What should we expect from Colin Kaepernick this weekend?

The activist makes his debut

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Everyone, it seems, has had something to say during this NFL season about Colin Kaepernick the activist. His refusal to stand for the national anthem before games as a protest of the treatment of African Americans sparked a fierce and ongoing national debate.

But no one, until now, has had much to say about Colin Kaepernick the quarterback. That's because he'd become an afterthought as a football player, relegated to backing up the unlikely-to-be-Canton-bound Blaine Gabbert with the San Francisco 49ers.

That changed this past week, with Coach Chip Kelly benching Gabbert and going with Kaepernick as the Niners' starter for Sunday's game at Buffalo. Kaepernick will try to help the 49ers improve on their 1-4 record while attempting to reassemble his NFL career.

It is difficult to know what to expect from Kaepernick, the one-time Super Bowl starter for the 49ers who has struggled with declining on-field production and injuries the past few seasons. This will be his regular season debut in Kelly's fast-break offense.

"We've got to play," Bills defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman said at a news conference. "It doesn't matter. I mean, we've seen Kaepernick play. We've played against him before. We've played against this offense before and we have to prepare. There'll be some in-game adjustments for sure. So we have to get ready. And I think we will be."

Will this be the Kaepernick of 2012 and 2013, the version who used his strong arm and his swiftness as a runner to take the 49ers to two NFC title games and a Super Bowl? Or will it be the quarterback whose play showed some signs of deterioration in 2014 and who rarely has resembled a star-caliber player since then?

"He has the capability to play well," said former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick, an analyst for NFL Network. "We've seen it. We saw it with [former 49ers coach] Jim Harbaugh there. And now this offense, with him in it, it should be a match made in heaven. But we'll see. He did all those good things when Jim Harbaugh was there and then we saw him kind of regress a little bit."

But why did Kaepernick regress?

"Coaching matters," Billick said in a phone interview. "I think that's what we saw. But this offense should be good for him. He has a really strong arm and at one point we were starting to see what he could do from the pocket. That was the area where he kind of took a step back. But he has the ability to play well."

Injuries played a role, particularly last season.

"When people want to know what's wrong with Colin Kaepernick - he's a guy coming off of three injuries," Kelly said. "And he's worked extremely hard at putting himself back into shape, getting himself ready to play football. He was cleared medically in August. But that doesn't mean you're full go, ready to play and are gonna pick up right where you left off. It's been a process. And he's worked extremely hard at it. So we're hoping that when we get him on the field on Sunday's that's gonna show dividends for us."

This probably will be a temporary pairing of Kaepernick and Kelly's offense. Kaepernick agreed to a revised contract with the 49ers that runs only through the conclusion of this season, plus a player's option for next season. So he could be auditioning for other teams. In the meantime, he could help Kelly to stabilize things for the 49ers.

"We expect that we need to move the football offensively," Kelly said. "So that's why we made the decision to do what we're doing. Hopefully we can get a little bit more consistency on the offensive side of the ball. That's what I think we need. I think at times we've looked really good on offense. Things are humming and things are clicking. But we haven't been consistent enough in our drives and really sustaining drives to stay on the field."