Colin Kaepernick has got the talent to be a top quarterback in the NFL, but he's got to show it on the field if he wants the respect that accompanies being an elite player. (Ben Margot/AP Photo)

Kaepernick at crossroads

Somewhere beneath his self-armored, media-phobic, tatted-up crust, there is a joy for life. Colin Kaepernick uses that very word in describing his regular visits with children from Camp Taylor, kids with heart disease who have struggles tougher than any of his. “It’s always amazing to be around my kids,’’ he says. “It’s something that brings great joy, great excitement to me. It really does make my day every time I’m around those kids. I think they give more to me than I could ever give to them.’’

He also exudes a dynamism behind the scenes, say his 49ers teammates and coaches, with Jim Tomsula among those impressed by his sparkle and bounce throughout the preseason. “When you see the guy working, when you see the guy with the football, there’s a true happiness,’’ the new head coach says.  “You just see, like, a really good smile. You just know the guy loves what he’s doing, loves the game, loves the team thing.’’

What’s necessary in this progression, then, is for Kaepernick to transfer that joy onto the field when he’s leading the offense. He lost it on a January evening early last year, when Richard Sherman picked his final end-zone pass for Michael Crabtree and flipped the balance of conference power to Seattle, and since then, a quarterback thought to be revolutionizing the position and breaking through in pop culture has slipped into a tenuous standing in pro football’s middle tier.

Suddenly, after looking like all the rage just two seasons ago, Kaepernick finds himself at a crossroads in a league that has no patience for regression at the most important position in team sports. If the last nine months have shown that anyone is replaceable and nothing is certain in Santa Clara — from a successful head coach to a piece of sod — then No. 7 is vulnerable, too. His management-friendly contract allows CEO Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke to dump him, with no severe money repercussions, following any season. Just as Kaepernick gained his starting job on a wild whim, when Jim Harbaugh benched a productive Alex Smith, he could be expendable just as quickly if he doesn’t proceed to a higher level.

Saturday night in Denver, in a third preseason game that defines the early condition of a starting unit, Kaepernick was at the helm of a non-existent passing offense: zero total yards in the first half. His mushy line gave him little protection against Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and the blitzing Broncos, yet not until he escaped for two late runs, totaling 53 yards, was Kaepernick able to figure out solutions. He was sacked twice, once for a safety. He muffed a snap. He completed 2 of 5 passes for 13 yards.

“Got to clean it up,’’ Tomsula said.

This is Kaepernick 2.0?

The arm strength and staggering athleticism haven’t abandoned him. But now that NFL defensive strategists have figured out zone-read offenses and rendered Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III as deficient passing technicians, it’s up to the 49ers to strike back with a redefined version. That’s a monster task for offensive coordinator Geep Chryst, who hasn’t been in that role on any team in 15 years and served as the QB coach last year when his student was in decline. Kaepernick spent the winter working on passing mechanics and footwork with quarterbacking great Kurt Warner, but, honestly, is one offseason nearly enough time to tear down and build up flaws that never were addressed to begin with? The happy feet in the pocket? The reading of defenses, pre- and post-snap? The staredowns of primary receivers and telegraphing of passes?

What use is a potent arm, even with a new deep threat in Torrey Smith, when Kaepernick tied with league washout Geno Smith for the league’s worst deep-ball completion percentage (33 percent)? Why were his fourth-quarter breakdowns so pronounced, with his passer rating in crunch time ranking last among NFC quarterbacks as he interceptions rose and his yards-per play average dropped? Brilliant he was in Week 6 against St. Louis, when he had protection and threw for 343 yards and three scores, he often wilted under the pressure of 52 sacks. Will the line continue to be awful without Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati?

Tomsula and Chryst would love to unleash The Original Kap, with tweaks. But are those days long gone? With a weak defense ravaged by retirements, defections and arrests, doesn’t it behoove the 49ers to turn Kaepernick into something he’s not — a quarterback who manages a ball-control offense, hands the ball to the emerging Hyde and provides periodic big plays? He has proven pass-catchers in Smith, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis. He has Reggie Bush as a toy. The weaponry is considerable. But can the QB take advantage consistently? And if he doesn’t, do the 49ers actually think Blaine Gabbert is an alternative?

“Colin Kaepernick was not broke,” Tomsula argues. “We’ve got one of the most prolific quarterbacks in the National Football League, all right? This is a guy that went out and busted his tail (in the offseason). He took good and made it better. We didn’t go out to fix something that wasn’t broke.”

But Tomsula is wrong if he thinks Kaepernick, as constituted, is anywhere close to the positional elite. He must establish himself as a composed figure in the pocket, especially as the NFL’s competition committee does nothing to protect read-option quarterbacks. Outside the pocket, according to the rules, a quarterback in zone-read mode is viewed as a runner and isn’t allowed special protection until a passing posture is established. That Kaepernick views that as an unfair double standard doesn’t bode well.

“It’s a little different when they see quarterbacks differently, when they see a Peyton Manning or Tom Brady back there and they show a read option, they’re not viewed the same as me or Cam Newton or Russell Wilson or RGIII,” he says. “So I think there is some skepticism there as far as my part. But ultimately, we have to abide by what the league says.

“Thankfully, God blessed me with some legs that move pretty good, and we also get to wear pads, so I should be alright.’’

But while he gained 639 yards on the ground, second-most among NFL quarterbacks, he only rushed for one touchdown. There is a hope, though the 49ers never will say it, that Kaepernick settles into the Russell Wilson model of quarterbacking. Wilson can make the spectacular plays, too, but he is best known for his leadership, toughness and efficiency. Except when his coaches call for a pass play instead of Marshawn Lynch at the end of a Super Bowl, Wilson doesn’t lose games. Kaepernick loses games.

Meaning, maturity is of the essence. Amid the mass exodus and crime wave that have defined the 49ers, Kaepernick must be a franchise rock. Is that even possible? Only a few months ago, he used his hashtag — #7StormsComing — with a photo of the rainstorms and flooding that took lives in Houston, which was followed by an apology. He has had his own issues with a criminal probe, and while never charged, he needs to lay low. A report was bogus that Kaepernick had a confrontation with Aldon Smith — something about a woman and a Mercedes — before the drunk-driving allegations that ended Smith’s 49ers career. But was he smart to deliver a journalism lesson? His crusade: “I feel like anyone that goes about reporting that just doesn’t have the best integrity. To try to prey on athletes’ livelihoods while one is going through a tough time is embarrassing to me. To put that out there and jump on that bandwagon just to get Internet clicks and get attention to their website, it really is embarrassing people do that.”

I’d prefer he talk about his role, where he reprises Al Pacino from “Scent Of A Woman,’’ in the very weird commercial for “Madden 16.’’ He says he practiced the “Hoo-ah!’’ line for two days, adding, “They called Al Pacino and had to get his approval, so it was a great honor to have him OK it.’’

Any feedback?

“I haven’t gotten my reviews yet from him,’’ Colin Kaepernick says, “but hopefully he approves.”

It’s the story of his new football life. All reviews are pending.

Colin KaepernickGeno SmithJay MariottiJed YorkJim TomsulaKurt WarnerMichael CrabtreeSan Francisco 49ers

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