Colin Kaepernick left little room for interpretation when asked if he wanted to be back with the 49ers in 2016.
The question was designed for a “yes” or “no” answer. Instead, when asked the day after the season concluded about his desire to return to the 49ers for a sixth NFL season, Kaepernick merely pointed out his contract situation.
"I'm under contract. I'm a 49er. I'm doing everything I can to make sure I'm prepared for next season,” Kaepernick said.
There is little doubt Kaepernick would prefer a fresh start – just as Alex Smith desired after the 2010 season. But newly hired coach Jim Harbaugh convinced Smith he could start anew with the 49ers in 2011.
Smith was a free agent in 2011, and he had other choices. Kaepernick does not have that kind of ability to control his own fate.
[MAIOCCO: Mailbag: Kelly the kind of coach Kaepernick needs with 49ers]
With a nod toward the 49ers’ quarterbacking past, 49ers CEO Jed York recently said Kaepernick can get a fresh start with Chip Kelly and the new 49ers coaching staff.
The New York Daily News reported Tuesday that Kaepernick’s top choice for a 2016 destination is the New York Jets. There figure to be plenty of teams interested in acquiring Kaepernick, should he be made available, including the Houston Texans, Cleveland Browns and Denver Broncos.
But the 49ers are the only team that controls the situation. After all, Kaepernick remains under contract to the 49ers through the 2020 season.
If Kelly wants Kaepernick on his team next season, Kelly will have Kaepernick on his team next season. Then, it’s up to Kelly to get Kaepernick to buy into his program and build him back up to the promise he showed as a first-year starter in 2012 when he became an overnight national sensation in the second half of the regular season and onto the Super Bowl.
But things did not go as planned from there. Kaepernick's production as a passer dropped incrementally in 2013 and ’14. Last season with an overmatched offensive coaching staff replacing Harbaugh and coordinator Greg Roman, Kaepernick played poorly and was benched after eight starts.
Three separate injuries – non-throwing shoulder, left knee and right thumb – were later revealed that required surgery. Kaepernick was dismayed over his dealings with the team's medical staff. Kaepernick already felt like the organization was hanging him out to dry. When he signed his new contract in June 2014, he believed the 49ers would use some of the cap money saved to retain some of their upcoming free agents. That never happened.
The lack of trust ran both ways. The 49ers felt as if Kaepernick shut himself off to his teammates. Receivers could not hide their frustrations when they believed they were open but Kaepernick could not find them. Everybody got behind new starter Blaine Gabbert as a breath of fresh air. There were whispers that Gabbert spent considerably more time watching film and preparing on the mental aspects of the game.
What was clearly apparent was that everybody was ready for a fresh start.
But, now, the only person who really has a say in the matter is the 49ers’ new head coach.
Kelly did not tip his hand at his introductory press conference, claiming he could not speak about Kaepernick because of CBA restrictions. It's not known whether Kelly was being coy or he made an honest mistake in his interpretation of the rules.
After all, Kaepernick is under contract and the 49ers can talk about him all they want. They just can’t talk to him about specific football matters until April 4, when the team is allowed to open their offseason program.
General manager Trent Baalke, however, suggested he plans for Kaepernick to be on the team this offseason. Kaepernick’s scheduled salary of $11.9 million becomes fully guaranteed on April 1. The 49ers have approximately $50 million in cap space even with Kaepernick’s pay on the books.
“Everybody is talking about this April 1 deadline,” Baalke said two weeks ago. “There’s no deadline on April 1 that we’re concerned with. The No. 1 thing is getting Kap healthy. Once we get him healthy, we get him into the offseason program, we get rolling.”
Kaepernick’s salary is guaranteed for injury only up until April 1. So they are not going to just cut him free while he continues to rehab from his surgeries.
This month’s NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis is an important time, as teams and player agents typically get together to gauge if there’s mutual interests. It’s also a time in which the 49ers can get a feel for a player’s trade value.
The more teams that show interest in Kaepernick means the better compensation the 49ers can land for his services once the trade period reopens on March 9. If the 49ers deal Kaepernick this offseason, they would also save nearly $8.5 million in cap space.
And as much as Kaepernick might want that to happen, it will only occur if Kelly first determines he does not want him.