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What are the 49ers’ options to upgrade at backup quarterback in free agency?

© Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers want to improve at backup quarterback. At least, that’s what general manager John Lynch said on Wednesday. While his comments were interpreted as a vote of confidence for Jimmy Garoppolo, they were in character with the line Lynch and Kyle Shanahan have toed thus far.

The more notable part of Lynch’s comments were that he said the 49ers effectively need better Jimmy Garoppolo insurance. They currently have just Josh Rosen and Josh Johnson on the roster behind him, and from reading the tea leaves, it sounds like neither Nick Mullens nor C.J. Beathard will be back.

But what are the actual options to upgrade at backup quarterback? The draft is the more cost-effective option, but given how much can change until that point, we’ll limit options to free agents.

The 49ers have thus far shown an unwillingness to touch Jimmy Garoppolo’s contract. If they had been willing to restructure his deal, they could have kept DeForest Buckner, or at least moved Arik Armstead instead.

So, proceeding under the notion that this team will not touch Garoppolo’s money, can’t cut Dee Ford due to his injury guarantee, and re-signs Trent Williams for a first-year cap hit of $15 million, this team will be working with roughly $15 million in cap space if they cut Weston Richburg, restructure the deals of Jimmie Ward and Arik Armstead, and extend Laken Tomlinson.

That’s $15 million with no one from your secondary returning. Let’s say they bring back Jason Verrett for $5 million and target Alex Mack on a team-friendly deal for $3 million (which seems low). That’s $7 million remaining for all your minimum free agents, a player like Emmanuel Moseley (who could be worth a second-round tender of $3.4 million), and the draft, which could hit the cap for roughly $3 million.

So… who are you signing in free agency, exactly? The 49ers may have to get creative and go for a post-June 1 cut of Weston Richburg, which will open roughly $4 million in additional space. But that also means you don’t get those savings ($7.95 million in total) until the start of June, after the major rush of free agency.

And they probably need to restructure a bit of Jimmy Garoppolo’s contract. Given that he currently has just $2.8 million remaining in guaranteed money, he has no little incentive to decline, unless he wants to force a trade to a preferable destination.

Let’s say this team restructures Garoppolo’s deal, carving out something like $3 million for a backup quarterback. Below are the options on the market:

Andy Dalton

Age: 34

Last productive season: 2020: 11 games, 2,170 yards, 64.9% completion, 14 TD, 8 INT

Last contract: 1 year, $3 million

Dalton was too effective last year and has far too much experience as a productive quarterback to sign for $3 million. He’s the most attractive backup option on the market, and even in a year with a constricted cap, he’s almost certainly going to cost more than $5 million, and that’s a conservative estimate. Unless the 49ers want to pay upwards of $33 million for two quarterbacks who don’t move the needle, he’s not going to be a realistic option.

Jacoby Brissett

Age: 29

Last productive season: 2019: 15 games, 2,942 yards, 60.9% completion, 18 TD, 6 INT

Last contract: 2 years, $30 million

Brissett was essentially used as the Colts’ third- and fourth-down designated QB-sneaker and as the guy they occasionally employed on deep throw situations to relieve the now-retired Phillip Rivers of his, er… limitations at the age of 39. Brissett had signed a massive, two-year, $30 million deal with the Colts in 2019, which was partially a bet on the production he showed in his sophomore year (3,098 yards, 13 touchdowns, 7 interceptions) after Andrew Luck’s shoulder injury, but more a panic move out of necessity, with Luck having retired in the preseason, and Brissett needing a raise.

He underwhelmed in 2019, despite an efficient TD-to-INT ratio of 18:6, as Rivers replaced him. It’s a nebulous equation trying to figure out Brissett’s market value, but at age 28, the other former Tom Brady backup would be a reasonable option if he falls into that theoretical $3 million range. Knowing that the cap will spike again in 2021, he might want to make that bet to hit free agency the following year by backing up or challenging an injury-prone Jimmy Garoppolo with a head coach who has succeeded in getting the most out of his quarterbacks.

Mitchell Trubisky

Age: 27

Last productive season: 2020: 10 games, 2,055 yards, 67% completion, 16 TD, 8 INT

Last contract: 2 years, $30 million

Trubisky would actually be a really enticing option here. While he’s been a bust of a No. 2 pick, you’re not viewing him through that lens. He’s had stretches of effective play, and you’re putting him into an offense which, at least theoretically, matches his skillset. His athleticism is perfect for those play action bootlegs the 49ers run so many of and there’s always the chance that a change of scenery under a head coach who maximizes his quarterbacks’ talent, is exactly what he needs to become productive again.

The issue is that other teams see that. They see a 26-year-old, one-time Pro Bowler who isn’t a major injury concern. Someone’s going to pay him more than what the 49ers can afford to. Make fun of that as you will, but securing an athletic backup quarterback with upside who is still young; that’s not a bad bet.

Tyrod Taylor

Age: 32

Last productive season: 2017: 15 games, 2,799 yards, 62.6% completion, 14 TD, 4 INT

Last contract: 2 years, $11 million

This is the best option, in my opinion, that the 49ers have. Tyrod Taylor, despite being mostly productive and flashing the dynamic traits he showed back at Virginia Tech has had some bad luck in his career. He strung together three great seasons in Buffalo, and was given a six-year, $92 million contract extension that was quickly restructured the following season into a two-year, $30.5 million deal. He’s a guy who seems to be beloved by every coach he spends time with.

He was traded to the Browns in 2018 for a third-round pick, but after a Week 3 injury, was benched for Baker Mayfield, and never saw the field again. An almost identical scenario played out this year with the Los Angeles Chargers, when a freak lung puncture by the Chargers’ team doctor, who was trying to give Taylor an injection, cost him his starting job for rookie quarterback Justin Herbert. He didn’t see the field again.

The two-year deal Taylor last signed with the Chargers was set up as $3.5 million in year one and $7.5 million in year two; designed to be a high-upside backup for Phillip Rivers, and then as a cheap starter the following year. He didn’t get a chance to capitalize off those two years, and by all accounts, his market value, especially in as brutal a financial one as this, will decrease.

That would logically put Taylor in that $3 million range the 49ers could theoretically afford. And if you’re bringing in a guy who can compete for Garoppolo’s starting job, and at least “insulate” you from disaster if Garoppolo gets injured, as Lynch termed it, Taylor’s career production is well worth that cost.

Ryan Fitzpatrick

Age next season: 39

Last productive season: 2020: 9 games, 2,091 yards, 68.7% completion, 13 TD, 8 INT

Last contract: 2 years, $11 million

Based on Adam Schefter’s comments on Fitzpatrick a few weeks back, it sounds like the 49ers don’t have any interest in Fitzpatrick, who is probably going to play on two-year, $15-20 million deals from now until eternity. The 38-year-old didn’t lose his job to Tua Tagavailoa as much as he was benched to see what the rookie could offer.

He’s going to be up there with Andy Dalton as the expensive backup quarterback options, and is probably out of the 49ers range even if they were interest.

Cam Newton

Age: 32

Last productive season: 2020: 15 games, 2,657 yards, 65.8% completion, 8 TD, 10 INT

Last contract: 1 year, $1.66 million

I’m not inherently anti-Cam Newton, but he clearly was not right last year. The 49ers saw him in person, and I can guarantee you, they did not like what they saw. If Newton can somehow prove that he’s healthy, he’d suddenly become a tantalizing option. But he could barely throw the ball last year. Clearly his market dried up because of that, but it also might be a reason he’s in the 49ers’ range. That said, if you’re Newton, do you really want to play another season on a one-year, slightly more than minimum deal?

Jameis Winston

Age: 27

Last productive season: 2019: 16 games, 5,109 yards, 65.8% completion, 33 TD, 30 INT

Last contract: 1 year, $1.10 million

Winston is also in that upper tier because someone might still make him their starter. The Saints will probably do everything they can to try and re-sign him, despite being over the salary cap by roughly $70 million. You can bet if the 49ers can afford to sign him, the Saints will figure out a way to keep him. He’s still a 27-year-old, and while the downside of a 30-interception season is evident, he’s still clearly talented and a player someone will make a bet on. It’s also doubtful Kyle Shanahan will want a backup quarterback who is pure chaos.

Joe Flacco

Age: 36

Last productive season: 2020: 15 games, 864 yards, 55.2% completion, 6 TD, 3 INT

Last contract: 1 year, $1.56 million

Flacco is here because, hey, he’s a veteran who can probably be a quasi-coach. Not a sexy option, but maybe he can help get the best out of Josh Rosen and Garoppolo. His market is pretty much nonexistent due to his questionable health from a neck injury. I’m not going to make a persuasive argument for the 36-year-old, but he can theoretically run the offense for you in a pinch. Do you want him running bootlegs? Absolutely not. But if you’re looking at Flacco, you’ve struck out, or can’t afford anyone else.


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