In an offseason of potentially historic quarterback movement, can the San Francisco 49ers afford to stick it out one more year with Jimmy Garoppolo?
Based on his past, cost and long-term outlook, the answer is a simple no.
Garoppolo boasts the NFL's fifth-largest quarterback contract at five years and $137.5 million, and his $27.5 million average annual value is just outside the top 10. That wouldn't be so bad if the 29-year-old were reliable.
Of course, Jimmy G has been anything but since the New England Patriots took him in the second round of the 2014 draft. In 2016, he suffered a separated shoulder in Week 2 while filling in for a suspended Tom Brady. In 2018, he tore his ACL in the third game, and in 2019 he sprained an ankle in Week 2 before suffering another one in Week 8.
In sum, Garoppolo has appeared in six, three, 16 and six games since joining the 49ers in 2017. Granted, those six games from 2017 came after a trade from New England, but that's a whole lot of cash invested in a quarterback who can't stay on the field.
The fact that the 49ers could wiggle out of his team-leading $26.4 million salary-cap hit with only $2.8 million in dead money this season has to be appealing—and the contract was structured that way for a reason.
One might argue the 49ers could get the best of both worlds by extending his contract or restructuring the deal for cap relief, since the team sits 17th with just $11.1 million in space (assuming a $185 million cap). And that's critical, since the 49ers have more than 30 free agents to consider before thinking about bringing aboard others.
Names like Trent Williams, Richard Sherman, Solomon Thomas, Kyle Juszczyk and Jaquiski Tartt are set to be free agents March 17. The front office also needs to think about wrapping up guys like 24-year-old linebacker Fred Warner, who has one year left on his deal, for the long term too.
So while it sounds nice, a restructure for immediate cap relief would just mean tying the team to Garoppolo even longer. Based on his injury history alone, that's a risky play. And when considering he's essentially a game manager, it's not worth keeping his bloated number at the potential loss of teammates who make him better in the first place.
That might sound harsh, and maybe injuries haven't given the veteran passer a fair shake. Many will rightfully point at Jimmy G's 2019 campaign, when he completed 69.1 percent of his passes for 3,978 yards and 27 touchdowns, with 13 interceptions.
Garoppolo went 13-3 as a starter that year en route to the Super Bowl, but those numbers are full of holes. For instance, big completion percentages and yardage totals aren't anything new. And the 3,978 yards were merely 12th. His touchdown percentage was 5.7, seventh. His approximate value of 15 was good, yet he's never otherwise posted a number higher than five. A notable four fourth-quarter comebacks was nice, yet half of them were on short fields thanks to his defense.
Even during his Super Bowl run, Jimmy G completed just 11 passes in a win over Minnesota, went 6-of-8 with no scores in a victory over Green Bay and then folded in the big game when asked to attempt 31 passes, throwing one touchdown and two interceptions in the loss to Kansas City.
How limited was the offense in 2019? His 6.5 average intended air yards, third-lowest in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats, is a key indicator. He also attempted north of 30 passes just seven times. In 2020, he did so twice in six appearances, which is odd for a quarterback of Garoppolo's pay grade.
None of this is to say Jimmy G is a bad starter. But one could compare San Francisco's attack to Kyle Shanahan's offenses from his Atlanta days and think Garoppolo is holding back the Niners. And while one could say the team around him is good enough to not ask him to do too much, it sure seems like it hides him at times and like he struggles when the squad needs more.
Granted, the trinity of money, availability and performance doesn't matter much if the 49ers can't find a better option.
Matthew Stafford was an obvious fit, especially with Garoppolo's minuscule dead-cap hit, but the 49ers didn't seem interested in competing in a bidding war that sent the former Detroit Lions passer to the Los Angeles Rams for two first-round picks, a third-rounder and Jared Goff. Likewise, the 49ers didn't bite on Philadelphia's Carson Wentz auction, which settled at two early-round draft picks from Indianapolis.
Maybe the 49ers can get in on a trade involving Deshaun Watson, Sam Darnold or Teddy Bridgewater. Perhaps they could even land a Matt Ryan or Kirk Cousins. Looking at free agency, provided Dallas doesn't botch the Dak Prescott situation, Cam Newton, Andy Dalton and Mitchell Trubisky stick out as notables.
There's also the idea of trading Jimmy G to a needy team (hi, New England) or drafting his replacement. The 49ers pick 12th, which might not be out of range for one of the potential five first-round passers if the budding hype for Alabama's Mac Jones is to be believed—ESPN's Todd McShay actually has him going 12th to Chicago via trade in his latest mock draft. If the front office panics, a team sitting pretty at quarterback, such as Cincinnati at fifth overall, might have an interest in moving back.
The state of the NFC West should probably go under a bigger microscope too. The 49ers finished last at 6-10 in 2020. The Rams acquired Stafford. Seattle, barring a meltdown with Russell Wilson, isn't going anywhere as a contender. Arizona's arrow continues to point up, as it did even before the addition of three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt.
If there were ever a time to duck out on Jimmy G and try something fresh, this would be it in what is arguably the NFL's best division. The 49ers have seen the apex with him via the 2019 Super Bowl trip, but that screams "anomaly." Provided he's healthy, it's fair to expect a regression by comparison simply based on his limited air yards and struggles in games when his number of attempts balloons—and that won't get it done in this division.
In a perfect world, Jimmy G plays 16 games, the roster doesn't come close to sniffing its head-turning injury woes from a year ago, and the team gets right back to contention on what would then look like a decent quarterback contract.
But balancing the desire to win now with properly crafting the long-term outlook is a tricky thing most teams don't get right. It would be a simple, sudden thing for the 49ers to fall in a quarterback purgatory and suffer from it worse than most teams because of the NFC West's small margin for error.
This doesn't mean cut Jimmy G or sell him off to the highest bidder without a plan. But if the goal is Super Bowl contention with more consistency under center, it's time to make a change.