Colin Kaepernick to start for San Francisco 49ers against Bills on Sunday

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick throws a pass before the game against the San Diego Chargers

Colin Kaepernick’s protests against police shootings and racial inequality have been minimized by many because he was the San Francisco 49ers’ backup quarterback, playing behind the lightly regarded Blaine Gabbert. Now he will have a more prominent role as the Niners have named him their starter for Sunday’s game at Buffalo.

Related: Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Colin Kaepernick's protest is 'dumb and disrespectful'

The move is not unexpected. Gabbert has struggled in San Francisco’s last four games, and Kaepernick recently re-structured his contract, removing a $14m injury guarantee for next year that was widely seen as the final impediment to his becoming the team’s No1 quarterback. By taking away the injury guarantee, Kaepernick is betting he can either impress 49ers coach Chip Kelly enough to be San Francisco’ starter next year, or attract another team in free agency. Kelly has the freedom to let Kaepernick try out as the team’s top quarterback without the risk of having to pay an extravagant amount next season should Kaepernick be injured.

Kaepernick’s promotion is strictly a football move and has nothing to do with the quarterback’s social activism and his refusal to stand for the national anthem. While Kaepernick has become a divisive figure, drawing scorn and enough praise that his jersey has become the NFL’s top-seller, his promotion to the team’s top spot is not a public relations decision. The team is 1-4 and Kelly is desperate to find the quarterback around whom he can rebuild his football team. Gabbert played poorly in the season’s first five games, completing just 58% of his passes and is ranked 30th in passer rating at 69.6. Kelly’s fast-paced offense depends upon a bright quarterback who can make quick decisions and accurate throws.

No one in football doubts Kaepernick’s intelligence. He has always been considered one of the league’s brightest quarterbacks, but he has struggled after leading the Niners to the Super Bowl in his second pro season. Defenses have adapted to his running style, and he has had trouble becoming a passer who will stay in the pocket and seek out receivers rather than scrambling from pass rushes. He lost the starting job last season and did not immediately take to Kelly’s system when the new coach arrived this year.

There was some speculation Kaepernick would be released after his began his protest during the pre-season. Many in the league believed Kelly would not want the distraction that has come with the coverage of his backup quarterback’s anthem stand. One of the strongest rebuke’s of Kaepernick’s protests came from ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, himself a backup quarterback in the NFL, who said Kaepernick’s job is “to be quiet and sit in the shadows and get the starter ready for week one.”

Now that Kaepernick is the starter, his profile will rise. Though his protest continues to be a national topic, it has been overshadowed on recent Sundays by that weekend’s on-field storylines. As the No1 quarterback, his anthem stand will be discussed as much as ability to move the team’s offense. If the Niners can find momentum with him he will have an even-bigger platform on which to speak about issues that matter to him.

From 2012-14 he went 25-14 as the Niners quarterback as both a rushing and passing threat. He had 50 touchdowns and 21 interceptions in that time playing for John Harbaugh. If he can find anything resembling that success under Kelly, the 28-year-old quarterback might revive his career, even as his name is bigger than ever.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Les Carpenter, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 11th October 2016 20.12 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010