Ron Agostini

Top priority for 2015 49ers – keeping Kaepernick healthy

49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) scrambles in a preseason game against the Denver Broncos on Aug. 29 in Denver.
49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) scrambles in a preseason game against the Denver Broncos on Aug. 29 in Denver. The Associated Press

Colin Kaepernick’s red cap was perched on his head for the kickoff Thursday night, and that’s where it stayed until the final gun.

It was a safe night for Kaepernick as the 49ers ended the monotonous preseason schedule Thursday night. He’ll soon start his third full season as the starting quarterback. His games wearing a cap rather than a helmet are over. He’s yet to suffer a major injury in the NFL and, at age 27, he’s already beaten odds taller than his 6-foot-4 frame.

I’m concerned for his physical well-being this season.

When Kaepernick and his teammates kick off the 2015 season on Monday, Sept. 14, against the Minnesota Vikings, the graduate of Pitman High will find himself caught in a dangerous vise.

Kaepernick will be asked this season to do more than just hand off the ball to Frank Gore. Gore, a major security blanket for the 49ers, is gone. The new coaches, headed by Jim Tomsula, are determined to let Kaepernick run.

There will be few if any restraints this fall. Kaepernick won’t sit in the pocket, where the previous staff restricted him for most of last season. Tomsula wants “Kap to be Kap.” Put that speed to work. Watch Kap run.

Fact is, running quarterbacks don’t last long in the NFL.

One of the better qualities of coach Jim Harbaugh was his handling of Kaepernick. The 49ers rode their rugged defense to three consecutive NFC title games and a Super Bowl appearance. Kaepernick took relatively few chances, at least until the playoffs.

Only now, that team template has been deposited into the South Bay. Jim Harbaugh and Co. have been banished. The defense, Navorro Bowman aside, has been decimated. The offensive line, charged with protecting Kaepernick, has embarked on a rather massive retooling.

Let’s review: Untested offensive line (one that leaked oil during the preseason) combined with a quarterback who will be turned loose, perhaps not by plan.

That is the vise tightening around Kaepernick’s ears. There will be danger, and one wonders if he’ll make it through this most uncertain season.

From here: Kaepernick seems most comfortable, oddly enough, when he’s in the open field. His personal antenna is strong and he feels when danger is close and quickly hits the ground or runs out of bounds.

But when he’s in the pocket, his antenna remains clouded. The elite quarterbacks sense the pass rush closing in and react accordingly. Kaepernick hasn’t yet developed that important skill. He hesitates when his primary target is covered and, worse, sometimes stops looking downfield.

He was sacked 52 times in 2014, due in part to injuries along the line. But everyone from the most astute NFL analysts to the season-ticket holder in Section 231 at Levi’s Stadium also understands that Kaepernick’s pocket instincts – when to stay and when to bolt – need refining.

That’s why he spent about six weeks in Arizona working with two-time league MVP Kurt Warner. Surely they addressed comfort level, touch on the ball, leadership skills, etc. Kaepernick wants to be great. His desire and work ethic are among his best traits. Getting there, especially now that the talent level may have slipped around him, is problematic.

Much will depend on that new offensive line – center Marcus Martin, guards Jordan Devy (formerly of New England) and Alex Boone and tackles Joe Staley and Erik Pears. The production of Carlos Hyde, Gore’s successor, also is attached to Kaepernick’s success rate.

“Even with the different (offensive line) combinations we’ve had out there, we’ve been able to run the ball very well,” Kaepernick said this week. “So I think that will be a strength for us.”

Results from the preseason have been sketchy. Kaepernick played sparingly in the first three games and sat the entirety of the 49ers’ 14-12 win over the San Diego Chargers on Thursday. Most observers foresee trouble for the 49ers – too many changes, too much upheaval, too much ground to make up in a league that punishes those who regress.

“We’re going to take every opportunity we can to get better before the scores are real,” Tomsula summarized. “Our team is at a good place. It’s a group that is into the team concept. I see that going on.”

Nevertheless, 49ers fans fear the worst and who can blame them after that dreadful winter. The team finished 8-8 and out of the playoffs, a major drop-off. But in the NFL, there are more nasty places than 8-8. A fumble here and an injury there can submerge a team to the depths.

Kaepernick, snug in Harbaugh’s cocoon, now is unleashed. All things are in play – surprising success, abject failure or a stressful sameness. Speculation already has begun on his NFL address after this season.

All who follow the 49ers desire an accurate assessment of Kaepernick. For that to happen, he must at least stay upright.

That might be easier said than done in 2015.