It’s about time to start seriously wondering if we’ll ever see Colin Kaepernick playing in the NFL again.
The free agency signing period opened two months ago. The draft has come and gone. Even the possibility that a team could lose a compensatory pick by signing Kaepernick as a free agent has been dismissed — the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback’s restructured contract eliminated compensation from the equation — which means we’re running out of excuses to explain his unemployment today.
Kaepernick’s future has been a hot topic throughout the offseason. It’s about to become even more of a discussion, especially with the retirement of Jay Cutler making him the best available quarterback left on the free-agent market. This is no longer about teams trying to figure out their QB situations or whether Kaepernick is holding out for a chance to compete for a starting job. It’s about whether he remains too toxic for any franchise to take a chance on him this fall.
Given that these middling talents have been finding work since the offseason began, Kaepernick better start worrying about where this all might lead.
Kaepernick had to know his decision to protest police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem would create some kind of blowback. What we’re witnessing these days is how brutal it could become for him. The talk of franchises avoiding Kaepernick because of his baggage — reported by Bleacher Report in March — seems more valid the longer this goes on.
There have been no visits or meetings arranged for Kaepernick and his high asking price apparently scared off one team that viewed him as a backup option. The only person to say Kaepernick has generated any other interest is Dr. Harry Edwards, a Professor Emeritus at Cal-Berkeley who has advised Kaepernick in the past and recently told USA Today three teams have asked him about Kaepernick since March. As one 49ers front office member said, “Anyone who thinks [Kaepernick’s] stance doesn’t factor into this has never had a talk with one of these general managers or head coaches.”
“Kaepernick is more talented than [Barkley, Glennon and Gabbert],” one AFC personnel director told me. “The issue is that this crosses over into social issues. I would hope that some coach or some owner would get back to their respective professions and field the best team that helps them win football games.”
The idea that talent would eventually win the day used to be the primary belief for those who remained optimistic that Kaepernick wouldn’t be a casualty of his own politics. The problem is that his options become less promising the deeper we move into the offseason. Kaepernick already has taken his own steps to allay some fears, both by hiring new agents and making it publicly known that he won’t be kneeling during the anthem anymore. He also has no criminal history, no drug problems and the 49ersawarded him the Len Eshmont Award last season, which is given to the player who best exemplifies “inspirational and courageous play.”
None of those factors have helped him land a job. Sure, the man has obvious flaws — including accuracy problems and overall consistency — but Denver Broncos general manager John Elway also saw enough potential to consider trading for Kaepernick last offseason (a deal that never materialized, largely because Kaepernick was reluctant to take a pay cut). That’s why it’s starting to feel as if Kaepernick might end up like Josh Freeman, the 17th overall selection in the 2009 NFL Draft. Freeman went from being the franchise quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to being a player who got so sideways with former head coach Greg Schiano that Schiano waived him four games into the 2013 season.
Freeman has played two games in the NFL since that time. There were rumors about drug problems — which Freeman vehemently denied — but the real issue was perception. Somehow Freeman became known as a quarterback who simply wasn’t worth the investment. Just like that, he went from being a rising star with an exciting future to being a player who signed with the Brooklyn Bolts of the Fall Experimental Football League in 2015.
Like Kaepernick, Freeman is still only 29, blessed with plenty of physical ability and the possessor of some impressive feats in the NFL (Freeman still holds 12 Bucs franchise records). He continues to work out in hopes of getting another shot.
“It’s the business side of football,” said Ron Freeman, who is both an agent and Freeman’s father. “You’d like to think talent is the key to getting on the field, but that isn’t always the case … In some ways, you are flying in the dark. You don’t know what teams are thinking. And you’re seeing other guys getting signed and you don’t know why they’re getting those shots.”
Kaepernick’s best opportunity for employment might be one that is similar to what Freeman experienced. It was in Dec. 29, 2015 that the Indianapolis Colts signed Freeman after a series of injuries plagued their quarterback position. Freeman wound up playing against the Tennessee Titans six days later and helped lead the Colts to a season-ending win. Indianapolis then released him two months later before signing former Green Bay Packer Scott Tolzien to back up Andrew Luck.
The point here is that it’s not that difficult to wind up in a place where somebody like Scott Tolzien can be considered more attractive to a franchise than somebody who has actually done something in the NFL. It’s starting to feel very much like Kaepernick is heading directly for that type of existence. Anybody with reliable eyesight can see that he still has ability (and a Super Bowl appearance, as well). The bigger question is whether he can find somebody who will believe that honing that talent makes him worthy of a commitment.
It’s hard to believe that’s going to happen anytime soon, even with a handful of teams still trying to make sense of their quarterback situations. In fact, the last big-name quarterback who found himself in this position and turned things around was a guy named Michael Vick. He went to federal prison in 2007 for his role in a dog-fighting ring and returned to the NFL in 2009, solely because then-Philadelphia Eagleshead coach Andy Reid was willing to give him a shot.
Vick made the most of that opportunity — he refined his game and became the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year in 2010 — but what’s easy to forget is that he started off as the Eagles‘ third-string quarterback. He became a harder worker, a humbler teammate and his skill set evolved as the uproar surrounding him diminished. Vick certainly can relate to Kaepernick’s situation on many levels. However, Vick told me in a conversation this week that he was still playing at a high level when he went to jail while Kaepernick’s decline in productivity has hurt his stock.
The reality Kaepernick is facing is one Vick had to accept: If he wants to continue his career, he’ll likely have to take an opportunity that may not be that appealing and make the most of it.
“I think he’ll get another shot, but it might not happen until after September or when somebody gets hurt,” Vick said. “Nobody has forgotten about Colin Kaepernick. They’ve just moved on.”
Vick also raised another important point when he said what Kaepernick did “wasn’t that big of a deal.”
Kaepernick spoke his mind, tried to use his platform to help others and there are plenty of other players who have jobs today after doing the same things. He knew there would be a heavy price to pay for those choices last fall, primarily because he was the first to start that movement.
Now we’re all learning how steep that cost could be, as Kaepernick waits to see what he’ll be doing come September.
Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.
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