Gut Check No.267 - Insanity Series: Colin Kaepernick

Regardless of the outcome, these players are in fantasy ADP situations too crazy to take lightly. 

There is a point in the preseason where I begin to feel less like a fantasy football writer and more like one of the psychiatrists on Shutter Island that are trying to convince U.S. Marshall Edward "Teddy" Daniels that he's actually condemned killer Andrew Laeddis. Yes, many of you reading this are Daniels/Laeddis - especially if you couldn't accept the truth I shared about Robert Meachem and Coby Fleener last year. 

Of course, there is the chance that I may only think I'm a benevolent doctor trying to steer your to accept the truth. I could be the dangerous inmate suffering from a severe form of denial rooted in past traumas. My takes on Adrian Peterson and Brandon Lloyd last year point in that direction.  

Regardless of whom is ultimately in denial, the Insanity Series is primarily a warning: Don't take these players too lightly on draft day. Barring injury, incarceration, or an act of God, there are at least 12 players in 2013 that Lady Perception's wiles have warped our perspective.  

George Noyce: You want to uncover the truh? You gotta let her go. 

Teddy Daniels: I can't.

George Noyce: You have to let her go!

Teddy Daniels: I can't! I can't!

George Noyce: Then you'll never leave this island. 

If you want any chance to catch the ferry leaving Fantasy Shutter Island for the playoffs it's best to understand where the right choice earns you a good player and opens your board to your advantage. Because if you make the wrong choice with some of these players, your team is heading to the old lighthouse with the orderlies. 

Laeddis or Daniels? 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick

Headlining this group is 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick -  one of 12 Fantasy Shutter Island natives who, based on his ADP, might be part of the staff on this rock in the Atlantic, However, if you remember inmates Derek Anderson, Vince Young, and Scott Mitchell, then you know that the pathology of their condition can make their delusions dangerously convincing to fantasy owners. 

Depending on your diagnosis, Kapernick could easily one of the 12 most dangerous players in fantasy football. It just depends whether you're defining the danger for yourself or others. If he succeeds, your season could be dominant; If he doesn't, prepare for a team with dangerous moodswings.

Kaepernick's first extended time as an NFL starter was an impressive display for a fantasy quarterback. In eight starts, he never dipped below 18 fantasy points and had 5 games with at least 20 points, including 31.6 fantasy points against New England in Week 15. Throw in a 51.2-point fantasy total in the playoffs against Green Bay and a 30.3-point total in the Super Bowl and it's a big reason why Kaepernick is QB7 in 2013 drafts. 

The most comparable player to Kaepernick in the NFL today terms of athleticism, playing style, and offensive scheme similarity is Robert Griffin. Last year's No.7 fantasy quarterback, Griffin started twice as many games as Kaepernick and had 10 games with at least 20 fantasy points. Considering the similarities I stated, it's an orderly conclustion to believe that if Griffin was the No.7 QB last year and he and Kaepernick had a similar output then it stands to follow that Kaepernick will perform as a mid-range QB1 in 2013. 

It's a nice thought. Griffin scored 30 fantasy points in a game 6 times. Kaepernick would have needed three games to maintain this statistical pattern and he only had one 30-point, non-playoff game. If you count playoff games, it's a closer fit, but then it gets messy for data hounds.

Still, the ADP tells us that owners think Kaepernick is on a similar trajectory as cannon-armed, fleet-footed quarterbacks like Robert Griffin and Cam Newton. Please understanding I painting with broad strokes here; all three are different style players. 

Newton's style fits within the Steve McNair-Daunte Culepper-Ben Roethlisberger family of passers. All four can shrug off defensive linemen, buy time in the pocket, and make a secondary pay down field.

Griffin fits within the Steve Young-Aaron Rodgers-Michael Vick family of passers. These four could generate huge plays with their speed and pacing from the snap to the end of the drop. They are also weapons as pass-run option players, but can throw the ball over the defense.

In the pocket, Griffin's confidence in his howitzer arm and roadrunner legs can also be his downfall. At Baylor and Washington he has displayed a tendency of waiting until the last second to deliver the ball in the pocket, whipping the ball only with his arm and taking a horrific shot to his body. 

This is something Griffin and Vick have in common. They are both tough players with supreme confidence in their arms to torque the ball without stepping into the throw and still having the power and base accuracy to deliver. It also puts thim in vulnerable positions to get lit up. 

The problem is that neither quarterback has the size to do this as effectively as the guys in the Newton-McNair-Culpepper-Roethlisberger passing tree.    Griffin may be 220 pounds, but his physical dimensions are similar to Aaron Rodgers. They both have to pick their spots to display this kind of toughness, and Griffin needs to be more selective.

If Griffin matures in this aspect of his game, he can fit in the Rodgers-Young spectrum of producer and I think he has flashed moments where he'll get there. The detail about Netwon and Griffin serve as a contrast to Kaepernick, who phsycially has a nice blend of Newton's size and Griffin's speed. He reminds me of Vince Young with similar initial success, but a more grounded beginning to his professional life. 

Kaepernick and Young also share similar early-career deficiencies. Neither is a strong touch passer and this is a critical part of a quarterbacks succeeding in the vertical game and the red zone. Both players also have to get better at reading the field and disguising their intentions. Assuming Young ever earns work again in the NFL, both still have work to do if you're judging them according to the accepted standard of what makes a great NFL quarterback.

But this standard is ony as useful as the offensive system that incorporates it.

Thing of it this way: If the game evolved from its humble beginnings with read option and Pistol taking root in the 1970s and the shotgun coming along 30-40 years later, fantasy owners would have been questioning how good Tom Brady and Peyton Manning would be long-term if the NFL even drafted these proflic passers in "gimmick offenses" at the college level.

Imagine the analysis we'd hear if the NFL was a read option world for 40 years before they entered the league: They can't run the read option. They're sitting ducks in the pocket. They're one-dimensional players. 

Dan Marino? Good college player, nice commentator on ESPN Gameday, but he never would have made it in the NFL. 

Terry Bradshaw? That read option with him and Franco was a devastating weapon - especially with that added element of John Stallworth on jet sweeps.

Johnny Unitas? That's old-school, pre-pistol football.  

This is why criticizing Kaepernick's deficiencies and using Young as a point of comparison is also too neat of an argument. The Tennessee Titans tried to use Young in an offense that didn't suit his talents. Put the former Longhorn in a pistol offense with the zone read and use multiple tight ends and Young's star might not have been of the shooting variety (barring his immaturity off the field). 

As with the Redskins offense, the 49ers incorporate enough read option, pistol, and pacing to dictate to opposing defenses. In terms of the pocket quarterback standard it slows the quarterback's learning curve for advanced concepts. If you're progressive enough not to apply that standard then you realize that both quarterbacks don't need to make as many touch throws against tight man becuase their offenses create different opportunities.

Yet there is still that fear in the back of our minds that defenses always catch up to new concepts fast enough that quarterbacks will have to work on their weak points or watch their career die.

Griffin will have to demonstrate better judgment in the pocket and remember that he's not as big as Newton. Kaepernick will have to prove that he can put his receivers in position to win 50/50 routes like sideline, back-shoulder, and corner fades.

He failed to do this with Randy Moss last year and I believe it was one of several reasons it cost the 49ers a Super Bowl victory.  Moss may lack the down field speed he had in his prime, but he is one of the three best finessee receivers against tight coverage to ever play in the NFL and Kaepernick repeatedly failed to exploit Moss' (remaining area of) strength because it is Kaepernick's greatest weakness as a passer. 

It's not the only reason. If the defense stopped the Ravens, the 49ers offensive game plan would have been good enough as is. No player is without a weakness, it's a matter of how difficult it is for on team to exploit the weakness of its opponent.

Remember if this were an NFL game with a 40-year, read-option history, fans and analysts might have said that Tom Brady cost the Patriots the Super Bowl because his pocket style invited a stiffer pass rush. 

Of course, would the Giants and Patriots have even been in the Super Bowl? That's a rabbit hole for another time.


Boldin helped the Ravens meet and beat the 49ers for the title last year because he played what I called the 'Shannon Sharpe' role for Joe Flacco last year. In addition to corner routes or press-man situations on the perimeter where he could physcially dominate a cornerback, Boldin was often placed in the slot where he could beat linebackers and safeties like a tight end in the middle of the field.  Flacco demonstrated the confidence to throw the ball into 50/50 situations and allow Boldin to win it with his physical play. 

I think the 49ers added Boldin despite having a similar player in Michael Crabtree because they needed another 'blunt instrument' at the receiver position. Rookie Quinton Patton has a physical style as a one-on-one receiver, but for him to develop into a starter he'll need to get more consistent in physical coverage. Boldin will serve as a good model for Patton to develop if the young receiver makes the most of his learning opportunity. 

However, I think the true reason for the blunt instrument is that the 49ers believe it will encourage Kaepernick to make more of these throws if the quarterback feels confident that he's working with a receiver who isn't as worried about getting hung out to dry. Boldin is also a fine blocker and it adds to the versatility this offense without having to use him like a specialized part (Moss). 

Before Crabtree got hurt the 49ers also need another player who can work crossing routes, digs, and outs against a vareity of man/zone schemes so they could utilize Davis' 4.3-speed more often on the perimeter if Manningham doesn't figure into their plans any more than he did last year. 

Now that Crabtree is effectively gone for the season, either Manningham, second-year receiver A.J. Jenkins, and/or Patton will need to emerge and I'm not confident any of these three receivers are great fits for Kaepernick's developmental skill level with touch passes at this point.

Even if the 49ers incorporate LaMichael James into the offense along the lines the Saints use Darren Sproles, I don't see the 49ers passing game taking that next step. James would become the big-play weapon that stretches the field horizontally while Davis and Boldin work the vertical seams, but there are legitimate concerns that Kapernick and the 49ers won't build on last year's production because the offense is still lacking an explosive vertical threat on the perimeter. 

IF 2013 IS LIKE 2012 . . .

It won't matter to fantasy owners if the 49ers lack an explosive, reliable outside receiver or a quarterback capable of the artful touch throws of most elite NFL passers. Kapernick averaged 24.9 fantasy points per game - No.3 among fantasy quarterbacks in 2012 with at least 8 starts. The first-year starter was producing at a pace to earn 4058 total yards (3450/ passing/608 rushing) from scrimmage, 20 passing touchowns, and 6 rushing touchdowns. 

Very Robert Griffin-like

The 49ers may have lost Michael Crabtree, but Anquan Boldin fills that role with greater experience and perhaps more toughness than his injured predecessor. In fact I don't think the loss of Crabtree is that big for the offense. The best offensive line in football is still intact, one of the top-five interior runners in football is still getting the ball behind it, and the best all-around tight end in football is still going to drive opposing coordinators to distraction.

Heath Cummings does a good job outlining the statistical history of run-heavy fantasy quarterbacks and how Cam Newton is the only one to produce like a QB1 after having initial success with this run-heavy style of quarterback play during his first season. But Cummings also underscores the point that last year's first-year starters set a historic precedent. 

I think this has to be considered over the statistical history. NFL teams are changing how they play offense. Vick, McNair, Randall Cunningham, and Donovan McNabb were still outliers who were expected to develop as complete pocket passers. The schemes were tailored to their running as much as the coaches allowed them to "improvise" after the play broke down.

Big difference.

Now coaches are becoming more flexible about the threat of the quarterback's legs as a structured plan rather than a mid-season necessity like we saw with Vince Young or Tim Tebow taking over for an injured/ineffective player. Since we're now seeing the running quarterback as an element of play design rather than play improvisation it means that fantasy owners have to become more open to the idea that there will be more than one quarterback template for success. 

Count me among the converted. At the same time, I'm not expecting Kaepernick to double his 8-game production from 2012 and post top-five numbers in 2013. It could happen and it adds to his draft day appeal, but I expect the 49ers' opponents to study the tape, learn more about the San Francisco offense, and find ways to limit its success more often. This is how the NFL works.

It doesn't mean the 49ers offense will go from unstoppable to ineffective. However without great personnel to expand on the scheme to remain a step ahead of defenses, it is possible we see the best opposition have more success limiting Kaepernick and this can lead to some up and down weeks.

However, I'm not going overboard with the doom and gloom. San Francisco has a great run offense and last year - whether it was Kaepernick or Alex Smith - the 49ers passing game was a safe unit that didn't turn the ball over. Kapernick only had three interceptions in eight games. While I expect more than 6 picks over a 16-game stretch in 2013, I think projecting anything more than 12 interceptions means the 49ers experienced major setbacks along its offensive line and defense. 

The remaining downside with Kapernick is the perception of injury that comes from us applying our pocket standard to the read option standard. I argue more quarterbacks get hurt in the pocket than when they escape the pocket. And those that do get hurt outside the pocket are generally not the type capable of escaping the pocket by design.

Incorporate the run by design and there's more support from teammates that will limit injury because it's not improvised. For the pocket-dominated thinking among analysts, this the final hurdle of perception they haven't passed. 

While I think the lack of development along the lines of what makes a traditional pocket passer transform from good to great will limit Kaepernick against the best defenses in the NFL, it isn't the right criteria to judge Kaepernick's fantasy stock.

As the NFL adjusts to the pistol, read-option, fast-paced, multiple offensive style of play, Kapernick will have to evolve with it or his game will drop off a cliff. Don't expect it this year.

However, I think it's us fantasy owners who have to change or die. I came into this column thinking I'd find that people were insane to take Kapernick as QB7. I'm beginning to emerge from my denial.

May I leave this island now? That lighthouse creeps me out.