INDIANAPOLIS — If the San Francisco 49ers were fully convinced that QB Colin Kaepernick held no value, either to them or another team, they would be readying to release him when the new league year begins in March.
That’s not the case—at least not yet.
“He’s won some big games for the San Francisco 49ers. We expect him to come back,” 49ers GM Trent Baalke said Wednesday from the scouting combine. “Our main focus right now is health, just getting him healthy and doing a good job with his rehab. [We] just look forward to getting him back and getting him working with this coaching staff.”
Baalke added that he “absolutely” expects Kaepernick to remain on the 49ers’ roster, reiterating comments from earlier in the morning when he reportedly promised Kaepernick would stay put beyond April 1. That date marks a key fork in the road because it is when Kaepernick’s $11.9 million base salary would lock in, fully guaranteed, for the 2016 season.
Releasing or trading Kaepernick prior to that date would cost the 49ers approximately $7.4 million in dead-cap penalties for next season.
The $11.9 million price tag (and nearly $16 million cap hit), though, still would keep Kaepernick on the low end for starting quarterbacks. Last season, 18 quarterbacks carried average cap totals in excess of $16 million over the lives of their contracts, including Kaepernick at $19 million (six years, $114 million); Sam Bradford and Nick Foles made it 20 above the $10 million threshold.
In other words, Kaepernick would make for an affordable option should someone decide he is a viable NFL starter. The question, of course, is: Does anyone believe that?
Baalke and new coach Chip Kelly first have to make that call. Rumors had Kelly interested in Kaepernick during his Philadelphia days, but it’s unclear how true that was and how Kelly may feel now. Kelly was not scheduled to speak at the combine, one of a handful of GMs or coaches to skip the podium. However, Baalke backed the abilities of both Kaepernick and his 2015 replacement, Blaine Gabbert. The latter carries a $2.25 million cap hit next season.
“We feel pretty good with the guys we have,” Baalke said, “but we’re always looking.”
And therein lies the rub. The most immediate outcome of keeping Kaepernick around is that the 49ers are leaving all their options open. They are giving Kelly the chance to further evaluate Kaepernick’s potential within the new scheme. Perhaps more importantly, they’re leaving the door open for Baalke to strike up a trade somewhere along the line. Stating on Feb. 24 that Kaepernick’s days in San Francisco are numbered would have eliminated any chance Baalke had at pulling off a deal in the coming weeks.
Such talks may have to wait until closer to the draft, after free agency has settled down and as everyone gets a better sense for how the early-round QBs will fall. If any of those teams looking for help—Cleveland, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, etc.—don’t find a favorable draft match, Kaepernick could become an intriguing alternative. For all his issues last season, he does have 47 regular-season starts under his belt, plus a bit of evidence that he can succeed in spurts.
Clearly, there appears to be a match between Kelly’s offense and Kaepernick’s athletic abilities. Kaepernick enjoyed more success in the pre-Jim Tomsula days, when he was allowed more freedom to roam. The 49ers’ attempts to turn him into a heavy pocket passer backfired completely.
Spending $12 million merely to kick the tires on Kaepernick is an expensive plan, even if it puts the San Francisco QB on the lower half of salaries at his position. He would be the team’s highest-paid player by a significant margin, as quarterbacks often are. Again, though, releasing him would leave the 49ers paying almost $8 million anyway. If they can get something out of Kaepernick via a trade down the road or, ideally, Kelly can turn Kaepernick back into a starter, the gamble would be worth it.
We’ll see. Combine press conferences hardly have a perfect record of accuracy when it comes to what coaches and GMs say. And Baalke’s contention that Kaepernick “absolutely” will remain on the San Francisco roster means little until April 1 actually rolls around. If another team comes calling with a trade offer before then, don't be surprised to hear that tune change. All Baalke did Wednesday was leave the 49ers as many outs as possible.