INDIANAPOLIS — Colin Kaepernick and his representatives face a dual task in free agency: convincing teams both that he still can be an effective NFL quarterback, and that the political stand he took during the 2016 season would not alienate a meaningful portion of the fan base in a franchise’s home city.
Kaepernick is to be a free agent after opting out of the remainder of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers, a move that reportedly was to become official Friday.
The former Super Bowl starter for the 49ers regained the team’s No. 1 quarterback job this past season, making 11 starts. The Niners went 2-14 on the season but Kaepernick was relatively productive, throwing 16 touchdown passes with four interceptions and compiling a passer rating of 90.7. He also rushed for 468 yards.
He sparked a national debate and controversy after refusing to stand for the national anthem prior to games in protest of the treatment of African-Americans in the U.S.
The maneuver was praised by some as thoughtful, powerful and admirable amid heightened tensions nationwide about racial relations and the treatment of African-Americans by law enforcement. It was criticized by other observers as being disrespectful to the flag and military members. Some media members and other observers even contended the decline in television viewership for NFL games this past season owed at least in part to negative public reaction to the anthem protests.
Kaepernick said he respects military members, and he and other athletes who joined the protest movement said they were attempting to focus attention on what they perceived as injustice in the country. And now, according to a report by ESPN, Kaepernick plans to stand for the anthem during the upcoming NFL season.
That is the environment in which Kaepernick will be searching for a new employer. Front office executives with several teams said in recent days here at the NFL scouting combine that it’s clear to them that any franchises interested in signing Kaepernick will have to give at least some thought to how the move would be taken by the ticket-buying public.
“Certainly it’s a factor,” said a personnel executive with one NFL team who, like the others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic and because Kaepernick was, at the time, under contract to another franchise. “Everything is a factor, especially at that position. You take everything into consideration. That’s the face of your franchise, as they say.”
The final call on whether to sign Kaepernick would come, according to that executive, from the owner of the interested team.
“That part really would be an owner’s call,” the executive said. “The job of your front office and your coaching staff would be to decide whether he can help your football team. You would go to the owner and say, ‘We feel this guy can help us and we’d like to sign him.’ It would have to be the owner’s call on how your fans would react to that and whether it would have an impact on the business side of your franchise.”
That executive and others said the issue is not whether a particular team agrees or not with what Kaepernick did and what his protest meant. Teams realize that the issue is divisive and that Kaepernick is likely to remain a polarizing figure to the public even if he stands for the anthem in the future, the executives said. Any interested teams, they said, must decide how much that matters to them and must balance football-related considerations with the non-football aspects to the move.
An executive from another team stressed that the primary consideration will be Kaepernick’s on-field production. Teams might be willing to take greater risks over how Kaepernick might be perceived by local fans, that executive said, if they’re convinced that Kaepernick will play well.
“The first question I have is: Can he play?” that executive said. “I’m not sure I’m sold on that. We haven’t seen him back to being the guy that he was. We haven’t seen him able to win games for you. If you believe that he can play, then you talk about everything else. I certainly don’t feel like it would disqualify him. But it’s a conversation that you would have to have within your organization.”
However, a coach with a third team said: “Time moves on. People have short memories. There’s different stuff for everyone to argue about now. I don’t think people will be talking about that six months from now.”
It’s not clear how robust the market for Kaepernick will be. The New York Jets, Cleveland Browns and Denver Broncos were linked to Kaepernick in trade speculation last offseason, and they could be in the quarterback market again this offseason.
But the Browns have the first and 12th overall picks in the NFL draft and also are thought to be interested in possibly trading for New England Patriots backup Jimmy Garoppolo. The Broncos have young quarterbacks Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch and could be a prospective landing spot for Tony Romo if he’s traded or released by the Dallas Cowboys. Speculation has linked the Jets to Jay Cutler, who could be traded or released by the Chicago Bears, and Mike Glennon, a prospective free agent from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Other teams that could be in the quarterback market this offseason include the Bears, Buffalo Bills and Houston Texans. If any of those franchises are interested in Colin Kaepernick, it seems there will be much for them to discuss.