Kaepernick appreciates support of Kelly, teammates and organization

Kaepernick appreciates support of Kelly, teammates and organization

SANTA CLARA – Quarterback Colin Kaepernick said he never allowed himself to think that Sunday might be the final time he plays for the home team at Levi’s Stadium.

Kaepernick can opt out of his contract to become an unrestricted free agent at the start of the new league year on March 9. Even if he does not opt out, the 49ers would be expected to release him to avoid paying $14.9 million in salary and bonuses.

“There will be a lot of things that play into that,” Kaepernick said Sunday, following the 49ers’ 25-23 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. “And I’ll have to really think about those things as this offseason approaches.”

Kaepernick has given everyone a lot to think about this season. And there was a lot for him to be thankful, he said.

Before news of coach Chip Kelly's firing became official, Kaepernick said he learned some lessons from his coach during the tumultuous 2-14 season. Kelly coached the 49ers in Chicago just two days after the death of his father. Kaepernick, who heard the reports on Saturday night that Kelly was expected to be fired, was seen giving his coach a hug before kickoff on Sunday at Levi's Stadium.

“I appreciate Chip and what he does on a daily basis, regardless of the circumstances,” Kaepernick said. “I make sure I go over and give him a hug after every game. To me, the resilience he’s shown, with the circumstances that have gone on this year, I appreciate that."

Kaepernick was asked about the biggest lesson he learned from Kelly.

“The biggest thing can relate to football, but more so, it relates to life," Kaepernick said. "And that’s not letting your circumstances dictate your attitude and how you approach a situation. Once again, our circumstances weren’t the best this year. Our team came out and played hard every week and we played for each other every week. And that was something I look at as something I can take moving forward and making sure I continue to do that.”

The 49ers' 25-23 loss capped one of the worst seasons in franchise history. The year will be remembered as much for Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem than it will be for anything the 49ers did on the field.

Kaepernick said he was blown away by the level of support he received from 49ers fans during his season-long protest of racial inequality in America. Kaepernick became a controversial figure across America for his decision to not stand up for the national anthem.

“This fan base has been amazing,” Kaepernick said. “The support I’ve had, the people backing me, standing behind me and telling me how much they appreciated what I’m doing and want to help others. I can’t express how much I appreciate them because it’s been six years now and I had a lot of good times with these fans. Some rough times, as well. But they’ve always been there. They’ve always stood behind me and behind this organization. And I appreciate that.”

Kaepernick on Friday was announced as the winner of the Len Eshmont Award, the highest team honor voted on by the players. The award goes to the 49ers player who best exemplifies the inspirational and courageous play of Eshmont, one of the original members of the 49ers of 1946.

“I can’t express how grateful I am to have teammates like I did this year,” Kaepernick said. “They stood behind me, regardless of any situation that went on. (I) had a lot of great conversations in the locker room. Even today, and the situation where we have a lot of injuries, a lot of players that are new stepping on the field, we went out and we fought together. And we stayed together until the very end and gave everything we had for each other. So, to me, that’s what stood out to me – that it was from my teammates and it really means a lot.”

Kaepernick said he also was pleased that he had a better relationship with CEO Jed York and executive Paraag Marathe. A year ago, there was mutual acrimony and the organization gave Kaepernick permission to seek a trade.

“My relationship this year was much-improved from years past with Jed (and) Paraag,” Kaepernick said. “I think we had a great relationship now. And I was excited about that. I was excited about his organization as a whole.”

Kaepernick's future is up in the air. Although he clearly would be comfortable returning to the 49ers next season, it is not known whether the new general manager and new head coach would want to bring in their own quarterbacks.

Deepest position in the NFL Draft? 49ers VP of Player Personnel weighs in


Deepest position in the NFL Draft? 49ers VP of Player Personnel weighs in

The 49ers concluded the first wave of the free-agent signing period with the signings of players to fill the team’s biggest offseason needs.

--Cornerback. Aqib Talib would have been the answer in a trade with the Denver Broncos, but he wanted to play elsewhere. Instead, the 49ers signed veteran Richard Sherman, whom the Seattle Seahawks cut a day earlier.

--Interior offensive line. Center Weston Richburg was the player the team had rated as their top target in free agency, and they signed him to a lucrative five-year deal.

--Running back. The team decided Jerick McKinnon was a better fit than Carlos Hyde. They wrapped him up with a four-year contract.

--Edge rusher. Lacking many options in free agency, the 49ers signed Jeremiah Attaochu to a one-year contract in hopes he will earn a spot on the team and make a contribution at the “Leo” position.

The 49ers can still use more help at a number of different positions, including cornerback, wide receiver, offensive line, linebacker and edge rusher. While the 49ers might add some role players in the second wave of free agency, most of the major acquisitions at this point are likely to come in the draft.

On the 49ers Insider Podcast, 49ers vice president of player personnel Adam Peters addressed what positions he believes are strong in this year’s draft.

“I think running backs, absolutely. It’s a deep position,” Peters said. “Quarterbacks at the top is deeper than it was last year. Secondary, corners, it’s not deeper than it was last year, but it’s a strong class of corners. Those are the main ones. The offensive line class is a little better than last year, too.”

The 49ers got major contributions from their rookie class last season. Tight end George Kittle, receiver Trent Taylor, quarterback C.J. Beathard, running back Matt Breida, defensive lineman Solomom Thomas, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, linebacker Reuben Foster and safety Adrian Colbert each played more than 300 snaps.

The 49ers feel good about Witherspoon, a third-round draft pick, as a starter with Sherman on the other side. Peters said a lot of the team’s rookies played larger roles than expected in 2017, but Witherspoon might have been at the top of the list.

“I don’t think he was active for the first four games,” Peters said of Witherspoon. “And he ended up playing at a high level at the end. Really driven, conscientious player who wants to be great. 

"We were lucky we got a chance to play a lot of rookies because that’ll help us moving forward.”

Shanahan sees versatile McKinnon as piece that was missing from 49ers' offense


Shanahan sees versatile McKinnon as piece that was missing from 49ers' offense

The player Kyle Shanahan studied on video was a lot better than the player he saw on the stat sheet.

The 49ers coach said he places a lot more emphasis on how he projects a player in his offense than what the player did with his former team.

And that is why the 49ers placed a large priority on signing former Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnonon the first day of the free-agent signing period. McKinnon comes to the 49ers on a four-year, $30 million contract with $11.7 million guaranteed.

McKinnon's stats might not suggest he is anywhere near a top running back in the NFL, but Shanahan sees it differently. And that is why the 49ers opted to pursue McKinnon instead of Carlos Hyde.

“I don’t know the numbers until I like the guy,” Shanahan said. “I always watch the guy first, and turn on the tape and get lost in it for a while. There were so many things I liked about him, visualizing how we would use him and stuff he would do. And even though there wasn’t a ton of it, you still got to see him do some stuff that we do a lot. Where he did it, he excelled a ton and was very good at it.

“Eventually, I look at the numbers and it did surprise me. Then you go back and you try to see why. I’m not going to get into all the whys, but I know all the stuff we liked about him, we cut up those numbers. I think they would’ve been good numbers.”

In four NFL seasons as a part-time player, McKinnon (5-9, 205), averaged 4.0 yards per rushing attempt. The past two years, he gained 539 and 570 yards with rushing averages of just 3.4 and 3.8 yards.

Hyde (6-foot, 230) is a bigger back with more production in his career. He rushed for 988 and 938 yards in 2016 and ’17 with averages of 4.6 and 3.9 yards.

Shanahan said he looked at every player who was available, and McKinnon was the player he evaluated to be the best of all the free agents. Shanahan has long valued running backs who are versatile in the run and pass games with an ability to make defenders miss.

“A good run is when you get more yards than what it was blocked for,” Shanahan said. “Sometimes, runs are blocked for negative 1 (yard) and the best run in the game was a 1-yard carry.

“Sometimes the one that most people could do is a 60-yarder because it was a busted coverage or a busted front and nobody was there. Numbers do tell stuff, but it’s never an absolute."

The 49ers signed McKinnon to be the starting running back with Matt Breida likely mixing into the action. The 49ers could also be in the market to add to the competition and depth through the draft.

Shanahan is likely to deploy multiple players, just as he did successfully with Atlanta Falcons running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. McKinnon is expected to take Freeman’s role. In each of Shanahan’s two seasons as Falcons offensive coordinator, Freeman accounted for more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage. He rushed for 1,056 and 1,079 yards while catching 578 and 462 yards in passes.

“I’m just excited to be in the offense that I feel is a perfect fit for me,” McKinnon said on Thursday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

“Things that coach Shanahan has done with the backs like he did in Atlanta with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, I see myself doing those kinds of things. For me, I feel like the scheme is right. The fit was just perfect for me. I feel like I can’t be in a better situation as a player.”

Shanahan said he liked McKinnon as a draft prospect in 2014 out of Georgia Southern but it was more difficult to evaluate him because he mostly played quarterback in college.

But in studying McKinnon while with the Vikings, he saw a runner who has speed and elusiveness while also exhibiting the strength to break arm tackles. He set the record at the NFL Scouting Combine for running backs with 32 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press in 2014. But McKinnon's best asset might be his ability to be a factor in the passing game in blitz pickup, while also being a dependable receiver out of the backfield or in the slot.

“When it comes to separating and beating linebackers and safeties in man-to-man coverage, I definitely think he’s an issue for teams,” Shanahan said. “I think this league, when it comes to third downs and things like that, you move the chains based off of matchups, which allows you to get points in the long run. I think Jerick is very versatile and we can do a lot of things with him.

“He’s good enough to make it as a runner alone in this league. He’s good enough to make it in the pass game as just a third down threat alone, but when you can do both of those, it gives you a lot of freedom as a coach.”