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What is 49ers’ future at quarterback?

© Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The Jimmy Garoppolo era might be over. Or, it might not be. Maybe after all the (warranted) speculation over Garoppolo’s demise with San Francisco, he comes back healthy next year and looks like the quarterback we saw at the end of last regular season; a guy who looked like he might almost be worth $27.5 million per year.

At this point, there’s no reliability with Garoppolo, and his ceiling is, well, almost good enough.

Garoppolo’s ceiling is enough to get to a Super Bowl and almost win while having the league’s second-best rushing game and best defense.

Here’s the issue. Maintaining a league-best defense is extraordinarily difficult (see: the Rex Grossman-era Bears, who went 23-25 in the following three years after losing the Super Bowl).

You know what isn’t difficult? Remaining competitive when you have a genuine franchise quarterback, especially when that quarterback is on a rookie contract and provides you, effectively, with a spare $20 million per year to spend on other positions.

You can absolutely pay a quarterback $25-plus million per year when you have someone like Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady (a few years ago, at least), etc. In other words, guys who have won Super Bowls and MVPs, read defenses, make checks and set protections consistently, and who not only are capable of taking a game into their hands in key moments, but who you expect to take the game over.

Jimmy Garoppolo, we can say with pretty clear certainty, is not one of those quarterbacks. Does that mean San Francisco has to cut him this offseason? No, but it’s incredibly enticing and perhaps the most logical conclusion to his tenure.

At the epicenter of the Garoppolo decision is this reality that yes, maybe, San Francisco could win a Super Bowl with him.

He had his moment to prove that and whiffed, brutally. Kyle Shanahan very clearly did not trust him—nor did he need to trust him—with the offense in the playoffs (or at all this season), but down the stretch, in games like the one against New Orleans, we saw the best of Garoppolo.

He nailed those short-to-intermediate throws, especially over the middle, fitting the ball into tight windows. He set his feet in the pocket, got off his first read when it wasn’t there and looked relatively unbothered by pressure. He even made a deep throw to Emmanuel Sanders, which… on second thought, was under-thrown, almost cost the 49ers an easy touchdown, and only worked because the defensive back covering Sanders fell over before he caught the pass.

Garoppolo’s arm talent is limited, reliably, at least, to within 20 yards past the line of scrimmage. For the most part, in a Shanahan offense built around the run, play-action and simple throws, that’s fine. But it establishes a very clear ceiling for that offense, tied to the running game and how many mistakes Garoppolo makes; not the quarterbacking upside.

While some of Garoppolo’s mistakes have been physical, in large part, they have stemmed from his failure to process the game quickly and make intelligent throws. He almost never throws the ball away, resulting in at least a handful of egregious, interceptable throws each game. Without elite arm talent, you can’t excuse that sort of mental processing failure because there’s no upside to bet on.

In every single game this season, except against Seattle, Garoppolo has completed exactly one pass more than 15 yards past the line of scrimmage.

On throws more than 15 yards past the line of scrimmage, Garoppolo is 5-of-19 with no touchdowns and four interceptions.

Look at Justin Herbert this year.

On throws more than 15 yards past the line of scrimmage, Herbert is 30-of-64 with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions.

Would this team have a better chance with a young quarterback with a higher ceiling (better arm talent, can escape the pocket, project to carry the offense in key situations), who has a substantially lower cap hit? Without question.

There are exponentially more talented young quarterbacks already in the NFL (Herbert, Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, Kyler Murray, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen) and it looks like there could be four in this year’s draft who will fall into that echelon. This year’s Garoppolo isn’t even a top-20 quarterback, nor is he close.

So if you’re Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch, fresh off five- and four-year extensions, respectively, how can you not take that swing to ensure not just job security for a decade, but to be a perennial contender? If you have your quarterback sorted, you can afford to make overpriced, misguided free agent signings like Weston Richburg, Kwon Alexander and Dee Ford.

There are basically four paths for San Francisco to pursue at quarterback, all of which become exponentially easier if they continue to lose games.

Stick with Garoppolo

This is the most boring option, but running it back cannot be discounted. There was an abbreviated training camp, no preseason games and San Francisco has been hit by the worst injury crisis of probably any team in the NFL. In spite of that, though, Garoppolo missed easy opportunities that Shanahan carved out for him. He wasn’t trusted to run the offense.

Garoppolo’s ankle injury is the only thing that can be used as an excuse for his quarterbacking malfeasance. At no point this year did he look comfortable in the pocket, or like he trusted his offensive line. His best display was before the injury, but it came in the first half against the New York Jets, who are on pace to win zero games. Color me unimpressed.

Everything Shanahan has said suggested he’d seen enough from Garoppolo in practice to feel comfortable playing him. He saved him from the 43-17 drubbing by the Miami Dolphins, but he played the next three weeks. Either he’s healthy enough to play or he’s not, and regardless, you don’t get to blame throws into triple coverage on a bad ankle.

If Garoppolo is brought back next season and the 49ers don’t draft a young quarterback, or try and sign a veteran competitor like Jacoby Brissett or Ryan Fitzpatrick, they’ll be making the bet that this season was a fluke and that Garoppolo will improve upon his 2019 campaign. That bet seems ill-advised at this juncture, but it cannot be ruled out.

Cut Garoppolo, trade for or sign a veteran (the Kirk Cousins plan)

There will obviously be serious buzz around the 49ers bringing in Kirk Cousins, who Kyle Shanahan loves, or Matt Ryan. Ryan is probably too expensive to work (due more than $40 million in each of the next two seasons, much of which is guaranteed). Cousins, if the Minnesota Vikings are so inclined to get rid of him, could be viable given it’s only a two-year deal, but it’s still an albatross.

Cousins is due $31 million on the cap next season compared to Garoppolo’s $26.9 million. Garoppolo, though, only has a $3.2 million dead cap hit next year from his prorated bonus money. Cousins has $20 million in prorated bonus money remaining, which would be acquired by the 49ers if a trade occurred.

His 2022 base salary of $35 million will become fully guaranteed if he’s on the roster by March 22, meaning that if he’s on the roster in 2021, he’s due $45 million in 2022 with no outs.

As enamored as Shanahan is with Cousins, does the rest of the front office really believe in committing $45 million to an already-declining, low-ceiling quarterback in two years? The cap could fall to as low as $175 million next season, a $23.2 million drop from this year, and effectively a $33 million drop from 2021, given that the cap normally rises by about $10 million each season. It’s unclear how or if it will recover in 2022.

Teams are and should be looking to cut bait with massive veteran contracts, not add them.

So, if Cousins is removed from the equation, who’s left?

You could try and bring in a veteran like Jacoby Brissett, Tyrod Taylor, Andy Dalton, or Ryan Fitzpatrick. Dak Prescott is technically a free agent, but seems likely, even with a season-ending injury, to be franchise-tagged by Dallas. There’s also Jameis Winston, but his free agent market value or interest level is totally unclear.

If you were to run it back with Garoppolo and not draft a rookie quarterback, some competition in the form of one of those cheap veterans seems like it would be the prudent play.

Keep Garoppolo, draft a quarterback to stick behind him

Drafting a rookie quarterback is the most appealing option, but there are a few prevailing questions. Who will the 49ers be in position to draft? If they miss out on Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Trey Lance and Zach Wilson, do you still cut Garoppolo? And if you get one of those four, do you feel comfortable starting them right away?

Lawrence is clearly not going to be available, and it seems doubtful the 49ers will finish low enough, even if they lose out, to get up for Justin Fields, who seems to be the clear-cut No. 2, or in some cases, No. 1 QB on most folks’ boards.

But Lance, who went to North Dakota State, only played one game this year at a small school. Wilson is a baby-faced junior who has unbelievable arm talent, but might not be ready from Day 1. And do you really want to make a move for standard pocket-passing quarterbacks like Kyle Trask (Florida) or Mac Jones (Alabama) as “the guy”?

These questions all come back to how the 49ers finish the season, and who they value at quarterback. If they go 6-10, that’s going to leave them on the outside looking in, but potentially close enough to trade up (likelihood of where they draft explained below).

If it is a project player like Lance, they might not know what they have until they get him into camp, and then maybe it makes more sense to hold onto Garoppolo.

This scenario is perhaps the most intriguing. Garoppolo’s not exactly viewed as a cerebral quarterback, so it might proceed more as competition for him until the rookie is ready, rather than him taking the rookie under his wings. It’s unclear if he’d actually be willing to do that. Given that he was so recently viewed as “the guy,” it might be an uneasy arrangement, especially when he’s making $26.9 million next year.

Cut Garoppolo, draft a rookie quarterback

In this scenario, you could save $24.1 million on Garoppolo and still sign one of the veterans above, like Brissett, Dalton, or Fitzpatrick—though he was openly unenthused about losing his starting job to Tua Tagovailoa and might not want to repeat that.

This allows San Francisco to totally reset its salary cap clock. Getting a rookie quarterback gives you that $20-plus million in cap space (compared to Garoppolo or another starting quarterback), which provides money for extensions (Trent Williams, Nick Bosa, Fred Warner, Deebo Samuel, etc.) and for free agent spending (the entire secondary, aside from Jimmie Ward and Tarvarius Moore are up for new deals).

But in order to feel confident in cutting Garoppolo, the 49ers probably need to get into the top 10. In each of the last three years, the ninth and 10th picks were 6-10 teams, but some 6-10 teams, in cases of a tie, finish in the 11th and 12th spots. Finishing at 5-11 probably pushes San Francisco into contention for the sixth-through-eighth picks, which is a far more comfortable spot to be.

The 2021 quarterback prospect landscape is still working itself out, but it looks very much like this:

1a. Trevor Lawrence

1b. Justin Fields

2. Trey Lance

3. Zach Wilson

4. Kyle Trask

5. Everyone else

Lawrence (almost certainly to the New York Jets) and Fields (probably to the Jacksonville Jaguars), as stated, are likely out of range, unless San Francisco offers up a king’s ransom or loses out.

Lance and Wilson seem to have the most remaining upside and are more than likely to be available in San Francisco’s range. Kyle Trask is a stone-footed pocket passer who seems more suited as mid-round, developmental pick, but has exceptional mid-to-deep accuracy. His decision-making leaves some question marks.

Past that point, you’re hoping you find a market inefficiency and strike gold on someone like Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan, Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder or Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond. Alabama’s Mac Jones might even be an option. But if you’re Lynch and Shanahan, there’s probably no way you’re cutting Garoppolo for someone like them, regardless of how impressed they are by those players in the draft process.

So if it is the end of the Garoppolo era, unless an early team makes a shock move to eschew the quarterback position or drafts Wilson or Lance above Lawrence and Fields (or falls in love with someone like Trask), familiarize yourselves with Lance and Wilson. The direction San Francisco is headed, and with the slow start they had on their quasi-tank, those two are the most viable candidates to take the reigns of the franchise.


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