Kap has a bazooka arm, but now comes the real test
With Colin Kaepernick, it’s all about the rocket launcher attached to his right shoulder socket. When NinersDigest asked coach Jim Harbaugh for an evaluation of the rookie QB this week, the coach responded succinctly about his pet project, “Well, great guy, smart guy, who’s got a hose.” Kaepernick does have the big arm, but how far has he come now that the real competition at QB is about to begin?
Kaepernick will have a five-practice head start on Alex Smith when the incumbent veteran starter finally is allowed to begin working in uniform with the 49ers along with the team’s other free-agent signings late Thursday afternoon.
And those five practices, when Kaepernick took practically every snap with the first-unit offense, definitely put the team’s second-round draft pick ahead of where he was when camp practices began last Friday.
How much progress has Kaepernick made, and how much development has he shown in his first week of work as a professional quarterback? The Niners would seem to suggest that he’s made plenty.
“Colin’s been doing a great job thus far,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said Wednesday, which sounds great on the surface, until Roman finished that sentence with, “at putting things behind him and moving on.”
Kaepernick hasn’t been Superman. He’s had his share of egregious moments as the main man responsible for operating the offense, making poor reads, wild throws and repeatedly putting the football on the lawn in the basic function of taking snaps from center.
But you will see those things happen at varying degrees to all quarterbacks during the course of training camp. Kaepernick has shown the rough edges of a rookie, but he has not been bad. Not bad at all. He has shown progress and taken incremental steps almost every day since summer camp began.
As Roman quickly added with his next words that followed his comment above, “He comes in every day and gets better, and we’re thrilled with how he’s progressing.”
Here’s the bare essentials of Kaepernick’s progress so far: His towering height gives him pocket presence, and as everybody has seen and can agree upon, he has a big-league arm. He can make the deep throws, to be sure, and he has real zip and good accuracy on timing routes over the middle. He has shown the ability to nail the tough corner throws and drop the ball over defenders on a 20-yard in-cut. He can work the middle of the field. He will make a lot of tight ends happy campers before his career is over in San Francisco.
And for a guy who possesses a veritable bazooka, Kaepernick is displaying some promising touch on his passes. That is something crucial at this level, and something that, for example, former first-round bust Jim Druckenmiller never developed to go along with the bazooka arm that made him San Francisco’s top pick – and heir apparent at quarterback – in 1997.
What he can’t do: Kaepernick struggles when rolling to his left, which isn’t unusual for right-handed quarterbacks, and he seems to lose both control and accuracy when throwing on the move in that direction. He also has a tendency to force his throws, and he’s going to need a lot of work reading NFL defenses, something that can come only with live experience with enemies instead of teammates on the other side of the ball.
Kaepernick has been picked off three times this week by safety Reggie Smith alone as he tried to drill passes into tight underneath coverage. Those things happen. It’s all a part of learning at the toughest position in professional sports.
“I would say it’s more just getting comfortable with the position of defensive players,” Kaepernick said. “They’re a lot smarter (than in college). They move a lot faster. So it’s more getting a feel for when they can jump something and when they can’t. Typically in college, you don’t have the safety running underneath the drag route when you roll out. So it’s just getting your eyes trained for things like that and then don’t let it happen again once it does happen.”
Like Harbaugh said, Kaepernick is smart. He clearly understands what he is up against here. Now he’ll be up against Smith, and that five-practice lead will diminish quickly, as will Kaepernick’s trial-and-error developmental time in 11-on-11 drills as his snaps with the starting unit shrink now that Smith is ready to take over.
The 49ers have a preseason game in eight days to get ready for, after all, and they have to get Smith ready if he’s going to play that day. They also have a season to get ready for, and Smith also is behind in that pursuit if he’s to remain San Francisco’s starter.
The real test for Kaepernick starts today, when Smith starts getting the No. 1 focus that has been fixated on Kaepernick since camp began. Despite getting less work, Kaepernick will have to continue on his current learning projectile if he really expects to challenge Smith for the starting role anytime soon, and let’s just say there aren’t a lot of people out there who expect that to happen.
Not even Kaepernick’s favorite target so far in camp, tight end Vernon Davis, with whom Kaepernick already has developed an enticing pass-catch combination.
“He’s a good player,” Davis said of the young QB. “He has a lot of potential, a very good future. (But) we expect Alex to be the starter here. I don’t think there’s too much competition at the moment.”
So let the competition begin. And Kaepernick has shown enough in his early head start to suggest that there actually might be one.