San Francisco 49ers

49ers look ahead: Can retooled Kaepernick offset bad-news offseason?

Over the last few days, I’ve been ranking the 49ers position groups from strongest to weakest. Next up ...

Quarterback

Recap. Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers went into the 2014 season eager to avenge their ouster in the 2013 championship game, one that ended with Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman making a "choke" sign to Kaepernick and offering insulting, smarmy "good-game" gestures to Michael Crabtree. The 49ers were angry, defiant and convinced they were overdue. In hindsight, that attitude backfired. They were so amped up that the team lost its composure at key points -- vs. Chicago, vs. Seattle, at Oakland -- and faded from playoff contention by December. Kaepernick finished with career highs in passing and rushing yards, but was mistake-prone when playing from behind and was unable to beat his nemesis, the Seahawks. He was sacked 52 times, second only to Jaguars rookie Blake Bortles' 55 sacks. One conclusion: While Kaepernick is an excellent runner he’s not adept at scrambling. His 86.4 passer rating was the lowest since he took over as starting quarterback and ranked 20th in the league. Backup Blaine Gabbert had a rough preseason and appeared in only one regular-season game, a blowout loss to Denver. The 49ers played musical chairs with third quarterback Josh Johnson's roster spot. Jim Harbaugh's former pupil was not invited back and is now on the Bengals roster

Outlook. To his credit, Kaepernick spent the offseason working on his shortcomings. He spent nearly three months at the EXOS training facility in Phoenix where he changed his stance, shortened his delivery and worked on becoming a better pocket quarterback -- both in terms of mechanics and reading defenses. Significantly, he also concentrated on his deep passes, something the 49ers offense promises to stress this season. The fruits of that labor were evident at times during the spring session but, of course, will be truly tested in training camp and the preseason. There has been plenty of chatter about this being a sink-or-swim year for Kaepernick and the speculation is that another flat season could result in his ouster. His contract certainly is crafted so that the team could part ways without a severe blow to their salary cap. However, until the 49ers have a legitimate Plan B in place, that is mere speculation. Gabbert certainly didn't shine during the 2014 preseason, the last time he was in the spotlight. The only other quarterback on the roster is undrafted rookie Dylan Thompson.

Question marks. Kaepernick attempted the second most rushes of any quarterback in the league last season. (104 to Russell Wilson's 118). It remains to be seen whether Kaepernick's desire to become a better pocket passer means the 49ers will encourage him to run less in 2015. It doesn't sound as if that's the case. ... It didn't take Kaepernick long at all to build an on-field rapport with his favorite target, Anquan Boldin, in 2013. The goal in training camp is to do the same with newcomer Torrey Smith. How quickly can that occur? ... Harbaugh was billed as a quarterback expert. Can Kaepernick improve under a head coach known for his work with the defensive line?

Person of interest. As Colin Kaepernick goes, so go the San Francisco 49ers. If he’s significantly better in 2015, it will go a long way toward offsetting the team’s offseason exodus.

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49ers position ranking:

1. outside linebacker

2. safety

3. defensive line

4. running back

5. wide receiver

6. quarterback

7. coming later today

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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