Heading into what could be a make-or-break season, the San Francisco 49ers need Jimmy Garoppolo to deliver.
This time a year ago, the San Francisco 49ers were considered a team on the rise. A 5-0 finish to the 2017 campaign, with Jimmy Garoppolo starting under center, fueled that buzz. The decision to give Garoppolo a five-year, $137.5 million contract coming off that five-game sample only added to the expectations for the 2018 49ers.
But it was not to be. Garoppolo suffered a torn left ACL in Week 3 against the Kansas City Chiefs, when he stubbornly took on a defender along the sideline rather than stepping out of bounds. C.J. Beathard (five starts) and Nick Mullens (eight starts) played out the season, and San Francisco finished 4-12.
Garoppolo is 8-2 in his career as an NFL starter. That 5-0 run late in 2017 stands as his best stretch of play, as he threw for 1,542 yards (8.8 yards per attempt), while completing just over 67 percent of his passes and posting a 94.0 passer rating. His two full games last year were a mixed bag, with a 45.1 passer rating, a 45.5 completion rate and three interceptions against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 1 followed by 118.4 passer rating with a 69.2 percent completion rate against the Detroit Lions in Week 2. Prior to going down against the Chiefs, he was 20-for-30 for 251 yards and two touchdowns.
Last year’s torn ACL was also the second significant injury of Garoppolo’s career. While filling in for a suspended Tom Brady to start the 2016 season, he suffered a sprained AC joint in his right shoulder after taking a hit while rolling out in Week 3. He missed the next game, ceding the starting job to Jacoby Brissett, and Brady was back for Week 5.
When head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch were hired in San Francisco, they were automatically tied together via matching, full guaranteed six-year contracts. They’re now entering year three, with a 10-22 record over two seasons. After being acquired from the Patriots and given a contract that made him the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL (however briefly), Garoppolo became the third key cog in the 49ers’ machine.
Making real hay in the NFC West won’t be easy, with the defending NFC champion Los Angeles Rams and the perennially tough Seattle Seahawks standing as better teams than the 49ers. It may not be playoffs or bust for the 49ers in 2019, but more wins and a healthy Garoppolo for a full 16 games will go a long way toward clarity going forward.
At first glance, Garoppolo’s contract necessarily seems to make it hard (if not impossible) to move on from him if things don’t move in the right direction this coming season. But a closer look shows that idea to be wrong.
By the end of the 2019 season, the 49ers will have paid Garoppolo a total of $60.5 million in salary and bonuses for two years. A big chunk ($15.7 million) of his $23.8 million salary for 2020 becomes fully guaranteed next April 1. Add in $1.4 million in signing bonus money, and he’ll collect $25.2 million in 2020 before roster and workout bonuses. According to Spotrac, that $15.7 million for next year is also guaranteed for injury.
If the 49ers decide to cut bait on Garoppolo before April 1, 2020, they would absorb a dead cap hit of just $4.2 million. With his lack of experience as a general manager, Lynch pretty clearly leaned on the “cap guy” in San Francisco’s front office to front-load Garoppolo’s contract and create a relatively easy out heading into the third year if things were not going as planned. The dead cap hits for moving on from Garoppolo go down to $2.8 million in 2021 and $1.4 million in 2022.
Garoppolo is being paid like a franchise quarterback. He was limited during offseason work as he works his way back from his knee injury, and at end of minicamp in June he acknowledged training camp and preseason will be the real test as he continues to work up until then.
I think all of that will come with time,” Garoppolo said. “I’ll try to implement as many drills as I can during these 40 days or so. But, I think once until the bullets start flying and everything, then we’ll really see.
The 49ers added interesting pieces around Garoppolo this offseason, signing running back Tevin Coleman in free agency and betting on the upside of receivers Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd in the draft. The healthy return of running back Jerick McKinnon, who suffered a torn ACL of his own last preseason, will add another significant piece to the offense.
Simply staying healthy will go a long way for Garoppolo in 2019. Shanahan proved his mettle as an offensive guru with how well Mullens, a lesser talent compared to Garoppolo (perceived at least), played at times last year.
So if Garoppolo doesn’t perform, or can’t stay healthy, a move to get younger and cheaper at quarterback would be in order looking to 2020. And nothing would stop the 49ers from doing so if they’re willing to admit a mistake and move on.