The San Francisco 49ers enjoyed a pretty stellar late-season run in 2022, all in the aftermath of choosing to go all-in on a quarterback in the previous spring’s NFL Draft. Wide receiver hybrid Deebo Samuel was transcendent in 2022. Defensive end Nick Bosa was back to being a top pass rusher in the NFL. Linebacker Fred Warner was tremendous. Tight end George Kittle was, well, George Kittle again. But the quarterback position, despite San Francisco’s commitment of three first-round picks and a top-3 overall choice in the 2021 NFL Draft in Trey Lance, still belonged to Jimmy Garoppolo. And that needs to change.
Garoppolo’s play last season could be classified as ‘fine’ but you’d have to be willing to overlook the handful of poor decisions in each game that seemingly pushed the 49ers to the brink. Garoppolo threw an interception down 17-0 against the Rams in Week 18 (and another in the fourth quarter in the red zone after the 49ers climbed out of that deficit to tie it at 17). And yet the 49ers won and punched their ticket to the playoff.
San Francisco failed to piece together a drive of more than 28 yards in the second half of their 23-17 win over Dallas in the Wild Card Round — Garoppolo completed 17 of 25 pass attempts for just 176 yards and an interception. San Francisco upset Green Bay in the Divisional Round, 13-10, with just 212 yards of total offense and Garoppolo had several near-misses for back-breaking turnovers. But it all finally caught up to them in the NFC Championship, where Garoppolo was charged with three turnover-worthy plays on the way to blowing a 10-point lead and ultimately succumbing to the division-rival Los Angeles Rams.
This is, of course, not new information — not even to the 49ers. They went out swinging and going all in on Lance for a reason. The glass ceiling that exists over Garoppolo has been there since San Francisco first became competitive.
But the 2022 offseason has largely come and gone and the discussion in San Francisco suggests that we might see yet another season of Garoppolo at the helm for the 49ers offense — that his ‘familiarity with the offense’ may nudge him into getting another season as the starting quarterback in the Bay area.
But familiarity be damned. There’s two major reasons why Garoppolo should not only not be the starter, but the 49ers themselves should embrace their investment in Lance and transition completely.
- The 49ers are dead last in the NFL in salary cap space, their top-51 contracts offering them less than $1 million in cap room.
- An investment of this type into Lance has put the 49ers’ roster building into a very valuable stretch of real estate with his rookie contract. Missing that window further complicates San Francisco’s ability to maintain the quality of the roster.
I’ll tune out the cries of the salary cap being fake and completely inconsequential in this situation. Yes, you can manipulate the salary cap year over year but managing the cap effectively still does not prevent you from incurring losses to young cornerstone players. And San Francisco’s salary cap space is even more essential given that the team did not have a first-round draft choice this year and will not have a first-round draft choice next year as a result of their trade to move into position for Lance.
Having salary cap space will allow the team to retain top talent (like Samuel) and sign quality starters in free agency. San Francisco lost defensive tackle DJ Jones and guard Laken Tomlinson in free agency this offseason. Safety Jaquiski Tartt remains unsigned, as well. Some attrition isn’t the end of the world — and the 49ers did well in the previous year’s NFL Draft to brace for Tomlinson’s departure by drafting Aaron Banks, while the team retained Daniel Brunskill this offseason.
The cap can be manipulated but the quality restructure candidates are limited. You have Trent Williams and Jimmie Ward as quality options to manufacture wiggle room but the majority of the remaining talent in San Francisco already has mitigated 2022 salaries or are in contract years.
He’s carrying a cap charge of nearly $27 million. Waiving Garoppolo opens up the 49ers to save over $25 million this year. And here’s the kicker — remember that the salary cap gets carried over year over year. So the 49ers could keep Garoppolo and sustain the status quo before the relief that comes in 2023 with his contract expiring, or the 49ers could potentially double dip that salary cap relief by moving on from Garoppolo in 2022 and carrying over whatever his departure would bring. San Francisco is in the top-half of the league in 2023 cap space as things currently stand but the ability to carry over $25.5 million would nearly double the spending power of the 49ers next offseason (they’d be top four).
I’m sure there’s a sense of anxiety in San Francisco in relation to the Garoppolo trade market, though, It would seem as though the team overplayed their hand when they had the chance to move him initially. The quarterback market appears to be dry and their leverage in fielding trade offers slipped away the moment they sent in the card with Lance’s name written on it back in 2021. Cutting Garoppolo now, in a contract year, in the name of exponential spending power and getting nothing in return would hurt. But the risk that is associated with holding Garoppolo in case someone else’s starting quarterback gets hurt to juice the market is an ambitious gamble.
And then there’s the proverbial clock ticking with Lance. Garoppolo’s play wasn’t without a handful of boneheaded decisions in every significant game the 49ers played down the stretch, as evidenced above. Lance would not be immune to growing pains, but at least those come with the potential reward of improvement and growth. Add in that Lance has a better arm and more athleticism at his disposal to put more plays in the playbook for Head Coach Kyle Shanahan and the benefits of making this transition here and now — especially after Lance was gifted a full season of not being “the guy” to learn and acclimate to the NFL – are overwhelming.
So here’s what I would do if I were San Francisco. I’d make one last call to Seattle and any other quarterback hungry team and see if I can get any offer on the table. Yes? Great. Done. No? Great. Done, also. I’d then waive Garoppolo. And in doing so, I’m achieving several key things:
- Manufacturing immediate salary cap relief for 2022 to extend veterans still on the roster and open up dollars for negotiating a contract extension with Samuel.
- Opening myself to carry over that remaining salary cap space to 2023 — whatever of the $25.5 million I don’t use, I don’t lose. It is added to 2023.
- I allow my No. 3 overall quarterback, with an exponentially higher ceiling, into the game and understand it will come with mistakes…but mistakes that Garoppolo himself is not immune from making as an entrenched starter.
Will Shanahan and General Manager John Lynch follow this blueprint? It’s hard to say. But it’s the path that I would choose as I try to find a springboard from last year’s NFC Championship game appearance.