After defeat to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers were officially eliminated from playoff contention in the NFC. With a 5-9 record to this point entering Week 16, the expanded playoff spot for the current season will not play a factor for a team that has missed the playoffs in six of the last seven seasons.
A large factor in San Francisco’s decline has been due to injury. The list of key players who have at least a significant chunk of the season is breathtaking. On defense alone, they lost defensive linemen Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Arik Armstead, Solomon Thomas, Ziggy Ansah and Ronald Blair and defensive backs Richard Sherman, Emmanuel Moseley, Jaquiski Tartt, K’Waun Williams and Ahkello Witherspoon at some point in the season.
On offense, it’s a similar bleak picture: Wide receivers Deebo Samuel, Richie James and Jalen Hurd, tight ends George Kittle and Jordan Reed, running backs Tevin Coleman and Raheem Mostert, centers Weston Richburg and Ben Garland, and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo all succumbed to the injury bug.
Yet, the biggest takeaway from this season in San Francisco is not what might have been with a healthier team, but whether they have the right man under center.
The Ups & Downs of Jimmy G
There was palpable excitement back in 2017 when the 49ers announced the Trade Deadline capture of New England passer Jimmy Garoppolo in exchange for a second round pick. Fans had to wait until Week 12 of that respective season to see their new savior in action, when Garoppolo was brought in for the injured CJ Beathard for the final few plays of a defeat to the Seattle Seahawks. In his first drive, he ended up throwing a touchdown pass in the dying seconds. He was named starter for the next game as a result.
Garoppolo immediately elevated the previously 1-10 49ers to an unlikely five straight wins. He brought leadership and an ability to process the field quickly. Although he quickly struck up an understanding with George Kittle, it is worth remembering Garoppolo managed this with an otherwise second-rate looking set of receiving options. Lynch and Shanahan had seen enough and quickly signed him to a lucrative five-year contract.
Disaster struck in Week 3 of the 2018 season when Garoppolo tore his ACL and the 49ers’ season was effectively cooked. Whispers that Garoppolo might not be ‘the guy’ for the the team began in the following offseason, particularly after a difficult training camp as ongoing worries about Garoppolo’s recovery gathered pace.
The first game of the following season did little to arrest fears over the quarterback with Garoppolo turning in a poor performance as the 49ers beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers largely on the back of the defense. It was the same defense that drove the 49ers to a 13-3 regular season. On offense, the 49ers leaned heavily on the ability of Kittle and Samuel to add yards to short passes. Although, they did rely on Garoppolo in a win over the New Orleans Saints; arguably his best game in a 49ers jersey.
In the playoffs, a dominant run game and that monstrous defensive front wore down the Vikings and Green Bay Packers en route to a Super Bowl appearance. In the biggest game of his career, Garoppolo had a solid first three quarters. However, when the Chiefs stormed back, he couldn’t get the 49ers back on track. It lead to open season amongst the quarterback’s critics. This past season, inaccurate ball placement lead to defeat against the Arizona Cardinals. A high ankle sprain in Week 2 continued the downward spiral of Garoppolo’s tenure in San Francisco.
It is now clear that Garoppolo isn’t the elite quarterback the 49ers hoped he would become. With the tendency to pick up injuries, he has already seen two of his first three seasons with the team cut short. Even prior to his time with the 49ers, Garoppolo found himself with a separated should during his time behind Tom Brady in New England.
The Road Ahead?
Planning for next season appears well underway for Lynch, having traded away linebacker Kwon Alexander earlier in the year and releasing wide receiver Dante Pettis in order to reduce the cap burden. Meanwhile, Adam Peters has been dispatched to watch prospective quarterbacks.
The 49ers are projected to have around $22 million in cap space this offseason, but the cast of players set to hit free agency is lengthy this season. Tackle Trent Williams is certainly the top priority for the 49ers to retain. After Williams, the restricted rights agents will be next headed by starters Emmanuel Moseley and Dan Brunskill. Others who could hit the open market include Richard Sherman, Jason Verrett, Kyle Juszczyk, Solomon Thomas, K’Waun Williams, Jaquiski Tartt, Tevin Coleman, Jerrick McKinnon, Jordan Reed and Kendrick Bourne.
The cap hit of Garoppolo is set to be $26.9 million; releasing him would save the team roughly $24.1 million. In a single stroke, the 49ers could alleviate their cap headache and re-sign more players.
The 49ers do have draft capital in 2021 with nine upcoming picks. However, six of those selections will be in the bottom three rounds. If defensive coordinator Robert Saleh signs as a head coach this offseason, San Francisco would be permitted a third round pick.
If the 49ers do move on from Garoppolo, the shortcut option would be to trade or pick up a current veteran quarterback. Inevitably, Shanahan’s former products Kirk Cousins and Matt Ryan have been mentioned. Both thrived under Shanahan, however, both would leave their current teams facing enormous dead caps hits should they be traded, making them unobtainable. It is a similar situation with Detroit Lions passer Matt Stafford, and although Dallas Cowboys signal caller Dak Prescott could hit free agency, he is unlikely to leave Dallas.
Two recent first round picks who might make intriguing options are New York Jets’ Sam Darnold and Washington Football Team’s Dwayne Haskins. It seems certain that the Jets will draft Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields in the 2021 NFL Draft, leaving Darnold vulnerable. He was highly rated coming out of USC in 2018, but has suffered a torrid time with the Jets; much of the blame falling on an underpowered roster and poor coaching. Under Shanahan and the 49ers offense, his play would ultimately see an improvement.
Haskins is a similar story: A first round pick in 2019 who landed in an unfortunate spot is now left with a new head coach in Ron Rivera who will likely look elsewhere for the answer under center. Haskins might be a hit in San Francisco, but there is little evidence to suggest he would be a substantial improvement from Garoppolo.
Drafting The Future
The likeliest route for the 49ers to replace Garoppolo is through the 2021 NFL Draft. Although it’s not certain where the 49ers will land in the draft order, it’s probable they’ll be in the 12-17 range for the first round. That already makes it a certainty that both Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields will be beyond the 49ers reach.
Trey Lance of North Dakota State is expected to be the third quarterback off the board. He offers a dual threat and strong arm to match accuracy on short and intermediate passes. However, Lance is currently coming off injury and may well be gone before the 49ers get on the clock.
Zach Wilson of BYU is shooting up draft boards and seems to be a more realistic target. He has proven to be mobile and contains a quick release. He has undergone shoulder surgery in the past, but has the ceiling as a top 10 player in the upcoming draft class.
Another quarterback the 49ers are rumored to be watching is Mac Jones. The Alabama product lacks the mobility of Wilson or Lance, but has the ability to process the field quickly; a trait Shanahan values. Jones is currently rated as a late first or early second round prospect, making him obtainable and still enabling the 49ers to draft an elite prospect at another position of need.
Garoppolo no longer represents the future in San Francisco, however, he remains the favorite to start under center in Week 1 of the 2021 season. While Darnold remains an intriguing prospect, the likeliest scenario is that the 49ers draft their next quarterback with Zach Wilson as the top target.
If the 49ers draft a quarterback in 2021, then Garoppolo would serve as a bridge for the upcoming season. For the upcoming season, Garoppolo has a no trade clause. Therefore, moving him the following season would save the 49ers $25.6 million.