It’s easy to forget that when the Patriots drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round of the 2014 draft, the Eastern Illinois passer was deemed Tom Brady’s heir apparent. Since then, he’s had a career arc unlike that of any passer we’ve seen. Three years after drafting him, New England traded Garoppolo to Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers in exchange for a second-round pick and, in his lone full season as a starter, he helped San Francisco come within minutes of winning Super Bowl LIV. But a little over a year later, Shanahan can’t even guarantee that Garoppolo will be on the Niners’ roster following this week’s NFL draft. (Or alive, for that matter.)
Earlier this offseason, San Francisco mortgaged its future to move up nine spots to the draft’s no. 3 pick. You only move that high and surrender that much capital for a top quarterback prospect. So where does that leave Garoppolo?
Everything surrounding San Francisco’s QB situation will begin to clear up when the Niners choose a rookie QB. Shanahan didn’t mince words Monday when he explained why San Francisco is moving on from Garoppolo.
“We decided we needed a starting quarterback, so we traded two 1s for a starting quarterback,” Shanahan told reporters. “Hopefully, we end up picking the best one. But I know we’re gonna get a starting quarterback with that.”
Alabama’s Mac Jones is the betting favorite to take Garoppolo’s place. Shanahan mentioned that he started the process with “one candidate in mind” but that there are now four other prospects whom San Francisco considers “capable of being our starting NFL quarterback and capable of winning with.” Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence will be gone and BYU’s Zach Wilson likely will be as well, so Shanahan will probably get his choice of Jones, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, and Ohio State’s Justin Fields.
“Once you make an organizational decision that we need to get a starting quarterback, you look into all the options of how to get them,” Shanahan said. “You watch the ones in the NFL that you thought you had an option with and then you look into the college [level] and where you think you can get them. I wanted to get into a spot where I knew we’d for sure get one, and hopefully—knowing the first two that are going—that we’d end up getting our favorite one. I don’t believe that would’ve been at (no.) 12.”
Also: imagine being Jimmy Garoppolo and your coach just said he wanted a new starting quarterback and any of five different guys who haven’t played an NFL down would be just fine?
— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) April 27, 2021
Entering the offseason, there was a hint the Jimmy G–Niners breakup was coming. Garoppolo, 29, has played more than six games in just one of his four seasons in San Francisco. When he was out, Shanahan manufactured adequate production from backups Nick Mullens (who boasts the second-most passing yards of any QB through their first 16 starts) and C.J. Beathard (who ranks 31st out of 61 QBs in yards per attempt since 2017). Good quarterback play chiefly relies on consistency, and availability factors into that. Shanahan seemingly got tired of crossing his fingers and hoping Garoppolo would be healthy year after year.
“We didn’t want to risk waiting on injuries and waiting on luck,” Shanahan said. “We thought two first-round picks for a future guaranteeing us we had a starting quarterback—we were very excited about that.”
The awkward bit of this is that Garoppolo is still on the team. Moving on, however, could be relatively simple from a financial standpoint. According to Spotrac, San Francisco could cut or trade Garoppolo before June 1 and incur a $2.8 million dead cap hit but save $23.6 million. If the decision occurs after June 1, the Niners would spread a $2.8 million dead cap hit over two years and save $25 million this season.
With $23.6M to be cleared, trading or releasing QB Jimmy Garoppolo would free up enough cap space to cover the #49ers entire Top 51 draft pool + nearly all of Julio Jones’ $15.3M 2021 salary.
— Spotrac (@spotrac) April 27, 2021
Identifying trade partners isn’t simple because of Garoppolo’s massive cap hit, injury history, inconsistent play, and the fact that teams may want to simply wait for the Niners to cut him. The Patriots have always seemed to make sense as a potential landing spot because they originally drafted him, they entered the offseason with ample cap space, and it was possible they’d add another quarterback even after re-signing Cam Newton. But New England has reportedly made calls about getting into the top 10 while targeting Justin Fields; doing so would effectively end any chance of Garoppolo returning to Foxborough.
Per Spotrac, nine teams entered the week with at least $20 million in cap space and none are obvious fits for Garoppolo. Of those squads, the Jets could use a backup to mentor whichever rookie passer they draft on Thursday and could reunite Jimmy G with former Niners defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. But that’s all somewhat wishful thinking. Garoppolo’s trade market isn’t expected to be robust.
The QB trade market has been active this offseason, and the handful of deals that have occurred can provide insight into what the Niners could recoup for Garoppolo. The Colts acquired Carson Wentz (2021 third-round pick, conditional ’22 second-round pick) from the Eagles; the Rams added Matthew Stafford (Jared Goff, ’21 third, ’22 first, and ’23 first) from the Lions; the Panthers received Sam Darnold (’21 sixth, ’22 second and fourth) from the Jets; and the Broncos received Teddy Bridgewater (’21 sixth) from the Panthers on Wednesday. Of those deals, Garoppolo could fetch San Francisco similar compensation to what the Panthers received for Bridgewater, given their similar ages and injury histories.
The Niners could decide to keep Garoppolo and have him fight for the starting job, a possibility Shanahan wasn’t adverse to. After all, if Garoppolo could stave off the newcomer, it would allow for the team to further develop the first-year passer while he sits on the bench. It could be awkward, but NFL teams have demonstrated that they operate with both today and tomorrow in mind, not a QB’s feelings. If Aaron Rodgers isn’t immune to the Packers drafting his replacement, then Garoppolo—who’s been absent for a considerable portion of his Niners tenure—surely isn’t. (A bit ironic since he was once Brady’s heir apparent, right?) An encouraging sign for the upcoming transition is that Garoppolo has handled the situation well, according to general manager John Lynch.
“Jimmy’s been a pro,” Lynch said Monday. “He really has. I just spoke to him over the weekend. He’s here. He’s taking part in our virtual meetings, plans on being at the workouts. Jimmy’s been completely professional as he always has been with us.”
The Niners’ decision to move on from Garoppolo makes sense. The manner in which they’ve abruptly jumped to the top of the draft, however, isn’t as clear-cut. ESPN’s Todd McShay reported that Shanahan wants to draft Mac Jones, while San Francisco’s scouting department wants to choose Trey Lance. As The Ringer’s Rodger Sherman recently detailed, drafting Jones would run counter to the recent trend of teams spending premium draft capital on physically-gifted passers like Lance, whose play-action prowess seems like it would be a natural fit in Shanahan’s offense. Shanahan was asked if the evolution of the QB position would factor into the Niners’ pick on Thursday. He explained that San Francisco needs to pick the passer who can best execute San Francisco’s offense.
“You want to find Drew Brees who can move like Lamar Jackson,” Shanahan said. He added, “There’s no, ‘This is where it’s going, this is where it’s been.’ It’ll always evolve. … It matters how you group people together, what your choices are, and how you plan on using that person.”
Since the Panthers snatched Darnold, there’s been little buzz over which teams outside of the top 10 would be interested in choosing Jones, making the Niners’ leap from 12th to third a head-scratcher, since they could have possibly given up less to still get the passer they covet. By moving on from Garoppolo and trading away their next two first-round picks, the Niners won’t be able to use a first-round mulligan on another rookie passer any time soon if the player they choose doesn’t pan out. They also won’t be able to address any other roster holes with premium talent through the first round.
Shanahan defended the trade up by pointing to a pair of division rivals: the Rams (who traded two first-round picks for All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey) and the Seahawks (who traded two first-rounders for Pro Bowl safety Jamal Adams). “(It’s) not necessarily a smart move,” Shanahan said of moving up. “It’s the move that you have to do and that’s how much it costs to do these types of things.”
As San Francisco figures out its direction under center, Garoppolo’s fate remains unclear. Whether it ends this offseason or not, his Niners legacy will be mixed. He led San Francisco to one of its most successful seasons of this century and put the franchise on the brink of glory. But because of his absences, it all felt like catching lightning in a bottle.