Thursday, February 27, 2014

QB Corner - Colin Kaepernick (SEA @ SF)

QB Corner first looked at Colin Kaepernick in a tough defensive game against the Carolina Panthers. As multiple 49ers expressed prior to their playoff date in Carolina, the 49ers were missing key offensive personnel in the earlier game, including Vernon Davis for the 2nd half and Michael Crabtree for the entirety of the game.

The Crabtree injury is especially interesting given the monstrous numbers he had with Colin under center in 2012. Through the first half of this year, despite a few big games from Anquan Boldin, the 49ers receivers never looked like they had the space that Crabtree was getting last year. Even Boldin isn’t necessarily open – I have long maintained that he simply makes catches through coverage.

The real weakness was secondary receivers, as Kyle Williams, Quinton Patton, Jon Baldwin, and Company who couldn't separate from coverage. Did you know that after Boldin and Davis, the next-leading receiver by catches was fullback Bruce Miller? Or that 49ers backs had 48 catches for 443 yards and 0 TDs on the season compared to 40 grabs for 454 yards and 0 TDs from receivers not named Boldin, Davis, or Crabtree?

I wanted to study Colin in a game where he had his #1 target back, and what better game to analyze than against another fantastic defense in the Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks. This is especially important this offseason as the 49ers are looking to extend their QB. My goal is to use his numbers and tape to give a ballpark range for how much Kaepernick is worth to this team. First, the numbers from the season:

All numbers from Pro-Football Reference

The bad news: sacks. You really want to see a QB's sack percentage below 7%. He makes up for it with his legs (second highest yards/attempt) and ability to throw on the run. But playing behind what is regarded as one of the league's better offensive lines, Colin should get the ball out in time. His completion percentage is not good but the 49ers are a throw-deep team and his yards/attempt figure is high. He stays away from picks and throws a decent number of TDs. It's interesting that his high yards/attempt figure really translates to ANY/A (adjusted net yards per attempt) where he is fourth behind Nick Foles, Drew Brees, and Russell Wilson. Combined with his legs, that makes him top-10 QB on a per-play basis.

I also thought this set of numbers was interesting:

The top line is Colin's numbers in the 12 games without Crabtree, the bottom the 4 games with #15, both pro-rated for a 16 game season. Now the numbers are drastically different, but it's telling that Colin improved in every single category when Crabtree was playing. And sure, the differences are small, but these are the type of incremental improvements that QBs make to become great. His second set of numbers would make him better than Russell Wilson. Now two things stand out: 1) sample size, and 2) strength of schedule. The second is easier: in the last 4 games, the 49ers played the Seahawks, Buccaneers, and Cardinals defenses. Enough said. The sample size is small, which is why I want to do a larger study on receiver injuries (to come). But the point stands: Crabtree makes a difference and may be especially important to this team and this QB.

Next, the film. With even Colin and Russell Wilson throwing 30+ passes regularly, posting ~3 pics of each passing play is too much. I've condensed this post by using GIFs to animate each passing play. At the beginning of each play, I've also started to describe what type of drop it is: UC (under center), S (shotgun), P/A (play/action) and the number of steps in the drop. You'll see why at the bottom. Enjoy!

1. UC 5. Easy comeback at the top of the drop. With good protection, there's no need to step to the sideline with his left foot and open his hips in the 3rd frame. He wants this ball to drift high and to the left, away from the defender, so opening his stance a little is okay. But in the 4th frame, Crabtree has to jump and reach for the ball despite getting great separation as the corner fell down. Coach Harbaugh can say all he wants about Crabtree's catching skills, but he dropped this pass due to its increased level of difficulty.

2. S 3. Basically the first play again: a back-shoulder throw on an iso route to the left. In a 3rd/10 obvious passing scenario, Seattle’s let end got a great jump at the snap and puts heavy pressure on Kaepernick, not allowing him to step into the throw, and the pass is incomplete.

3. UC 5 with a zone read fake. Look how the fake makes the defender responsible for the C gap shift his weight, anticipating a rush into that gap. This sucks him into the box while the pass goes to the flat, also his responsibility. Kaep opens his hips in frame 3, but a defender was right on him and it’s a miracle he got this pass off, much less completed it.

4. UC 7. 7 steps is a long way against a fierce pass rush and the right end has gotten separation from Joe Staley. Colin should step up, allowing the LT to chip the defender back; instead, he opens his hips and throws another deep comeback. Despite flawed footwork, the long pass has a ton of zip and beats the defense for a big completion. The timing of the route may have necessitated Colin throwing without shifting forward in the pocket, but I counter that he needs to make those small adjustments quick enough to not affect route timing.

5. S 5. Simple idea to attack the space between zone defenders. Looks like the first read is Vernon Davis up the seam. In the 2nd frame, Anquan is open, but he is heading out of the soft spot in the zone rather than sitting in it. I’m not sure what the route was, but Anquan and Kaep should have the chemistry to adjust the route. On the other hand, Frank Gore, after seeing no blitz, is heading right for that spot. Right next to Anquan is the shadow of the linebacker that closes fast in frame 3 and knocks this pass incomplete. Kaep has the good sense to keep this ball low – his tendency is to throw low, avoiding picks. But remember: this was 1st down. Great QBs understand that they need positive yardage on 1st down, and a short dump to Gore would have been better.

6. UC 5. The 49ers pick up the zone blitz nicely. Kaep throws quickly at the top of the drop. While it again looks like he’s opened his feet too much, frame 4 reveals this is an iso route to Crabtree where the ball needed to be high and slightly left to avoid the deep defender. I still don’t like how in frame 3 he’s pointed away from the target after releasing the pass – I think by staying square, he can be more consistent with accuracy and loft. The 49ers consistently attacked this spot in the Cover-3, on the edges between the deep defender and the linebacker underneath. This was a fantastic completion; they tried the same routes in the NFC Championship to more mixed success.

7. P/A roll left. The 49ers pull a bunch of people left trying to sell the run fake but the defense forces a throwaway. Smart not to force anything on 1st and 10.

8. Designed QB sneak up the middle. The 49ers have a few blockers assigned to take the LBs out. In frame 2, Alex Boone, an otherwise fantastic guard, missed. Colin just missed a first down as a result.

9. P/A (inside zone) roll right. They’re testing Richard Sherman’s fantastic coverage. Colin keeps his shoulder square while rolling, allowing him to leverage it as he throws. This ball was barely incomplete out of bounds – in frame 5 the line judge is actually signalling complete with his hands above his head but he was overruled.

10. S 3. Good slide forward under pressure. The checkdown in the flat is open in frame 2 but it is 3rd down – have to go for the sticks. Colin throws deep, again attacking that gap along the sideline, but the coverage is better.

11. S, P/A (inside zone), one hop. Again, his feet are generally pointed in the right direction but I would like to see him align his footwork better. The pass again attacks that intermediate area along the sideline, and while it was located well, the coverage is too good.

12. S 3. Great footwork in a clean pocket, raises the ball to pass, then pulls it down and rolls right. Good job maintaining footwork while throwing on the run, it looks like he throws a pseudo jump pass off his left foot – wait what!? Somehow it makes it to Crabtree who drops it. Defensive holding (may have caused the drop) was called, giving the 49ers a 1st down.

13. UC P/A 7. For some reason I didn’t get the catch, but instead of throwing to the sideline, Anquan runs a post between the zone defenders on the left side, and this was a big completion. Get those feet pointed downfield, Colin.

14. UC P/A 7. This drop looks shorter than the last one even though they were the same number of steps. The first read on the right covered, Colin works left and throws a jump ball to a well-covered Crabtree, incomplete. In frame 3, Kaep could have checked to the middle and gotten ~1/2 of the needed yardage on 2nd down, which would have been a victory for the offense. But I like this throw. The 49ers are a throw-deep team, and I like QBs confident enough to take shots against single coverage.

15. S 3. Short comeback on the right side, incredible play by the LB in frame 3 to tip it away. I like that he didn’t throw to Crabtree breaking right out of the slot – the linebacker shoots forward in frame 3 would have had a play on the ball.

16. UC P/A (inside zone) 5. The left end flies upfield and Colin runs left. I don’t like how loosely he holds the ball in frame 3, though he does get 2 yards scrambling.

17. UC P/A 5. This looked like a throwaway but in frame 4 shows Crabtree being held. Smart play by Colin to throw that direction and get an easy pass interference call.

18. UC 5. Great throw in rhythm at the top of the drop, Colin fits it between two linebackers for a big conversion on 2nd and 7.

19. UC P/A 5. This actually starts as a fake screen before the run fake and 5 step drop. Colin is anticipating the throw well; frame 3 shows him getting his left foot ready to plant in the direction of the throw. Good job hanging in the pocket and completing a pass for 10 yards while under pressure from the left defensive end.

20. UC 5. One of the best throws of the day. The first read is to the left but two rushers on that side get great penetration and would have batted a ball if thrown. Colin pumps and moves quickly to his right, where, on the run, he throws a beautiful touch pass to Anquan Boldin. Going against Richard Sherman, the ball is placed where only Boldin can get it (frame 4). Frame 5 shows Colin’s natural 3/4 arm slot – who said he can’t be accurate throwing from this slot? Frames 6-8 show how Anquan got open on a double move, catching the ball despite holding called on Sherman. Note to the 49ers: bring Anquan back.

21. UC P/A roll right. One of the most creative play calls of the game. In frame 1, a wideout clears the zone defender at the bottom of the screen while the line and running backs block right. The circled defensive player has an assignment to crash on Colin in case he bootlegs to the left – the Seahawks are scared of him running unabated. In frame 2, the defense is beat as they’ve let Vernon Davis get a free release to the weak side. Colin plants quickly and throws a beautiful pass, again only where Vernon can get it. The ball only travels ~3.5 yards past the line of scrimmage, but went much further in the air. The only thing wrong with this play is that it was called a few yards too far from the end zone, as Vernon is tackled at the 5.

22. S 0. After two gorgeous passes, this was one of the worst throws of the day. Colin throws a slant immediately after getting the ball. The 49ers are trying a rub route to get Crabtree open. The inside receiver goes to the corner, taking one linebacker, while Anquan in the middle is supposed to run right at the other linebacker, screening him. Crabtree should have enough space between him and Sherman to make the catch and the endzone. In frame 2, this plan seems like it’s working, as both inside defenders have been screened (one in yellow, the other is hiding behind Boldin in red). The refs would actually call offensive P-I on Boldin, so it the play wouldn’t have worked anyway. But in frame 3, the ball is horrible behind Crabtree. Colin’s hips and feet looked good, he just missed this easy throw, and missed it badly.

23. S 3. #7 makes up for it here. Textbook throwing motion to a crossing Vernon Davis. While his feet are pointed down the center in the frame 1, his right foot shows that the ball will be thrown left (yellow arrow). Good QBs know that the inside of the ankle on the throwing side should also point at the target. Some coaches call the bone that protrudes from the inside of the ankle the QB’s “eye,” as in it should always be able to “see” the receiver. The ball indeed goes left, away from the linebacker, and Vernon scores. Frames 4 and 6 show how nice this pass was. Colin has an area the size of the strike zone to put the ball, and he does it perfectly. I also like how, on intermediate and short routes against tight coverage, he tends to throw low. Perfect placement is in the middle of the zone, but missing low versus high (like many young QBs do), has two advantages: 1) the likelihood that the ball is tipped up and intercepted is much lower, as most low balls not caught hit the ground, and 2) low balls make it harder for the defense to reach down and tip away (some defenders are great leapers, but most can’t reach a ball that’s low and away). Colin is able to do this because of his size and velocity: he can put enough on the ball to send it in a straighter line than most guys so it never has to arc upwards.

24. UC 3. Another case where his feet start pointed down the middle in a neutral stance, but his right ankle is pointed to the right. The 49ers have Crabtree running between zone defenders, hopefully clearing a pass to the flat. However, Kaep opens his hips (frame 2) and leans away from the receiver at release (frame 3), meaning this ball sails over the head of his fullback.

25. S 1. Quick throw to slant, still don’t like how open his hips are to the field. This slant is delivered accurately, however, with nice YAC between the zone.

26. UC 5. Seattle blitzes and rather than run backwards and away  from pressure, I like how Colin moves forward and picks up 5 yards scrambling. The line did a great job blocking inside out on this play, giving Colin the room he needed in the middle.

27. Read option keep. Seattle executes a textbook scrape exchange: the right end crashes on the back and the linebacker behind him focuses on Colin. Colin is in trouble by frame 2 and takes a huge loss.

28. UC 5. 49ers again attacking the space between zones on the left side. Decent mechanics but he needs to be more accurate with his feet. The route concept floods the left side with 3 receivers that stretch the field horizontally and vertically, creating a nice triangle where someone had to be open.

29. UC 5. Doesn’t like his first read in up the middle and escapes the pocket. Gets loose with the ball in frame 4. Frames 5 and 6 show him throwing an absolute strike to the right sideline. Sherman thinks it’s incomplete, but the pass was good.

30. UC 5. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the All-22 film of this one. Seattle are spying him, so he wisely avoids scrambling. He buys enough time for Boldin to find a gap in the zone (looks like Cover-2, not Seattle’s base defense). Colin’s footwork is way off but it’s an easy pass to complete.

31. UC 5. A case where his feet are pointed down the middle but the eye on his ankle suggests a pass to the left. His footwork is actually very good on this throw and the ball is placed nearly perfectly – just 12 more inches of air and it’s a likely touchdown. Instead Byron Maxwell makes a ridiculous play to haul this in for a pick.

32. UC P/A 5. Gore comes off a fake into a short out. In frame 3, Colin is getting some pressure on the weak side but has room on the play side to step into the throw – Gore is on the number 50 and Colin’s feet aren’t pointing anywhere near him. Frame 4 shows the pass hitting Gore in the hands, and overall I attribute it to a drop by Frank. But throwing to a running back, Colin has to give him an easier ball to catch (if it was a receiver, I’d say great placement). Also, great QBs understand that they have to get positive yardage on 1st and 10. Colin looks like he’s trying to lead Gore to the sideline away from the defense, but in this scenario, should be more focused on completing the pass even for 3 yards.

33. S5. Seattle rushers on-task in an obvious passing scenario (3rd/11). Cilff Avril uses a great spin move to get a ton of separation on Anthony Davis. Sack.

34. UC 5. Colin takes an extra hop at the end of the drop, which he does often; it looks like he may be spooked by Chris Clemons’ bull rush. He rolls left and eventually runs for 8.

35. UC 5. Takes another hop but the line holds this time. In frame 2, he starts moving right, possible to run, but Anquan is actually going to come open on a coverage mixup on the left. He does turn around in frame 3 and has both Anquan and Gore open, with feet almost perfectly placed to throw to either. Instead he opens his hips in frame 4 – it almost looks like he’s gearing to sidearm this pass, and his follow through in frame 5 is horrible. The result: pass to wide-open receiver is bounced.

36. UC 3. Quick throw to the left flat, still don’t love his footwork but it’s an easy throw.

37. S 3. Coverage is excellent as is the rush. Colin somehow evades sacks by 3 would-be tacklers, runs right and throws a strike to the sideline for a 1st down, but a penalty on the offensive line brings this back. What an effort by #7 though.

38. S 3. Pocket immediately collapses as two blockers miss assignments, sack - on 3rd/17.  In an obvious passing scenario, the 49ers have to have a hot pass to take the pressure off Colin and run clock – they are up 16-14 with ~10 minutes left in 4th.

39. UC 5. Sharper drop this time, but Anthony Davis is again overwhelmed. Colin escapes to the right for 4 yards scrambling.

40. P/A Roll left. They really sell the fake with a pulling guard. This is a tough position to throw from, but Colin completes it for 5 yards. A slightly higher throw would have given them a better shot at the first down, but is also more dangerous; I am fine with the placement on this. The 49ers got the 1st down the next play on a FB dive.

41. After a monster Frank Gore run, the 49ers need a 1st down to run clock. They pull two linemen to the play-side, trusting Anquan Boldin to block the defensive end. And he did it (re-sign this man!). By frame 3, the linemen are upfield and Colin has 4 blockers against four tacklers in the immediate area. Backside pursuit catches him, but the 1st down won the game.



  1. Arm talent. Colin showed his ability to put arc on balls, throw lasers, throw on the run, throw under pressure, even throw when his footwork was bad. He only really missed 3 throws: the slant to Crabtree, and two overcooked throws to running backs in the flat.
  2. Chemistry with receivers. This is about understanding where receivers want the ball, putting it where only his guy can get it. Colin routinely placed balls high or low out of the defense’s reach, otherwise known as “throwing the receiver open.”
  3. Improved understanding of passing lanes. Colin has struggled in the past with having balls batted. I think it’s a combination of A) his tendency to throw low on shorter routes, B) his height, which allows him to see over the defense so he doesn’t respect the rush as much, and C) a ¾ arm slot that isn’t a problem as long as he’s consistent. But as the pocket collapsed time and time in this game, Colin showed the necessary patience when throwing lanes weren’t there.
  4. Reads. I strongly dispute the notion that Colin is a one-read quarterback. He is slower moving from read to read compared to more advanced QBs and he struggles more with reads on opposite sides of the field. But the coaches had a great game plan in this game and in the last two games versus a historic Seahawks passing defense, I always though Colin knew where to go with the ball. Importantly, he stays away from trouble and doesn't lock on to receivers, tipping the defense for easy picks.

  1. Footwork. Footwork. Footwork. Colin usually gets his front pointed in the general right direction, but he often opens his hips to the field. I know he has a strong arm and maybe he’s more comfortable throwing this way. The effect is there is too much side-to-side torque on the ball, which causes instability and missed throws. He is already a great QB – can you imagine how much better he could be if he consistently aligned both feet in the direction of the throw?
  2. Moving in the pocket. It’s hard to be consistent in the pocket when the offensive line breaks down like the 49ers’ did in this game. Toward the end, Colin got “happy feet” on a few drops, anticipating the rush when he had time to throw. Colin needs to get better at subtle, smaller shifts in the pocket that allow him to avoid pressure but keep his feet oriented in the right direction to throw quickly.
  3. Ball security. He only got loose with it a few times, but he needs to keep that ball high and close to the chest.
  4. Looking off safeties and pre-snap reads. As he gets more comfortable with reading the defense pre-snap and getting an idea of where he wants to go with the ball, Colin needs to start looking the other way to fool safeties. He’s a decent threat on play fakes where defense are terrified of him as a running threat, but he needs to fake them with his passing prowess as well.
  5. Drop back mechanics. Watching Colin the last two years, it looks like he long legs make dropping back a bit harder for him. It's not a disaster, but he doesn't look as comfortable as the best passers. College QBs are often taught to get as far back as fast as they can, but the NFL is much more detail-oriented. Because rushers in the NFL are so much better, blockers are taught to block to a spot depending on how many steps the drop-back is. They are also taught to open certain passing lanes depending on where the QB should be at the top of his drop. In the Carolina game, I noticed some inconsistency in Colin's drop depth and location. I specifically watched for it in this game. His most frequently used drop was 5 steps from under center. Here are the images of all those drops, first from left to right (1st and 4th quarters), and then from right to left (2nd and 3rd). The orange numbers denote which pass play it was:

I think the coaches want him to get 8 yards back on 5 steps. He does a good job of it in the first half, especially since they varied his drops a lot early with play/action, roll-outs, etc.

Midway through the game, still good at about 8 yards per drop. Did go a little further back on pass 28.

Then for whatever reason, his drops get shorter. He only gets around 7 yards on all of these. That's not a problem in itself, but you need to be consistent from play to play.

Later in the game, as the rush started spooking him, he started dropping back further. You can see in both 34 and 35 that he's taking a big last step to get as far back as possible. The last step should actually be the shortest, as a shorter step will allow you to adjust footwork and throw faster at the top of the drop. This is the area he really needs to work on. On the last drive of the game, though, he comes up with a beautiful drop and ultimately escapes the pocket for a 4 yard scramble.

Before the Super Bowl, I wrote "Russell [Wilson] is the best young quarterback in the league, RIGHT NOW" (emphasis original). Colin Kaepernick is not at that level. But weighing his strengths and weaknesses, as a package, I take it gladly. Some of his strengths you can't teach; I believe the weaknesses can be worked on. But my overall takeaway from this game was: Colin moved the ball. The 49ers only went 3-and-out twice, and three scoring drives covered over 50 yards (two TD drives over 70). They also had a 40 yard drive that ended in a field goal and a 48 yard drive that ended on a spectacular pick in the Seattle end zone. And this against a pass defense that was easily the best of the last decade and one of the best all-time. A defense that consistently dominated their offensive line and held their running game most of the day. All while his best receiver was still working his way back from a 3 month injury layoff.

This is a totally un-statistical way to view things, but watching this game (and the NFC Championship Game), as a 49ers fan, I was never afraid of what the Seattle pass defense could do. With an aging Frank Gore and an unproven LaMichael James, I was hoping the coaches would put the game in Colin's hands. And he delivered. He was never shell-shocked but appeared supremely comfortable with what the team needed him to do. You know who couldn't do that? Peyton freaking Manning. I understand the small sample size and everything. I know that he's is not yet a consistent passer. But Colin Kaepernick shows up time and time in big games against great opponents, and gives his team an excellent chance to win. I don't what more you can ask of a second-year quarterback than that.

As far as his salary - top QB salaries are currently in the $20mm+ range for the top 5 QBs. For Kaepernick, I am comfortable with a range of $15mm to $17mm (with a big signing bonus and the cap effect backloaded). At the bottom of that range are guys like Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger who have proven themselves but are on the decline. At the top of that range are Tony Romo and Matthew Stafford. You could argue that Kaepernick is better than those guys already (I wouldn't - not yet, as the 49ers have a much better team around their QB than Dallas or Detroit). The top of the range makes me nervous, but if his agent is doing his job, Kaepernick should get a total salary in the top 10.

Right? Wrong? You Make The Calls. #YMTC #YouMakeTheCalls #QBCorner

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