Three weeks into the NFL’s free-agency period, Colin Kaepernick still doesn’t have a job. Ordinarily, an NFL veteran who is having difficulty finding a team isn’t exactly newsworthy. But NFL talent is scarce at quarterback, and Kaepernick’s situation is far from ordinary.
After Kaepernick’s protest of the national anthem last season as quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, the question has become whether it’s the reason that teams are avoiding him. Some arguments regarding Kaepernick’s worth to a team are easily put aside (the obsession over “distractions” in sports is always tired but loses all meaning when we have proof that the supposed distraction had the opposite effect), though that wouldn’t necessarily stop a team from considering them. But others are more credible, or at least invite more investigation. Could it be that Kaepernick just isn’t good enough, or that he plays a style that makes him difficult to accommodate?
The evidence suggests that those factors alone don’t explain Kaepernick’s unemployment. Kaepernick’s current employment status looks less like a natural result of the supposed NFL meritocracy and more like something unusual is going on (even by the standards of an unusually complex situation). His play is good enough to have attracted interest from teams by now. That it hasn’t suggests that he’s being punished on at least some level for his political outspokenness.
Other QBs as good as Kaepernick usually get signed
There are a couple of ways we can judge whether it’s unusual that Kaepernick is still waiting for NFL teams to call. One is to see how long into free agency it usually takes for a quarterback of Kaepernick’s quality to find a new team. Director Spike Lee implied in an Instagram post a week ago that similar QBs are usually signed by now. He’s right.
To investigate Lee’s claim, we started with a list of all free-agent QBs who changed teams since 2012 (the first free-agency period under the NFL’s current collective bargaining agreement), courtesy of our friends at ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. Then for each quarterback, we plotted his Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) from the season before his free agency — to get a sense of how well he played — against the number of days that elapsed between the start of his free agency and his signing:
Last season, Kaepernick posted a QBR of 55.2 — which is not great (he ranked 23rd out of 30 qualified passers) but also not terrible. (The NFL-wide average QBR was 61.3.) You can see on the chart that Lee’s theory is credible: It’s hard to find a recent free-agent QB who played at Kaepernick’s level and lasted so long on the market the next offseason. Matt Leinart (2012) and Kyle Orton (2014) signed nearly 50 days into their free agency, but neither had played much the year before. Michael Vick wasn’t signed for 169 days in 2015, but he was also older and coming off a season (39.4 QBR) far worse than Kaepernick’s 2016.
There are an unusual number of unsigned QBs at this stage of the offseason, though, and some with comparable résumés to Kaepernick’s. That’s in part because Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo may move teams this offseason and begin a QB carousel in the league.
|Robert Griffin III||27||211||45.0|
In other words, Kaepernick’s absence from the NFL may be a quirk of circumstance in a league where there are only so many landing spots during the offseason. You don’t hear talk radio obsessing over where Blaine Gabbert will end up, for example.
Our free-agency data set has a blind spot, though — it only shows QBs who were ultimately signed. Another way to try to evaluate why Kaepernick hasn’t been is to spin a hypothetical: Imagine Kaepernick doesn’t throw a single pass next season — is he like other QBs who fall off the map?
Not really. Since 1966, only one under-30 quarterback has had as good a year as Kaepernick’s 20161 yet gone unsigned the next year.2 Other young quarterbacks who follow relatively good seasons with no passes the next tend to be out of the game for different reasons:
|SEASON BEFORE ABSENCE|
|PLAYER||YEAR||AGE||YARDS ABOVE REPLACEMENT||REASON FOR ABSENCE|
|Vince Ferragamo||1980||26||987||Rival league|
|Doug Williams||1982||27||409||Rival league|
|Ed Luther||1984||27||396||Rival league|
|Randy Johnson||1973||29||345||Rival league|
Kaepernick, though, isn’t injured, has not yet secured even a spot on the bench, and an excursion into a rival league is a far steeper fall off for a player today than it was in the past.
Kaepernick can fit into different offenses
That doesn’t mean Kaepernick’s case is open and shut, though. There are other factors that may be at play, such as his reported desire to compete for a starting job (and earn a low-starter to high-backup salary). That would encourage him to wait and see what happens with Romo and the ripple effects that Romo’s move could have on the rest of the league.
But there is also a belief that the delay in finding Kaepernick a team is because of his particular skillset: that any team that signs him would have to run an offense built for a quarterback who isn’t a pocket passer. But Kaepernick’s reputation for being a bad QB in the pocket is somewhat overblown. There are in-depth film reviews for Kaepernick that show his ability to make reads and handle pressure, such as Doug Farrar’s at Bleacher Report. The stats confirm as much.
Last season, Kaepernick completed 61 percent of his passes from the pocket, for 14 touchdowns and two interceptions, according to data from ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. Elite quarterbacks tend to complete something in the mid-to-high 60s, so it’s not like Kaepernick is being shunned despite being elite. The league median completion percentage since 2010 is 63 percent. Still, considering that San Francisco receivers dropped 6.3 percent of all targets thrown their way in 2016 — the highest rate in the league — Kaepernick’s accuracy is likely a bit better than the percentages show.3
It was Kaepernick’s out-of-pocket stats that weighed down his numbers: He completed just 49 percent of his passes from outside the pocket in 2016, with a raw QBR (total QBR before adjusting for strength of opponent) of just 16.5 on those plays. So it’s probably a good thing that the share of Kaepernick’s plays that came outside the pocket were at a career-low last season, dropping from a high of 23 percent of his plays in 2012 to 17 percent in 2016. That 17 percent is still fairly high relative to the league (the median since 2010 is 11 percent), but his game is trending toward staying in the pocket.
Despite Kaepernick’s flaws, QBs at his level are still worth something in the NFL, in part because its quarterback marketplace is driven by scarcity. The Denver Broncos were prepared to give up a fourth-round pick for Kaepernick last year because there aren’t that many people in the world who can do what Kaepernick can do, even if what Kaepernick does is far from perfect.
For instance, Kaepernick’s raw QBR for in-pocket plays has not been very good the past few seasons. Among 232 qualified passer-seasons since 2010, Kaepernick’s 2016 ranks 208th. But then look at Sam Bradford, whose 2015 season ranks four spots ahead of Kaepernick, at 204th. When Minnesota starter Teddy Bridgewater went down just before the 2016 season, the Vikings traded a 2017 first-round pick and a 2018 fourth-rounder for Bradford’s services as an emergency starter. Kaepernick is only a year older than Bradford was last season, but his value has dipped from a fourth-round pick in Denver to seemingly nothing at all.
It is impossible to prove the precise mix of factors that have gone into Kaepernick’s free agency to this point. The market remains paralyzed by Romo, and teams are run by fallible owners and executives who may simply disagree on Kaepernick’s football value. But given what we know about how the quarterback market has worked historically, and about Kaepernick’s value as a player, the commentariat is right to be suspicious. If Kaepernick begins the season without a team, history says it’s unlikely to be for football reasons. We aren’t there yet, but every day further into free agency makes that scenario harder to ignore.