49ers Must Hold On to QB Jimmy Garoppolo for Now

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystMarch 22, 2022

San Francisco 49ers' Jimmy Garoppolo throws during the second half of the NFC Championship NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams Sunday, Jan. 30, 2022, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

As is the case just about every year, the NFL's quarterback carousel has dominated the offseason conversation. Whether it was Tom Brady's un-retirement, Aaron Rodgers' decision to stay in Green Bay or a number of big trades, the news cycle has been all about the guys under center.

What's all but unprecedented in 2022 is the number of big names who have been moved. The arrival of Deshaun Watson in Cleveland leaves Baker Mayfield the odd man out and all but certainly headed elsewhere. Mitch Trubisky is in Pittsburgh. Marcus Mariota is in Atlanta. Two quarterbacks who have started a Super Bowl (Matt Ryan and Russell Wilson) were traded.

There has been no shortage of speculation regarding the possibility that a third could join them—despite leading the San Francisco 49ers to a berth in Super Bowl LIV in 2019 and a spot in last year's NFC Championship Game, just about every team with a need at quarterback was linked to Jimmy Garoppolo of the San Francisco 49ers over the past several weeks. After all, the 49ers mortgaged the franchise's future in the 2021 draft to trade up and select Trey Lance third overall.

But time has passed, and as the musical chairs at quarterback played on, quite a few of those openings were filled. As the market has shrank, so has the compensation the Niners might receive in a trade for Garoppolo. And between that and the question marks surrounding Lance's readiness to lead a playoff-caliber Niners team, a tipping point has been reached.

Yes, it would be nice for the 49ers to recoup some of the draft capital lost in the Lance trade and get most of Garoppolo's $27.0 million salary-cap hit off the books. But at this point, if San Francisco really fashions itself a Super Bowl contender, it would be even better to just hang on to Garoppolo—at least for now.

The market for a Garoppolo trade may have shrunk, but it isn't necessarily gone completely. On Monday, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk reported that 49ers general manager John Lynch was telling interested teams that San Francisco had an offer of two second-round picks on the table for Garoppolo, who passed for 3,810 yards and 20 scores in 2021.

Roger Steinman/Associated Press

But that could have just been Lynch posturing. It could also be that the team that made that offer was the New Orleans Saints or Atlanta Falcons, who filled their holes under center with Jameis Winston and Mariota, respectively. 

If Lynch really does have that offer on the table and the team intends to get rid of Garoppolo one way or another, he should take it. After watching Ryan fetch only a third-rounder and the number of QB-needy teams dwindle, the offers aren't getting better from here. Not for a while.

Essentially three teams jump to mind as potential landing spots for Garoppolo. All three (the Carolina Panthers, Houston Texans and Seattle Seahawks) are closer to rebuilding that contending. One is in San Francisco's division, and while quarterbacks like Donovan McNabb and Drew Bledsoe have been traded inside their division, such a deal is rare.

With those teams as the potential buyers, it's not ideal that Garoppolo is a 30-year-old with an injury history coming off shoulder surgery that will cost him most of the offseason program and who also has a cap hit north of $25 million.

That brings us back to the notion of keeping Garoppolo on the team.

Given Garoppolo's robust cap hit and the boatload of picks (including a trio of first-rounders) the team sacrificed to get Lance, most just assumed that the 49ers would move on from Garoppolo. But as David Bonilla wrote for 49ers Webzone, Lynch told the 49ers Talk podcast that there has always been a contingency plan that included keeping Garoppolo on the roster.

"If we have the two of them again, and let them go compete, then we're happy to do that as well. And we're capable of doing that with our cap," Lynch said on March 3. "There are certainly tradeoffs, but we budgeted for a lot of different things with plan A, plan B, plan C, and one of those scenarios—a couple of different of those scenarios—has included Jimmy. And so yes, we can do it. It will curtail what we are able to do, the aggressiveness we have in free agency."

The Niners haven't been especially active in free agency, but they made one big signing, inking former Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Charvarius Ward to a three-year, $42 million pact. At this point in free agency, San Francisco really doesn't need a lot of cap space. There are some big extensions looming on the horizon, but those are for players already on the team. If the 49ers want to add another free agent or two, finding a bit more wiggle room wouldn't be that difficult with a restructured contract or two.

It's understandably frustrating for fans to see $25 million "wasted" on a player who ostensibly wouldn't be starting. The Niners have needs on both sides of the ball, whether it's along the inside of the offensive line or in the defensive backfield. But the team already spent on the latter, and there are some veteran options in the former like Quinton Spain and Trai Turner who could be had relatively cheaply.

Spending gobs of money in free agency a la Trent Baalke of the Jacksonville Jaguars this year makes headlines. But it doesn't necessarily make teams better. Especially when a roster is already in good shape and there are massive extensions looming with foundational pieces like edge-rusher Nick Bosa and wide receiver Deebo Samuel.

It can also be argued that money isn't being "wasted" at all on Garoppolo. Because while there is promise present with Lance, there is also uncertainty.

Lance's athletic upside is through the roof. He's mobile and has a cannon for a right arm. There are reasons that Lynch sent all those picks to Miami. As Bonilla relayed, pundits like PFT's Mike Florio have wondered aloud if Lance could be on the verge of a second-year breakout.

"I think it was BetMGM that had a lot of action on Trey Lance for their MVP prop at pretty high odds, but they've come down some with the bets that were placed on Lance," Florio said on The Rich Eisen Show. "That's kind of a surprise [for] a first-year starter. But you know what? Look at the past several years. Second-year quarterbacks just come up out of nowhere and become MVP candidates. We saw it with Patrick Mahomes in 2018. We saw it with Lamar Jackson in 2019. Both won MVP. We saw Kyler Murray in 2020 have some [early] MVP buzz. So it's not out of the question that Trey Lance could take the league by storm like some of these other guys have."

Is that possible? Sure. But Lance is also a 21-year-old quarterback from an FCS school that looked very much like a rookie at times last year. Lance has started all of three games since the 2019 season. He's absolutely talented. He's also inexperienced.

If the 49ers were prepared to take a few lumps along the way, it would be one thing. But they just came one game from their second Super Bowl in the last three years. The 49ers have legitimate playoff aspirations. Postseason expectations.

Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press

And it was Garoppolo who led the 49ers to all that success the past few years. Say what you will about Garoppolo's low ceiling. About his occasional lapses in decision-making. Or even about QB wins as a poor barometer of play at the position.

But Garoppolo is 31-14 as the starter for the 49ers. That's a higher regular-season winning percentage than Aaron Rodgers has with the Packers.

That's one heck of an insurance policy against Lance not being ready.

This isn't to say that the time won't come this summer when getting rid of Garoppolo will make sense. Lance will have all of OTAs and minicamp (while Garoppolo rehabs the shoulder) to show that he is ready for that second-year jump. All it would take is one injury to another quarterback in camp or in the preseason for Garoppolo's trade market to potentially heat up.

When Teddy Bridgewater suffered a horrific leg injury in 2016, a panicked Minnesota Vikings team traded a first-round pick in 2017 and a conditional pick in 2018 (that wound up being a fourth-rounder) to the Philadelphia Eagles for Sam Bradford.

Bradford's NFL resume was nowhere near Garoppolo's. Yet the Eagles got a first for him.

If push comes to shove, the team could always just release him—the dead-cap hit of $1.4 million stays the same until Week 1. Per Chris Biderman of the Sacramento Bee, there is a $7.5 million injury guarantee if Garoppolo can't pass a physical that the Niners wouldn't recoup until/unless another team signs him (and pays him $7.5 million or more).

In other words, San Francisco can release him now and clear $18 million (at least temporarily). Or wait until he's healthy and clear it all. Or just keep him on the roster into the regular season.

For now, the wisest course of action is patience. The 49ers have navigated free agency just fine with Garoppolo's salary on the books. The market for his services looks to have all but dried up. It's a real possibility that the landing spot that affords Garoppolo the best chance to make an impact in 2022 is the one he's in now. And while Lance is many things, a sure bet is not one of them.

Circumstances could change, and Garoppolo could still be moved. But as things stand, dumping the veteran signal-caller just to do it is a move that could cost the Niners more than it gets them.