.
Sometimes that leads to taking big hits, but it is also the most efficient way of pursuing big plays. Bridgewater has shown this willingness to remain calm under pressure and the toughness to take big hits to keep the offense on track.
While his ability to handle pressure and be effective behind an underperforming offensive line has been incredibly impressive, the other side of being an NFL quarterback is something that needs to be explored with Bridgewater. When he isn't under pressure, his accuracy has remained problematic throwing the ball downfield, but he has shown an advanced ability to make smart decisions throwing the ball and move through his progressions with speed. Most rookie quarterbacks don't move through progressions at all, so Bridgewater doing it intelligently at speed is something extraordinary.
On this play, Bridgewater actually releases the ball while under pressure, but that is because he held the ball in a clean pocket for so long. Bridgewater held the ball because his first three options weren't available to him. His first two options came on the same read, as he had two receivers running straight down the field wide to the right. Those receivers had no chance of getting the ball as both were covered by three defensive backs. His second read was a receiver running a shallow crossing route. That receiver was covered by not one, but two defenders. Because those two defenders were chasing one receiver, Bridgewater knew that he had space behind them.
Running back Matt Asiata leaked out into the flat late in the play and Bridgewater found him in space for a first down. It was an unspectacular throw, but a spectacular play from the quarterback. He knew he had time to hold the ball, and he knew he didn't have an option down the field to throw the ball past the first-down line. Instead, he found an option who was underneath, but had the space to run for a first down.
At this stage of their respective careers, Colin Kaepernick and Teddy Bridgewater contrast each other almost perfectly. Bridgewater can't make every single throw he needs to make right now, but there's no reason to think he won't eventually, while Kaepernick can't mimic Bridgewater's work from the pocket.
This isn't to say that Kaepernick isn't a quality overall player for the San Francisco 49ers, but he definitely needs to be used in more specific ways than a quarterback like Bridgewater who should eventually be the kind of player who will excel in any situation.