Colin Kaepernick‘s restructured contract is likely the main reason he’ll see the field this year. It’s also the main reason why he likely won’t be returning to the 49ers in 2017.
The 49ers gave themselves a financial cushion by getting rid of Kaepernick’s $14.5 million injury guarantee as part of the negotiations, allowing them to let the mobile quarterback roam the turf without the need to hold their breath on every snap.
But they also gave Kaepernick an out by cutting the final four years off the back-end of his contract, replacing it instead with a singular player option for the 2017 season. Should Kaepernick not choose to exercise it, he’ll be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year.
And I’d be willing to bet he chooses the latter.
The benching last year, the toxic work environment of the 49ers, the trade requests, a rebuilding roster-devoid of talent-that does him no favors in trying to look like the star player he once was. And, of course, Trent Baalke is still in the building.
Like many of the other big name free agents from the 49ers over the past few years — Mike Iupati, Frank Gore, Alex Boone — Kaepernick likely has his sights set on finding a team that is less focused on hosting Taylor Swift concerts, and more concerned with the product on the field.
The restructured contract was a gambit on Kaepernick’s part though. He could still potentially play out the rest of the season in an uninspiring fashion, risking $14.5 million dollars in the process only to do little to entice other teams, forcing himself to remain with San Francisco due to lack of options.
Or he could actually get hurt, which would have all of the same affects listed above, only without the $14.5 million dollars he could have potentially pocketed in the process.
But the fact that Kaepernick was willing to risk that much money-and potentially the rest of his career — to hold the ball in his court at the end of the season shows you just how far he’s willing to go in order to make sure he can split from the 49ers in December. If he so chooses.
Of course, there is always the optimistic side of the equation.
Kaepernick can still prove himself to be the dynamic and exciting player he once was, excelling under head coach Chip Kelly’s system, building a great season and rapport with the 49ers coaching staff that might be enough to make him want to be a part of the team going forward.
But, yet again, even in that scenario, Trent Baalke is still in the building. And that may be all the difference Kaepernick would need in order to split from the team, regardless of results this year.
There’s no doubt that Kaepernick and Baalke’s relationship can be classified as rocky at best. As SFBay has surmised, this type of relationship is neither unique, nor uncommon between Baalke and members of the NFL.
But Baalke’s inability to run a team may be more of a defining factor in what pushes Kaepernick away than any personal gripe he may have against his general manager.
Under Baalke’s watch, the San Francisco 49ers have continued to strike out in both the draft and free agency, dropping them from Super Bowl contenders to bottom-feeders in a mind-bogglingly quick fashion.
This type of regression is hardly the way to entice a player to stay with your organization when the “exit” sign is glaring them in the face like a beacon of relief. But it’s also what anyone who follows the team expects as long as Baalke is at the helm.
Should Kaepernick finish this season looking like his old self, the best thing the 49ers can do to entice him to pick up his player option is to cut ties with Baalke. The team already has this contingency plan in place in the form of Tom Gamble.
Kaepernick’s first outing against Buffalo this Sunday may just be the first step towards pulling the proverbial trigger on it.
Shawn Whelchel is SFBay’s San Francisco 49ers beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @ShawnWhelchel on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of 49ers football.
As long as Balke goes, that is what really matters.