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Yesterday I detailed how Colin Kaepernick’s extension seems to be a pretty great deal for both sides. Kaepernick will be among the top paid handful of players in the league so long as he or the team performs at a truly elite level. The 49ers will recoup several million dollars should that fail to happen. This contract ought to anchor the 49ers talented roster for years to come, possibly into the next decade. But will Kaepernick’s contract create a dynasty on par with that of Joe Montana’s four Super Bowl championships? Probably not.

Whether Kaepernick’s yearly cap hits end up being closer to $16, $18, or $20 million remains to be seen, but no matter what that money cannot go to anyone else on the team. Under Jim Harbaugh, who has coached in three NFC championship games in his three years with the team, the 49ers have yet to pay a premium for their quarterback services.

Season Starting QB Cap Hit % of Cap League Average % of Cap
2011 Alex Smith $4,900,000 4.08% $6,478,783 5.40%
2012 Alex Smith $9,250,000 7.67% $8,257,642 6.85%
2012 Colin Kaepernick $1,164,613 0.97% $8,257,642 6.85%
2013 Colin Kaepernick $1,397,535 1.14% $10,293,699 8.37%

Under Harbaugh the 49ers had one season when Alex Smith cost the same as a league-average starter1, and the other two years the 49ers’ starting quarterback cost them very little relative to the rest of the league. Getting quality quarterback play for such low cap hits gave the 49ers that much more money to add and retain talent elsewhere. And in 2014, Kaepernick’s cap hit remains a scant $3.767 million. But after that?

Year Cap Hit
2014 $3,767,444
2015 $17,265,753
2016 $18,765,753
2017 $21,365,753
2018 $21,865,753
2019 $21,200,000
2020 $23,400,000

Over the six-year extension (2015-2020), Kaepernick’s average cap hit is $20.644 million. Again, that could fall a few million in some seasons, depending on his and the team’s performance, but it will be at least $16-$18 million every year, if not more. It is not known what the salary cap will be in those years,2 but since 19993 the cap has, on average, increased each year by 7.15 percent. This is not, by any means, a perfect predictor of what the cap increases will look like going forward, but it may be close.4 If the cap increases roughly as it has in the past,5 what will Kaepernick’s contract amount to as a percentage of team spending?

Season Kaepernick’s Cap Hit (Overly Simplistic) Projected Salary Cap Percent of Salary Cap
2015 $17,265,753 $142,509,500 12.12%
2016 $18,765,753 $152,698,929 12.29%
2017 $21,365,753 $163,616,903 13.06%
2018 $21,865,753 $175,315,511 12.47%
2019 $21,200,000 $187,850,570 11.29%
2020 $23,400,000 $201,281,886 11.63%

Jim Harbaugh is a terrific football coach, but he has never had his team spend such a high share of its budget on the starting quarterback. General manager Trent Baalke and Paraag Marathe and Co. have never had less money to spend on the other 45 players who will suit up on game day. Quarterback is the most important position, but there are 10 other guys on offense, and 11 other guys on defense, and three unique guys on special teams, too, and some backups, and they all matter to some degree. Even if Kaepernick’s contract diminishes some, and the cap increases more than the 7.15 percent average annual rate of the past, the 49ers will still likely spend 10 percent of their available funds on Kaepernick every season.

Teams spending so much on their quarterbacks can win the Super Bowl. But it is not easy.

Year Super Bowl Winning QB % of Team’s Salary Cap Super Bowl Losing QB % of Team’s Salary Cap
1999 Kurt Warner 1.31% Steve McNair 10.60%
2000 Trent Dilfer N/A Kerry Collins N/A
2001 Tom Brady 0.46% Kurt Warner 3.46%
2002 Brad Johnson 9.56% Rich Gannon 5.22%
2003 Tom Brady 4.42% Jake Delhomme 2.37%
2004 Tom Brady 6.28% Donovan McNabb 9.69%
2005 Ben Roethlisberger 4.94% Matt Hasselbeck 7.72%
2006 Peyton Manning 8.38% Rex Grossman 1.50%
2007 Eli Manning 10.75% Tom Brady 6.73%
2008 Ben Roethlisberger 7.11% Kurt Warner 5.17%
2009 Drew Brees 8.42% Peyton Manning 18.88%
2010 Aaron Rodgers N/A Ben Roethlisberger N/A
2011 Eli Manning 11.75% Tom Brady 10.79%
2012 Joe Flacco 6.63% Colin Kaepernick 0.97%
2013 Russell Wilson 0.55% Peyton Manning 14.23%

Reliable data for the salaries of Dilfer and Collins back in 2000 was not available, and in 2010 there was no salary cap.6 But in the other 13 seasons since 1999, 26 unique teams made the super bowl. Only six of those 26 teams paid their quarterback more than 10 percent of the salary cap: the 1999 Titans (McNair), the 2007 Giants (E. Manning), the 2009 Colts (P. Manning), the 2011 Giants (E. Manning), the 2011 Patriots (Brady), and the 2013 Broncos (P. Manning). (Whole lotta’ Mannings comin’ at ya.) Only a small minority of recent Super Bowl teams had crossed the 10 percent threshold with their starting quarterbacks. What does it all mean? Are the 49ers’ Super Bowl dreams dashed?

Perhaps not, at least not completely. Five of those six teams come from 2007 or later, with four coming from the last eight teams to play in the Super Bowl. Fans keep hearing it, and not without reason: the game really has changed significantly, even since I started watching football 15 years ago. More than ever, it is a passing league. Quarterback salaries are, literally and figuratively, on the rise, not only in absolute terms but relative to other positions. That the 49ers will spend more than 10 percent of their budget on their starting quarterback every year may not be ideal, but it makes a lot more sense now than it would have 15 or even 10 years ago. And this is not just any starting quarterback we have been talking about; it’s Colin Kaepernick.

Nonetheless, with two more years on his contract, Russell Wilson remains the envy of every general manager in the league. Not to overreact, but at what point do we start discussing rather Wilson is the greatest draft pick of all time?7 If the Seahawks win the Super Bowl again next year? Peyton Manning is still probably better than Wilson, but his share of the Broncos’ cap when they met in the Super Bowl last season was nearly 30 times larger than Wilson’s. The Seahawks had a lot more money to spend elsewhere. We all saw what happened.

The 49ers, meanwhile, have a powerful opportunity this year, with Kaepernick only taking up 2.8 percent of their funds. After that, the road gets tougher, with every draft pick, every low-budget signing becoming that much more important. Hopefully the 49ers can pull out a Super Bowl win in the next seven years, maybe two with a bit of luck. But do not expect an NFC championship game appearance every year, Harbaugh or no. It’s just too darned expensive to keep getting there.


  1. The average cap hits of the top 25 paid quarterbacks in each year, according to OvertheCap.com. I use the top 25 because though there are 32 teams and therefore, technically, at least 32 starters, the dregs of the league tend to see high turnover rates and are not really “true” starters, due to poor play, repeated injuries, or what have you. 
  2. Kaepernick’s cap hits escalate every season, as the salary cap is expected to, so Kaepernick’s percent of the whole cap will hopefully change little year to year, even as the 49ers pay him millions more. 
  3. 1999 is something of an arbitrary end point; the modern salary cap really began in 1994. For some other findings in this piece I didn’t find much data before 1999, but most of the data after 1999 is available, so I am keeping it consistent. Something of a nice coincidence, as the Titans-Rams Super Bowl following the 1999 season (played in 2000) is the first one I remember watching in its entirety. 
  4. Most increases were five to six percent, with a couple outliers wherein the league drastically increased the amount of money teams can spend. Since the new collective bargaining agreement, the 2012 salary cap was 0.5 percent more than 2011’s, 2013 was 2 percent more than 2012’s, and now 2014’s is 8.13 percent more than 2013’s, so who really knows what the hell the league will do. 
  5. Again, this is not guaranteed to happen. It is a very, very, very simplified estimate, not a concrete prediction. 
  6. Salary data from Spotrac.com 
  7. Yes, Tom Brady went in the 6th round. But Brady was not drafted to be who he is today; he was clearly a backup coming out of camp and fell into the Patriots’ lap as a great player when Bledsoe was injured. The Seahawks took Wilson in the third round with the intention of him competing to start from day one, and that is exactly what happened. Goodness, how they have reaped the rewards. 
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First, here are the numbers on Bethea. Player performance grades come from Pro Football Focus; salary information from Spotrac.com; all averages and rankings are position specific; and a player’s contract quality is the number of standard deviations his performance is above/below the average minus the number of standard deviations his average annual salary is above/below the average.

Age: 29 (30 on July 27th)
Old Team: Indianapolis Colts
Old Contract: 4 years/$26 million, $6.5 million average (9th highest of 85 safeties)
2013 PFF Grade: -2.9 (52nd)
2013 Contract Quality: -2.08 (81st)
New Team: San Francisco 49ers
New Contract: 4 years/$23 million, $5.75 million average (projected 12th highest)

Last season, Bethea’s below-average on-field contributions were worth about two million. It is worth mentioning that his performance was not just below the league average, but below his personal career average. In 2007 (his second year in the NFL) he was PFF’s seventh highest graded safety (6.4 grade) of the 80 who played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps; in 2008 he was 17th (5.7) of 83; in 2009 25th (3.5) of 88; in 2010 16th (7.2) of 85; in 2011 21st (3.7) of 87; and in 2012 69th (-4.2) of 88. These numbers suggest his play has fallen off, but they do not say why.

Perhaps Bethea lost a step as he neared 30; perhaps he did not fit as well in Coach Pagano’s system. Regardless, his decline in play does not necessarily mean he has lost a lot of his value. Through his previous contract Bethea’s on-field worth averaged roughly $4 million. The Colts paid him $6.5 million, and the 49ers just decided to pay him $5.75 million on the other side of 30. Why would they do that?

A recent article by 49ers beat writer Matt Maiocco hints at the answer. Maiocco’s post, “Bethea provides ‘smart, steady’ leadership in 49ers secondary“, notes that in addition to eight years of NFL experience:

“Bethea is viewed as a ‘good locker room guy’ and great in the community.”

General manager Trent Baalke has demonstrated a reluctance to chase the high-priced free agent who may disrupt team chemistry. Baalke’s signing of Bethea not only underscores Baalke’s philosophy, but indicates just how much the 49ers value teamwork, isolated from talent. Bethea’s professional demeanor and strong character are seemingly worth $2-4 million or so, at least to some NFL front offices.

As always, it is likely other considerations play into his value. With two prior Pro Bowl appearances Bethea may emerge as a fan favorite, or at least a recognizable presence in the defensive backfield. And, though his talent may be slipping, Bethea has not had injury problems. Nor has he stooped to committing penalties; Maiocco reports that he was not called for a single infraction last season. That, at least, would be a welcome change from Whitner, who was whistled eight times.

The bottom line for Whitner ended up being the $7 million a year the Cleveland Browns were willing to give him. The 49ers, meanwhile, will be paying his replacement more than $1 million fewer each season. Perhaps best of all, 49ers games will finally be rid of out-of-date stories discussing a potential name change to Donte Hitner. Oh, and we have another million and change for a few years to maybe work out a deal with Colin Kaepernick. And if the intangibles of an NFL safety cost into the millions, surely a team needs every cent for a quarterback’s.

Note: This piece theorizes a good, broad drafting strategy for the 49ers (and teams in general). Tomorrow’s post will feature some hard data, featuring work by economist Richard Thaler as well as the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, in support of this theory.

The 49ers are currently in terrific shape for this spring’s NFL draft. How can that be, given that the 49ers, having lost the NFC championship game, will be one of the last four teams to pick in every round? Well…

The 49ers Have the Most Draft Picks

Per CSN Bay Area beat writer Matt Maiocco, the 49ers currently own 11 draft picks, giving them more than any other team. The league has yet to announce additional compensatory selections, which are awarded to teams with net free agent losses and cannot be traded. However the 49ers are expected to receive one, as they lost five free agents and added only four. Due to the significant playing time of the players who left, this pick may be at the end of the third round. As the exact number of compensatory selections are unknown, the overall order of picks is somewhat unknown beginning with the end of the third round. That gives the 49ers the following draft layout:

49ers 2014 Draft Picks
  1. First round, 30 overall
  2. Second round, 56 overall (via trade with Kansas City)
  3. Second round, 61 overall
  4. Third round, 77 overall (via trade with Tennessee)
  5. Third round, 94 overall
  6. Third OR fourth round, compensatory selection, TBA
  7. Fourth round, TBA
  8. Fifth round, TBA
  9. Sixth round, TBA
  10. Seventh round, TBA (via trade with New Orleans)
  11. Seventh round, TBA (via trade with Carolina)
  12. Seventh round, TBA

Every Pick Has Value

49er fans need not envy the Houston Texans organization, which picks first overall. Sure, drafting Jadeveon Clowney would be nice. But it is not important for success in the long term. With this many picks, general manager Trent Baalke and Co. can trade up to get a player more likely to make an immediate impact. Perhaps not of Clowney’s talent, but guys like defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, wide receiver Marqise Lee, and cornerback Darqueze Dennard are within reach. Last year the 49ers moved up from 31st to 18th in the first round, giving the 74th overall pick (third round) to the Dallas Cowboys in order to take safety Eric Reid. Reid started throughout his rookie season, finishing as the 16th highest graded safety by Pro Football Focus, among 86 safeties who played 25% or more of their teams’ regular season snaps. Best of all, the 49ers still had two picks in the second round, and another in the third.

And players do not just come from the top rounds. Tom Brady is the most striking example of a late round success, but more mild finds also add value. The 49ers drafted fullback Bruce Miller 211th overall (seventh round) in 2011. PFF has graded Miller ninth or higher among all fullbacks each of his three seasons in the league, as he clears the way for Frank Gore week after week.

No Such Thing as a Sure Thing

Draft busts happen, to all teams and general managers. Some evaluation methods of prospects are certainly better than others, but no system is perfect. The Patriots epitomize long-term success, having made the playoffs ten of the last eleven seasons.1 Has every draft pick along the way been perfect? Certainly not. In 2006 the Patriots drafted running back Laurence Maroney 21st overall; he started 17 games in five years before dropping out of the league. 36th overall (second round) that same year they took wide receiver Chad Jackson; he started one game in three years before leaving the NFL. In 2009 they took defensive tackle Ron Brace 40th overall (second round); he started seven games over four years and is now out of the NFL. During this time the Patriots also drafted left tackle Nate Solder, tight end Rob Gronkowski, safety Devin McCourty, and others who have become stars in the league.

The draft process involves a lot of skill, but also some luck. Despite what one may tell you, no one knows for sure how a college player will turn out in the NFL. A team should do its best to predict a prospect’s future accurately. Then a team should maximize its chances of getting lucky. Earlier picks are better than later picks, but not at the risk of seeing millions wasted and future seasons ruined by one or two big busts. With twelve picks in the upcoming draft, including five to six in the first 100 overall, general manager Baalke and the 49ers are well-suited to maintain the team’s high level of performance far beyond the coming season.


  1. And going 11-5 in 2008 when they just missed the playoffs. Not bad. 
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