As the dust settles on the 2021 draft, the 49ers should feel excited about their top pick: a dynamic quarterback with high-level pre-snap intelligence and a quick post-snap processor to match his physical tools.
According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, San Francisco thinks Trey Lance could play in his first year.
However, Lance has played the fewest snaps of any QB selected in the first round over the last 40 years, per ESPN Stats & Info:
North Dakota State canceled its 2020 fall campaign, but the program agreed to play a game against Central Arkansas on Oct. 3. We haven't seen Lance in action since then. He threw for 149 yards, two touchdowns and an interception and ran for 143 yards and two scores in that matchup.
The 49ers don't have to rush their 20-year-old QB into the lead role with Garoppolo still on the roster.
Garoppolo had a rocky, injury-riddled 2020 campaign, throwing for 1,096 yards, seven touchdowns and five interceptions. Shanahan benched him, and he finished the season on injured reserve with a high ankle sprain.
Yet the 49ers should give him one more run before they turn the huddle over to Lance.
Just two years ago, a healthy Garoppolo led San Francisco to Super Bowl 54, suiting up for all 16 contests. If not for an overthrown pass to wideout Emmanuel Sanders late in the fourth quarter, he might've captured his first Lombardi Trophy as a starter.
In addition to Garoppolo, multiple key 49ers playmakers battled injuries last season, including tight end George Kittle and wideouts Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk. The three missed 21 combined outings.
We cannot use injuries as an excuse for Garoppolo's subpar showing last year, but one has to wonder if he can bounce back with his full supporting cast around him.
Garoppolo is on the books with a $26.4 million cap hit, and the 49ers, from CEO Jed York to Shanahan, don't have an issue carrying his salary with Lance on board (h/t Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News):
The 49ers proved they can win the NFC West with Garoppolo. Even though Lance is the future, the seven-year veteran gives San Francisco the best chance to win now.
In the meantime, San Francisco can build Garoppolo's trade value. Back in April, NFL Network's Michael Giardi reported the club wanted a first-round pick for him. Coming off a down season with a big contract, he's not going to fetch near that level of compensation.
If Garoppolo has a decent start to the 2021 campaign, the 49ers could trade him to a desperate team before the deadline. Perhaps a playoff-contending club that loses a quarterback offers a deal that blows them away.
In the best-case scenario, San Francisco returns to playoff form with Garoppolo under center for most of the games. He's started more than six contests through a single campaign once in his career, so teams interested in him would want to see him in extended action.
Pittsburgh and Washington have old quarterbacks in Ben Roethlisberger (39 years old) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (38) coming off the books in 2022. Neither team addressed the position in this year's draft and may need bridge-gap signal-callers next season. As of now, the Steelers and the Football Team will have more than $60 million in cap space, which leaves room for Garoppolo's contract.
Remember, Garoppolo has a no-trade clause, so the new destination must be attractive to him as well. The 49ers can forget about a deal with the New England Patriots, his former team, after they signed Cam Newton and selected Mac Jones with the 15th pick.
Washington just hired head coach Ron Rivera last offseason, and he led the club to a division title in his first year. The Football Team has a top-five defense and added two wideouts this offseason, signing Curtis Samuel and selecting Dyami Brown in the third round of the draft. When you consider Terry McLaurin as the lead wide receiver and featured tailback Antonio Gibson, Washington has a promising young core of offensive talent.
Ultimately, the 49ers can play to win in 2021 and build the value of an asset at the most important position in the game while developing their potential franchise quarterback.
According to Schefter, the possibility of the 49ers trading Garoppolo is "remote."
Barring a trade proposal that includes a first-round pick, which is highly unlikely at this time, the 49ers should stick with Garoppolo as their starter. They're not a cap-strapped team that needs to unload salaries for roster flexibility.
More importantly, Shanahan would do Lance a disservice by throwing him into a tough division race with three other playoff contenders. When the season kicks off, the rookie will have gone 11 months since his last game. In an offseason with virtual phases, Lance will need more time before he's ready to take a live snap during a competitive regular-season matchup.
If Garoppolo leads the 49ers to a postseason berth or plays at a level similar to his 2019 performance, he could become the talk of the next offseason. Teams would undoubtedly show interest in a 30-year-old quarterback who led his squad to the playoffs twice in the last three campaigns.
Even if that favorable scenario doesn't play out, Garoppolo's extended time under center gives an inexperienced rookie quarterback an adequate adjustment period, transitioning from a one-year full-time starter at an FCS program to the leader of an offense on a playoff-caliber squad.
Salary cap and player contract details courtesy of Over the Cap.