It is likely Colin Kaepernick will never play in the NFL again. Despite Roger Goodell saying this month that the league was “wrong” not to listen to its players during their protests against social injustice and police brutality, the NFL commissioner did not offer an apology to Kaepernick and failed to even mention him by name.
There is little evidence that any teams have concrete plans to sign the 32-year-old, but Goodell said this week he “encouraged” teams to sign Kaepernick. He remains one of the best value-for-money signings out there: a league-average quarterback available for free. There aren’t many starting spots left on the quarterback carousel, but there remain plenty of places where he could be a quality backup. Here are the best fits if he does return to the NFL (NB: these are teams that would suit Kaepernick rather than ones that are likely to sign him).
Kaepernick’s initial run with the 49ers in 2012 and 2013, when he tore through the league with dizzying displays of speed and arm strength, served as the start of a mini-revolution in the NFL. The spread-option was in and it was here to stay. The natural endpoint of that group of pioneers: Lamar Jackson and the Ravens in 2019.
Kaepernick’s offensive coordinator and play-caller in 2012? Greg Roman. The Ravens’ in 2019? Greg Roman. Kaepernick’s head coach in 2012? Jim Harbaugh. The Ravens in 2019? John Harbaugh, Jim’s more grounded brother.
The 49ers didn’t go nearly as far with their scheme as the Ravens; pioneers rarely do. But the staples of the Roman system remain the same. The plays Jackson did such consistent damage with in 2019 are the same ones Kaepernick was running to such jarring effect seven years previously.
The Ravens, incidentally, have discussed signing Kaepernick before, only for the prospect to fall through. Ex-Ravens star Ray Lewis claims the team passed on Kaepernick due to tweets from Kaepernick’s girlfriend which were aimed at Lewis and the team’s owner, Steve Bisciotti.
The Patriots have the only true “open” starting quarterback spot remaining in the league. Right now, they’re set to open the season with second-year, mid-round draft pick Jarrett Stidham. But while Kaepernick would represent an upgrade over the unproven Stidham, there is little to no chance of him joining the team.
The Patriots’ ties with Donald Trump would make any move for Kaepernick problematic. And while the idea of a player being a “distraction” is typically a self-fulfilling prophecy (teams and journalists discuss the potential of a player being a distraction so that the very discussion is the distraction), there would be an undeniable media glare on any team that brings in Kaepernick, not least from the President himself. That team being the Patriots would only amplify the noise, and no team is more allergic to distraction than the Bill Belichick’s New England.
Passing on Kaepernick isn’t entirely an off-the-field based decision, though. The Patriots offensive system calls for an intricate, timing-based passer. Kaepernick is neither. While it seems likely now is the time Belichick will have a more mobile quarterback under center, there is little to no chance that Kaepernick will be the quarterback to guide them into the post-Tom Brady era.
Seattle are the only team that have brought Kaepernick in for a meeting since he left San Francisco in 2016.
On the surface, Kaepernick with the Seahawks makes a ton of sense: he is a former NFC West quarterback who understood the defensive systems within the division; he has a similar playing style to the team’s starting quarterback, Russell Wilson; the team’s current back-up is Geno Smith, he of interception chucking fame; and the Seahawks head coach, Pete Carroll, recently said that he regrets not signing Kaepernick in 2017.
Kaepernick as a back-up to budding star Kyler Murray in Arizona is an interesting idea.
There would be some stylistic issues to work out. Kaepernick is not the ruthlessly efficient passer that Kliff Kingsbury’s offense looks for. Whereas Kingsbury’s Air-Raid system calls for a number of pre-snap checks, Kaepernick is more of a read-and-react player. However, pace-and-space, the base principle, remains the same: use the quarterback as a runner, turn the run-game into a series of one-on-one matchups, and get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands as quickly as possible in the passing game so that he can get it to the team’s best athletes in space.
More than anything, Kingsbury wants a dynamic playmaker at quarterback who is comfortable in a spread-option offense, and Kaepernick fits the bill. There aren’t a whole host of high-end, dual-threat quarterbacks on the market. Bringing Kaepernick in as a mentor and sounding board for Murray early in his career could provide as much value to the team as anything else. Whether Kaepernick would be comfortable joining a team where he is so obviously the back-up remains an open question – he hasn’t been afforded the opportunity to say one way or the other.
NFL League office
And then there’s the wildcard. Goodell’s statement was not nearly enough. It didn’t mention Kaepernick. It didn’t offer anything tangible. It sat somewhere between a PR exercise and hostage video. But it did, by the league’s glacial standards, present some kind of forward progress.
If the league wants to do good fighting systemic racism, it should go a step further than a basic apology and an acknowledgment that Black Lives Matter. It should go a step further than merely saying Colin Kaepernick’s name. It should offer him a job.
True, this idea has all kinds of complications and issues. For starters, Kaepernick wants to play football, not work as a player liaison officer or front a league-backed scheme that is more performative than real. And then there is the small fact that he sued the NFL and its owners for colluding to keep him out of the league, a suit that was subsequently settled. Plus, Kaepernick is also already partnered with major brands that have the kind of reach that will allow him the platform he is looking for.
Still: this is the NFL. Its reach in America is close to unrivaled. It pretty much owns Sunday afternoons in the US. If the league is actually keen to be a genuine force for action, then it should bring Kaepernick to the table in an official capacity.
If all 32 teams lack the testicular fortitude to absorb whatever Kaepernick-based backlash they fear, the league itself should show some long-overdue courage.