Warszawski: Run-heavy 49ers don’t need top-paid quarterback

The Fresno BeeJune 5, 2014 

By signing Colin Kaepernick to one of the richest contracts in NFL history, the 49ers made a costly error.

Not because Kaepernick isn't worth the money. In 29 career starts, the 26-year-old from Turlock has established himself as one of the top young quarterbacks in pro football.

Kaepernick just isn't worth the money to the 49ers.

Under Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers are a team that runs first and passes when necessary. They smash opponents behind a physical line, then hoodwink them with an inventive assortment of sweeps and traps. (Who doesn't love the "wham" play?)

What the 49ers don't do, at least often, is pass. In fact, no NFL team attempted fewer last season (417) than San Francisco. And only the Jets and Buccaneers produced fewer passing yards.

Passing is why guys like Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees get the mega-deals.

They aren't being paid to hand it off, like Kaepernick does a majority of the time.

It's like spending $275,000 on a Ferrari and never taking it above 55 mph on the freeway.

Harbaugh's ground-heavy approach has worked wonders. The 49ers are 36-11-1 since his arrival and have played in three straight NFC Championships and one Super Bowl.

Except they did those things mostly behind a dominating defense. Offensively, the quarterback was hardly more important (or higher paid) than the left guard.

That's no longer the case. Kaepernick will be paid like he's Rodgers or Brees -- both of whom won Super Bowls before they were so handsomely rewarded -- even though he plays in a less quarterback-dependent system.

There's much to like about Kaepernick. He's a supreme athlete with a rifle arm and running ability that we haven't seen from a quarterback since Steve Young and Randall Cunningham. Fresno State fans know this especially well from his days at Nevada.

But there are weaknesses. Kaepernick is not always a steady pocket presence; in critical moments of the biggest games he appears rushed and jittery. No one throws with more velocity, but many display better touch and accuracy. He has a ways to go when it comes to reading defenses.

Kaepernick is still developing, and by signing him long-term, the 49ers are betting big money the final canvas looks more like a Rembrandt than a smudge painting.

He will improve. Kaepernick has a tremendous work ethic, by all accounts, and the past two years of near misses have only left him more hungry to win a Super Bowl.

However, the 49ers didn't have to do this now. Kaepernick had one year remaining on his rookie deal and the team could've used the franchise tag on him in 2015.

Instead, they jumped the gun.

With Stevie Johnson joining a healthy Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis, Kaepernick will certainly have better targets than he did a year ago. So it's possible Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman will give their quarterback more freedom in the passing game.

But I doubt it. More likely, the 49ers will remain a run-heavy offense no matter if the lead tailback is Frank Gore, Carlos Hyde or Marcus Lattimore. Except instead of a $1 million quarterback making those handoffs, they'll have a $20 million one.

This is not a good thing.

Unlike other pro sports, the NFL has a hard salary cap. Even though that total increases every year, teams can only spend so much. Money spent on a quarterback cannot be spent on a tight end, defensive end or middle linebacker.

The 49ers under Harbaugh have been successful because of their tight end, defensive ends and middle linebackers. Even the kicker, who in 2011 set an NFL record for field goals. The quarterback? Not so much.

Before unleashing him during last year's playoffs, Harbaugh kept Kaepernick's running under wraps. Which is smart, because he can only absorb so many hits. But it also curtails his effectiveness.

The good news for the 49ers is Kaepernick's contract isn't as prohibitive as initially thought.

Reports on Wednesday afternoon pegged the total value at $126 million over seven years, with a record-setting $61 million in guarantees. Now it appears those figures were vastly overstated. According to CBS Sports' Jason LaCanfora, the 49ers are only on the hook for $13 million for one season and $28 million for two if they experience buyer's remorse. (Of course no one expects them to sever ties that soon.)

Kaepernick's estimated salary-cap figure for 2014 (about $3.8 million) is still low enough for the 49ers to satisfy the demands of Davis, left guard Mike Iupati and right guard Alex Boone, who want new deals.

After that, Kaepernick will count against the cap just like Rodgers and Brees do, giving the 49ers significantly less flexibility. But unless they undergo a radical personality transplant, he'll never be worth that kind of money.

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6218, marekw@fresnobee.com or @MarekTheBee on Twitter.

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