General manager Trent Baalke insists the notion that Colin Kaepernick has played his final snap for the 49ers is premature.
But the team won’t keep Kaepernick and the $14.3 million he is due to earn next year if he doesn’t want to stay. And all indications are that Kaepernick is eager to start over elsewhere in 2016.
If so, where? And would the 49ers be able to trade him, as they did Alex Smith three years ago? Here are five thoughts about No. 7.
1. Perhaps the best argument for acquiring Kaepernick will be to point out what Cam Newton has done this year for the 11-0 Carolina Panthers.
Newton isn’t exactly a pinpoint passer. Entering Thursday’s game, he had completed 56.9 percent of his throws this season, 28th out of 32 quarterbacks and below Kaepernick’s 59.0 completion percentage.
But Newton has scored seven touchdowns with his legs, and when paired with a strong running game and stout defense, he’s a proven winner.
Kaepernick, of course, has similar attributes. Which is to say, a team with a robust defense and a run-first offensive philosophy likely would have the most interest in him. That team wouldn’t even have to project how the quarterback would play. When the 49ers were able to run the ball and stop offenses in 2012 and 2013, he was a winner, too.
2. Any team looking for a quarterback will find plenty of options in the used-item bin early next year.
Robert Griffin III and Sam Bradford likely will be free agents. Johnny Manziel – and maybe even Matthew Stafford – could be available in a trade.
How does Kaepernick stack up? His left labrum injury notwithstanding, he doesn’t have the long injury history of Griffin and Bradford, he doesn’t have Manziel’s off-the-field issues, and it may not require a king’s ransom to acquire him as it might Stafford.
Of the group above, Kaepernick is the only one who’s been to a Super Bowl. Heck, he’s the only one who’s been beyond the first round in the playoffs.
3. It’s difficult to predict where Kaepernick might end up because no one knows which coaches still will be in place next year.
Consider, for instance, the Eagles and Chip Kelly, whom many have linked to Kaepernick because of the read-option elements in Kelly’s offense.
Kelly’s team is 4-7, and he might not be around next year. If he’s gone, does he go back to college, or does another NFL team grab him?
The scenario could be a lot like 2013 when Andy Reid, fired by the Eagles, started anew in Kansas City and thought Smith would be the perfect quarterback for what he wanted to build there. If Kelly lands somewhere else, could he have similar plans for Kaepernick?
4. This may be the second time in three years the 49ers try to trade a former starting quarterback. The scenarios, however, are quite different.
Smith was having his best statistical season – he had completed an NFL-best 70.2 percent of his passes and had a 104.1 passer rating – when he suffered a concussion, was replaced by Kaepernick and lost his job.
Kaepernick was given the hook because of poor performance. Both his completion percentage and 78.5 passer rating are the lowest of his career.
His contract also might make him a more difficult sell than Smith, who went to the Chiefs with an $8.5 million contract for the 2013 season.
Kaepernick is unlikely to agree to new contract that would facilitate a trade. After all, why would he cooperate and allow the 49ers, soon to be his opponent, to get more draft picks? It makes more sense at that point to force his release, become a free agent and work on a new deal with a new team.
Then again, his $14 million salary may not be all that different, percentage-wise, than Smith’s $8.5 million when you consider that the salary cap is expected to jump next season. There also is a scenario in which the 49ers agree to take on some of the money owed Kaepernick in 2016 to make the transaction more palatable.
5. Kaepernick and Gabbert have developed a strong bond over the past two seasons.
But if Gabbert, due to earn an ultra-affordable $1.75 million in base salary next year, continues to play well this year, it not only ushers Kaepernick out the door more quickly, it might also diminish Kaepernick’s value in the eyes of other teams.
That is, it’s harder to slough off Kaepernick’s down season on a poor cast and crew if his backup manages well under the same circumstances.