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Player Spotlight: Colin Kaepernick

A detailed look at Colin Kaepernick's fantasy prospects for 2013

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics -- Benjamin Disraeli

With those words of wisdom fresh in your mind, consider the following comparison of two quarterbacks with an identical number of attempts:

PlayerCompsAttsCmp%YardsYPAttTDsINTsFPTs
QB1 153 218 70.2% 1,737 8.0 13 5 133.9
QB2 136 218 62.4% 1,814 8.3 10 3 127.7

The numbers are both compelling, are they not? Some might argue QB1 is the superior quarterback, considering the higher TD rate and otherworldly completion rate. Others might point to QB2 by noting the higher yards per attempt and lower turnover rate. In any event, both look like quarterbacks that a franchise would be thrilled to build around.

Most franchises might be thrilled with those choices, but 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh had a clear preference for QB2.  You see, QB1 is Alex Smith last season while QB2 is Colin Kaepernick

Considering Kaepernick led the 49ers to a Super Bowl berth, it's hard to argue with Harbaugh's decision. But fantasy owners need to decide whether they want to follow in Harbaugh's footsteps.

While it's interesting to note that Kaepernick did no better than match Smith's passing stats last year, it really doesn't tell the full story. There are many reasons why Kaepernick is the better NFL and fantasy prospect.

REASONS WHY HARBAUGH (AND FANTASY OWNERS) PREFER COLIN KAEPERNICK TO ALEX SMITH

  1. Kaepernick is 25 years old -- Kaepernick is just 25 years old, whereas Smith is 29 (approaching 30). 
  2. Kaepernick was a first-time starter -- We're comparing Kaepernick's first NFL starts to Alex Smith's 66th through 75th starts
  3. Kaepernick has a higher ceiling -- NFL starters don't peak in their first half season. In other words, Kaepernick was able to match a seasoned Smith stat for stat right out of the gates. Harbaugh knew that Smith was all that he was ever going to be, but Kaepernick quite realistically will continue to improve for years to come
  4. Kaepernick is potent rushing threat -- Smith is by no means a limited athlete, he ran a pistol offense in college. But he never ran for more than 179 yards in an NFL season whereas Kaepernick showed that his legs are a major difference maker. In 11 starts (including the playoffs), Kaepernick delivered 75 rushes for 568 yards (7.6 yards per rush) and 6 touchdowns. 

RUSHING PRODUCTIVITY IN CONTEXT

Taking Kaepernick's rushing numbers from last year and pro rating them over a 16-game season gives us:

  • 109 rushes
  • 826 yards
  • 9 rushing TDs

Top Fantasy Rushing Seasons by a Quarterback, NFL History

RankName YRRushRuYdsRuTDsFPTs
1 Cam Newton 2011 126 706 14 154.6
2 Bobby Douglass 1972 141 968 8 144.8
3 Colin Kaepernick ProRate 109 826 9 136.6
4 Michael Vick 2002 113 777 8 125.7
5 Robert Griffin III 2012 118 833 7 125.3
6 Randall Cunningham 1990 118 942 5 124.2
7 Cam Newton 2012 127 741 8 122.1
8 Michael Vick 2010 99 676 9 121.6
9 Daunte Culpepper 2002 105 603 10 120.3
10 Michael Vick 2006 123 1,039 2 115.9
11 Steve McNair 1997 101 674 8 115.4
12 Michael Vick 2004 120 902 3 108.2
13 Tim Tebow 2011 121 660 6 102.0
14 Donovan McNabb 2000 86 629 6 98.9
15 Randall Cunningham 1988 93 624 6 98.4
16 Vince Young 2006 83 552 7 97.2
17 Michael Vick 2005 102 597 6 95.7
18 Randall Cunningham 1989 104 621 4 86.1
19 Randall Cunningham 1992 87 549 5 84.9
20 Steve McNair 1998 76 568 4 80.8

As the table indicates, Kaepernick's rushing totals (if extrapolated over a full season) were akin to the 3rd best rushing totals for a QB in league history. It wasn't quite as potent as Cam Newton's rookie season, but it was demonstrably more productive than an season the likes of Michael Vick, Randall Cunningham and Steve McNair ever produced.

THE YIN AND YANG OF KAEPERNICK'S PASSING OUTLOOK

There are reasons to be both optimistic and skeptical of Kaepernick's ability to build off of last year's passing numbers. The main reasons for concern are a) the 49ers preference to run the ball more than most NFL teams and b) the loss of Michael Crabtree. The 49ers ranked 31st in attempts last year (436) which makes it EXTREMELY difficult for a passer to rank among the fantasy elite. Even if you assume the 49ers let Kaepernick throw more this year, say forecast a 20% increase -- and we're still talking about one of the league's least pass happy team. 

  • 480 attempts (10% increase from last year) would've ranked just 28th last year
  • 524 attempts (20% increase from last year) would've ranked 23rd

The loss of Crabtree is more disconcerting. Consider Kaepernick's passing stats over his 11 starts to Crabtree versus everyone else:

Intended ReceiverCmpsAttsYdsYPATDsINTsTD%INT%
Total 180 289 2,533 8.8 14 5 4.8% 1.7%
Crabtree 66 95 950 10.0 9 0 9.5% 0.0%
Others 114 194 1,583 8.2 5 5 2.6% 2.6%

Colin Kaepernick was a VERY average passer when he wasn't throwing to Michael Crabtree. His TD rate was cut nearly in half, and his INT rate nearly doubled. Looking at it another way, here is what Kaepernick's full season numbers would look like pro rated for 500 attempts:

  • With Crabtree -- 347 for 500 for 5,000 yards, 47 touchdowns and zero interceptions
  • With Others -- 294 for 500 for 4,080 yards, 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions

The good news for Kaepernick fans is that the 49ers (and Kaepernick) did not stand pat on last year's accomplishments. Yes, the loss of Crabtree appears significant, but they've added Anquan Boldin to the mix. Boldin was the hero of last year's Baltimore Ravens playoff run and we've seen firsthand that he can be a quarterback's best friend. In addition, Kaepernick finally developed a rapport with Vernon Davis in the postseason, and by all accounts that chemistry has continued throughout this offseason and preseason. Last but certainly not least, the 49ers have a cadre of young receivers that should continue to make the natural progression into competence.

Kaepernick has only started 11 NFL games, we have to remember that further growth is ASSURED.  He's going to become a better player. All quarterbacks need reps and experience to master their craft. Kaepernick has never had an NFL preseason as the definitive starter until now. Just think back on the first seasons for the likes of Aaron Rodgers or Philip Rivers or Drew Brees or Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. We saw glimpses of greatness, sure, but they got MUCH MUCH better as they gained experience. To think Kaepernick can't improve on last year is to assume he'll be an outlier. 

POSITIVES

  • Kaepernick is part of the new breed of hybrid quarterbacks, and his rushing totals last year were among the best in NFL history (on a pro rated basis)
  • He was already an elite fantasy QB in spite of being a first year starter, natural growth is to be expected (and we're seeing it this preseason according to many 49ers camp observers)
  • The 49ers offensive line is among the league's best

NEGATIVES

  • Michael Crabtree was responsible for the preponderance of Kaepernick's success last year
  • Some wonder whether the NFL will figure out the zone-read this year, negating some of the value of zone-read hybrid quarterbacks
  • The 49ers are committed to running the ball, ranking near the league's bottom in pass attempts

FINAL THOUGHTS

Colin Kaepernick is one of the more divisive quarterbacks among fantasy analysts. Some have been so bold as to project Kaepernick as a Top 5 breakout player this year, thanks to a full season as the 49ers starter. Others have vehemently argued against drafting him and suggested he's one of the riskiest players to bust. I've admittedly vacillated a bit as the preseason has unfolded, but am now inclined to give Kaepernick the benefit of the doubt. Yes, the loss of Crabtree will hurt...but Anquan Boldin has a similar skill set and I don't see the drop off alarming enough to offset the positives of the situation. His rushing stats will help A LOT and there is also the obvious improvement we would expect of any second year starter. As long as Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin stay healthy, I'm comfortable drafting Kaepernick at his current ADP (59th overall, QB9). 

PROJECTIONS

 GCMPATTPYDY/APTDINTRSHYDY/RTDFPT
David Dodds 16 272 455 3344 7.3 23 12 100 635 6.3 5 341
Bob Henry 16 271 430 3440 8.0 24 9 100 660 6.6 6 361
Jason Wood 16 290 455 3360 7.4 24 12 90 600 6.7 5 342
Maurile Tremblay 16 287 465 3486 7.5 20 13 112 667 6.0 7 350

THOUGHTS FROM AROUND THE WEB

Footballguys' Heath Cummings thinks Kaepernick is overrated:

I don't see anyone in his receiving corps that can get the kind of separation that Kaepernick needs. His athleticism means that there will be some monster games this season, but there will also be some huge duds when opposing defenses sell out against the run. I don't see him as a QB1 this season, much less one that I'd reach for in the fifth round.

Christopher Harris of ESPN analyzes dual-threat quarterbacks:

And without a leap forward in passing stats, the Sprung Guns' upside (great running points, middling passing points) mathematically looks a lot like the veteran pocket passers' upside (meager running points, great passing points), but with an additional injury potential. That the reason I would rate all four Sprung Guns behind the game's elite pocket passers for '13. I'm excited by the possibility that we could see one of these kids put it all together and become Steve Young, but I'm not willing to pay a premium on draft day to find out. I rate Newton No. 22 overall, Kaepernick No. 37, Wilson No. 38, and RGIII No. 42. At those levels, they give you value. Any higher than that, I think the risk outweighs the reward.


More from Jason Wood:

On Second Thought: Defenses and Kickers - August 28
On Second Thought: Running Backs - August 28
On Second Thought: Tight Ends - August 28
On Second Thought: Quarterbacks - August 28
On Second Thought: Wide Receivers - August 28
What If Roddy White or Julio Jones Are Lost for the Season? - August 19
What If Robert Griffin III Is Lost for the Season? - August 19
What If Cecil Shorts Is Lost for the Season? - August 19
Player Spotlight: Philip Rivers - August 8
Player Spotlight: Jordan Cameron - August 7