Does the Current Political Environment Presage a Return for Colin Kaepernick?

Cameron Smith

If there's one thing that everyone can agree on in the aftermath of nationwide protests over the appalling death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd, it's that the kneeling protest launched by Colin Kaepernick in 2017 looks a lot more reasonable today to all parties. At the time, partisan outrage over Kaepernick's stance — which was aimed at raising awareness about precisely the issues being protested against today — essentially ended a once promising NFL career.

He's a talented quarterback, but Kapernick hasn't played a game in the NFL in three years. It would take an enormous amount of faith for any team to take a plunge on Kaepernick again. However, a growing sense that signing Kaepernick would bring with it tremendous goodwill could make taking that leap a lot more palatable.

Make no mistake, the current markets indicate a Kaepernick return is a longshot ... but that's precisely what could also make such a bet an intriguing option: Kaepernick being on a roster is currently a +500 underdog, with remaining out of the league sitting at a -900 favorite. 

First, taking a plunge on a Kaepernick return requires identifying a potential suitor. And a quick glance of quarterback depth charts does unearth a few intriguing options: the Minnesota Vikings, Pittsburgh Steelers, Los Angeles Rams and yes, even the New England Patriots. Breaking down the realistic possibility of Kaepernick playing for any of those teams requires nuanced football and political analysis.

TEAM
ODDS TO SIGN COLIN KAEPERNICK
Vikings
+950
Steelers
+2500
Rams
+4000
Patriots
+6000

VIKINGS

Of the quartet, the Vikings present the most unique opportunity for one organization to simultaneously land political and competitive football benefits from adding Kaepernick. Minnesota has an established starting quarterback in Kirk Cousins who just signed a new extension. They also have a fairly desperate emergency quarterback in the backup role, at best. The Vikings quarterback room currently consists of Cousins, journeyman Sean Mannion, second-year passer Jake Browning and recent draftee Nate Stanley. That's not a depth chart that elicits much confidence in the case that Cousins is befallen by a season-ending injury. Browning may present some intrigue, but Stanley is a total wild card to make the roster (at best) and Mannion showed what you can expect from him during his lone extended appearance of 2019: a 12-for-21 performance that included two interceptions, no touchdowns and a 57.1 quarterback rating in a loss to the Bears.

Given that group, it would stand to reason the Vikings don't have a lot to lose in performance by taking a shot at Kaepernick. They'd have even more to gain off the field, too. Given the way Floyd's death has roiled the community worse than anything since, maybe the Louisiana Purchase?, adding in the most outspoken athletic proponent of increased awareness of racial inequality in policing could make the Vikings even more of a civic symbol than they already are.

STEELERS

Pittsburgh's quarterback depth struggles are well documented, with the Steelers coming off a year where Ben Roethlisberger's injury clearly cost the team a playoff berth. With Roethlisberger returning, there's no reason to target a starter, but Pittsburgh clearly needs a more capable backup than Mason Rudolph or Devlin "Duck" Hodges.

Enter Kaepernick? Maybe. There clearly are potential cultural, sociopolitical synergies between coach Mike Tomlin — an African American coach who has been lauded for his leadership in the Rooney Rule era and a potential catalyst during the current protest moment — and if Roethlisberger were willing to accept a clear backup role, he might even have a path to be a potential starter again in the near future; Roethlisberger is 38 years old to Kaepernick's 33, and it's possible the Steelers decide not to hit a full reset in hopes of continued contention with a veteran in the short run. There's a lot to like there, particularly in the aftermath of a year that laid bare that Rudolph isn't the long-term answer at quarterback.

RAMS

Los Angeles just invested serious cash and capital in the quarterback position for a long-term extension with Jared Goff. But what happens if Goff gets injured ... or slides back into his struggles of last season? The answer sure doesn't seem to be on the current roster.

The Rams' depth chart at quarterback looks like this: Goff, John Wolford, Josh Love and Bryce Perkins. Yuck. With the team entering a new phase of competitiveness where they do have to account for a major quarterback expenditure, it behooves them to have a ready-made substitute in case something happens to Goff, whether via injury or performance attrition. The quarterbacks behind him have a combined zero games of professional experience. Kaepernick has played in 69 games, including a Super Bowl and two NFC championship games. We're high on Bryce Perkins' potential, but with the Rams needing to be competitive while moving into a new stadium, remaining competitive now rather than setting up future depth is probably a higher priority.

Beyond the on-field impetus, adding Kaepernick presents a unique sociopolitical opportunity for the Rams to firmly establish themselves as Los Angeles' team. There has been more racial tension and direct violence in the riots in Los Angeles than nearly any other city (Minneapolis, obviously, Louisville and Atlanta might also stake a claim). The Rams signing Kaepernick would make a strong statement, and while it might not thrill LAPD officials, it would likely endear Rams owner Stan Kroenke to his new hometown base in a more direct way than nearly any other single action he could orchestrate.

PATRIOTS

This one's really simple: The Patriots quarterback depth chart consists of second-year player Jarrett Stidham, journeyman Brian Hoyer and two undrafted rookies. Kaepernick has far more experience and victories than all those players combined. He still likely wouldn't be relied upon as the primary option under center, but signing Kaepernick would provide a much higher ceiling behind Stidham than sticking with Hoyer alone.

The enormous caveat here is that the Patriots traditionally refuse to bring in any asset that will cause significant sideshow attention, and when they have they've typically jettisoned those factors as soon as possible. That includes former quarterback Tim Tebow, wide receiver Antonio Brown and others. Would Bill Belichick and co. really take a chance on adding Kaepernick for a questionable payoff, particularly if they do believe in Stidham's potential the way insiders claim they do? Maybe not, but the marriage is an intriguing one in part because the Patriots are one of the handful of organizations that have enough buy-in across their entire fan base to make a move like adding Kaepernick without concern about alienating some sizable chunk of paid attendance ... if in fact fans are even allowed back in this year.

Naturally, any of these potential landing spots come with the enormous asterisk that Kaepernick would have to accept signing up as a backup, something he and his management team have yet to make clear he'd be willing to do. For that reason, the odds of Kaepernick making a sudden return remain a distinct long shot, but if you see the value in taking a shot that he might return, there are intriguing options for choosing precisely where he'll land, too.