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Watson, Stafford… Rodgers? Evaluating the most realistic scenarios for 49ers to make QB change

© Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

We are in store for an unparalleled NFL offseason. The cap will drop for the first time in eight years, multiple elite quarterbacks want out or are considering it, and there are four(ish) potentially franchise-changing quarterbacks at the top of the draft.

And still, the 49ers might end up running it back with Jimmy Garoppolo. Though, it’s hard to imagine that’s a viable strategy in the short or long-term when you watch Patrick Mahomes do literally unstoppable things on a consistent basis.

San Francisco has most of its secondary expiring, along with Trent Williams, Kyle Juszczyk and a handful of other key free agents. Fred Warner also needs a long-term extension. The question, then, is how do you manage all of that?

An upgrade at quarterback makes the equation a whole lot simpler. There’s still the need to find replacements at other positions, but the ceiling of the team gets raised immediately, and you’re no longer a team betting on its defense, rather than worrying about the quarterback.

Below are most of the quarterbacks the 49ers have been linked to, and how likely it is the team will, or could acquire them this offseason.

Matthew Stafford: Likely

Stafford, who will be 33 in February, formally requested a trade from Detroit, and the team will reportedly acquiesce. This deal makes the most sense from the 49ers’ perspective, because while it’s not going to be cheap, it’s a player that they can more reasonably acquire, than, say, a 25-year-old Deshaun Watson, who has the asset-glutted Jets and Dolphins in likely pursuit.

What makes Stafford viable is that he’s a clear upgrade over Garoppolo, and has only failed to play in all 16 games once in the last 10 years (2019).

He’s a clear upgrade because he’s elusive, can throw the ball effectively and accurately at different arm angles and with deep accuracy. He is a stud with experience and who will immediately command respect of the locker room. He is a guy you can trust in the fourth quarter. He’s had his own failures, but most can be pinned on the constant, relentless failures from Detroit’s ownership.

The way Stafford’s deal is structured, per OverTheCap, makes him cheaper for the 49ers than Jimmy Garoppolo. The Lions have to eat $19 million in dead cap in a trade due to a recent restructure of his contract, which, oddly enough, ensures they won’t let him go cheaply.

Stafford would cost the 49ers, or any acquiring team, $20 million in 2021 and $23 million in 2022. Cutting or trading Garoppolo would cost the 49ers $2.8 million in dead cap space. Stafford and that dead cap would come at a combined cost of $22.8 million in 2020, compared to Garoppolo’s salary of $26.9 million.

To recap: if the 49ers trade away or cut Jimmy Garoppolo and acquire Matthew Stafford, they’ll save $4.1 million in cap space.

The 49ers’ clear competitors right now are other ready-to-win teams in the Indianapolis Colts, Chicago Bears, New England Patriots and maybe even the Denver Broncos.

The downside: None of those teams have starting quarterbacks locked in for 2021 and might be willing to throw more towards Stafford than the 49ers, who might be content to stick with Garoppolo.

The upside: The 49ers hold a trump card with the No. 12 overall pick, ahead of all of those teams in the draft… except Denver.

With the Lions reportedly looking to target a quarterback in the draft, a reasonable trade might be the 49ers’ 12th overall pick and a 2022 third-rounder for Stafford (keep in mind they picked up compensatory third-round picks in 2021, 2022 and 2023 from the Robert Saleh and Martin Mayhew hires). The 49ers move Garoppolo back to New England for a 2021 fourth-rounder.

Deshaun Watson: Unlikely

The issue with Watson is that, well, he’s a top-five quarterback who might not even be in his prime yet. He’s 25, with an extraordinarily team-friendly deal, especially in 2021, when he’ll cost any acquiring team just $10.4 million.

Is there any cost too high for Watson? No. These type of guys never become available.

But that’s just why he won’t go to San Francisco. Again, there are myriad other teams, like the Jets and Dolphins, who have years of assets available and high first-round picks this year. Both of those teams have young quarterbacks, who, while flawed, have upside that might still be worth swinging on. The 49ers can only outbid them by throwing their entire future at Watson, say, with four first-round picks.

That trade would still probably be worth the cost, and at the same time, might not even be enough to get the deal done. It’s just hard to see the 49ers willing to part with those assets and outbid any other team.

If only they had a chance to get a guy like Watson earlier…

Aaron Rodgers: Nope

Rodgers might want out. That was the vibe from his comments after losing a second-straight NFC Championship in which the Packers, down eight points with less than three minutes to go… kicked a field goal. He said that was not his decision and he thought he might have a chance to go for it on fourth down. He said he’s not certain about his future, along with multiple players on the Packers.

So, is Rodgers gone? No. Not even close. The money doesn’t make any sense, unless the Packers are willing to tank, or think, somehow, that Jordan Love can have them compete next year. Rodgers is almost certainly going to have to stick it out for one more season.

Per OverTheCap, trading Rodgers would cost the Packers $31 million in dead cap. In a year with limited cap space, that’s a cataclysmic decision, regardless of what you get in return. This team just went to two-straight NFC Championship games, and it’s going to tell its players, “Yeah, we’re cool with losing now.” I don’t see it.

If Rodgers wants out, he’s likely going to have to wait until 2022, when the dead cap is $17.54 million and the cap will almost certainly increase. Until then, don’t bet on him to leave Green Bay.

Dak Prescott: Unlikely

Prescott is probably going to be franchise tagged again by the Dallas Cowboys. Despite a cap crunch, there’s no logical reason for them to let him go, unless they are seriously concerned about his long-term health after suffering a fractured and dislocated ankle. He is not expected to make it to free agency.

If he does, though, obviously Prescott becomes a very viable, immediate option. The complicating factor will be that even if he does make it to free agency, the 49ers, even if they do cut Garoppolo, will have a hard time competing to sign Prescott, unless he’s willing to take a discount in year one.

Sam Darnold: Unlikely

Darnold is one of the more realistic options here in that he’s young, has traits that can fit within the 49ers’ scheme, and doesn’t have a prohibitively expensive contract. The issue is that, while not prohibitively expensive, he’ll still cost $9.79 million in 2021. So, you’re moving Garoppolo if you acquire Darnold. In a normal year, maybe you could fit both, but with the volatility of the cap, it’s not viable to have two quarterbacks on your roster for a combined nearly $37 million.

It’s hard to imagine that San Francisco looks at Darnold sees an immediate upgrade over Garoppolo.

Who would? He’s woefully inconsistent, and has looked awful much more than he’s looked even serviceable. You can pin much, if not most of that on the Jets’ coaching and previous front offices, but if you’re trading for a quarterback to replace Garoppolo, it has to be an upgrade. Darnold cannot logically be argued to be that, no matter what you think of his upside.

Justin Fields: Very unlikely

Fields is likely going in the top-10 and while the talent is there, he’s not quite polished or quick enough to immediately run the 49ers’ system. While he excels getting out of the pocket, especially on bootlegs, and has stunning arm talent, he’s frustratingly deliberate in his release.

It takes far too long for the ball to leave his hand, and where he struggles most is on those seemingly simple, dink-and-dunk passes where Garoppolo excels. For all of Garoppolo’s failures, he’s excellent at disguising handoffs and moving the ball quickly and accurately at short-to-intermediate depths from different body angles. Fields is not even close to reliable there yet.

Swinging on his upside could be a worthwhile endeavor, but that likely means trading up and keeping Garoppolo.

Zach Wilson: Unlikely

Wilson is the most ready-made quarterback for the 49ers’ offense that they could possibly draft. He’s quick, decisive, elusive, and has consistent success doing all the things needed to excel in Kyle Shanahan’s offense.

He pushes the ball downfield and targets receivers at catch points that only they can attack with relentless efficiency, can scramble when needed, and throws from wild arm and body angles that resemble Patrick Mahomes more than Garoppolo. Now, the concerns are that he, too, may think he’s Mahomes and he’s damn sure not.

All too often, Wilson gets cutesy with the ball and makes dangerous throws; either interceptable or hospital passes. And he’s not as quick as he thinks, which could be a concern, at least in the short-term, with the transition to the NFL.

Now, if you put him in the Shanahan offense, you’ll still have those concerns, but there are exponentially more reasons to be optimistic than pessimistic. But, like with Fields, you’re going to have to trade up to get him, and Garoppolo is probably sticking around. Though, with Wilson, you might feel comfortable enough to trade Garoppolo.

Trey Lance: Very unlikely

Lance is a terrifying prospect to bet your future on. He’s clearly got elite arm talent, burner speed at least downhill, and throws well on the run as you’d like to see for bootlegs. But in the one game he played this season, he looked like he was pressing.

He’s played one full season of college football, but in the FCS, and he was a redshirt sophomore. While he diced up subpar competition, he was used heavily as a runner, and relied on his legs way too often. In terms of agility, he actually gets caught quite a bit; going vertically, he almost always gets away, but side to side, he’s very tackle-able.

And his accuracy leaves a lot to be desired. He’s got a little bit of a baseball throwing motion which lends itself to the ball sailing to his right. The upside is clear, but he’s going to need to sit for at minimum a year, maybe two. It does not seem likely or prudent for the 49ers to pick him, even at 12.


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