We've learned long ago that the reported figures for big NFL deals should be ignored until the actual details emerge. So when Colin Kaepernick signed a contract that "could be worth $126 million through 2020," I hope you didn't believe either of those numbers. This is a below-market deal that ends whenever the 49ers want it to.
Pro Football Talk has the contract language, and it's a unique deal in two ways. First, since the initial five years are guaranteed for injury only, the Niners can cut Kaepernick at any time and not owe him a thing—it's pay-as-you-go. Second, instead of bonuses, the deal contains a de-escalator clause that requires Kaepernick to be wildly successful, or his payout drops each year.
Kaepernick's signing bonus is a relatively small $12.3 million. Spread out over the life of the deal, that's just $2 million a year in guaranteed cap hit. "Part of the way the contract is written," Kaepernick said, "was so [the 49ers] would be able to sign other players." Fine. That's standard.
The non-guarantees aren't. With his base salary going up every year (From 2015 on: $12.4M, $13.9M, $16.5M, $17M, $18.8M), Kaepernick is relatively cheap early on. And if he becomes ineffective—or just too expensive—the Niners can cut him at any time and be off the hook. Jason La Canfora has a good way to look at the deal from San Francisco's perspective:
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That's much less that the effective salary for, say, Joe Flacco, even though the Ravens are touting Kaepernick's ascension on an arbitrary "most overpaid list."
If Kaepernick does get hurt, his money through 2018 is guaranteed for injury. The Niners thought of that too. The contract requires Kaepernick to buy his own insurance policy that will pay the 49ers $20 million after-tax in the case of a career-ending injury.
Now, the de-escalators. Starting in 2015, Kaepernick's promised base salary will decrease by $2 million each year unless he does one of two things, and neither is easy. To regain that two million in any given season, he must QB the 49ers to the Super Bowl, or be named first or second team All-Pro.
Kaepernick's contract will never pay him $126 million, and he'll likely need to play for five years to reach the $61 million that's "guaranteed." If he falls off the face of the earth tomorrow, he'll get $13 million for one year and that's it. If he remains elite, the 49ers will have him at very manageable rates—even as the leaguewide salary cap goes up—until they decide to stop paying. A franchise QB has never been so disposable.