That may still be the case. But Monday’s agreement to keep Jimmy Garoppolo slows down his coronation.
After failed efforts to offload the veteran quarterback via trade this offseason, the 49ers reportedly agree to guaranteed one-year, $6.5 million contract with Garoppolo Monday which includes an additional $9.5 million in bonuses largely tied to playing time. The deal came hours before Tuesday’s deadline to reduce NFL rosters to 53 players and made Garoppolo the league highest paid quarterback.
Garoppolo previously owed $24.2 million for 2022, a sum that would not be secured until September 10. That would have left the 49ers in the position of taking the massive cap for a backup, or the more likely scenario of releasing him outright — neither of them are attractive to quarterback division rival Seattle Seahawks, his most likely suitor.
Now after Garoppolo was anything but outside, he provided the 49ers with a third option by agreeing to a new deal for less, but guaranteed money. It’s the one that comes with the ability to do more.
Garoppolo’s deal carries a risk for Lance
Don’t make a mistake. Lance, the No. 3 pick in the 2021 draft, is San Francisco’s starter and presumed long-term answer behind center. The second-year quarterback will make his debut as San Francisco’s leader on Sept. 11 against the Chicago Bears. That’s why the 49ers drafted him. Head coach Shanahan said so last season when Garoppolo was still the starter.
But he takes over knowing that Garoppolo is only a few steps away in case things don’t go as planned. And Garoppolo led Shanahan’s offense throughout the head coach’s five-year tenure with the team.
San Francisco’s results with Garoppolo at quarterback are mixed — hence the move in a different direction. But they include a 31-14 regular season record, four playoff wins, a trip to the Super Bowl in 2020 and another trip to last season’s NFC Championship Game. Meanwhile, the 49ers have a built roster to contend with right now. This team’s goal is to win a Super Bowl.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on a freshman starter with 71 NFL passes on his resume. Where highly drafted quarterbacks tend to start their careers in relatively low-stakes scenarios — see Trevor Lawrence in Jacksonville — Lance is expected to lead a playoff team in a division that includes defending Super Bowl champions.
Lance is the starter. But is his job guaranteed? That seems less the case now that Garoppolo is still in the game.
Could Lance really lose his job this season?
The deal leaves the 49ers with options. If Lance thrives and stays healthy, they could still trade Garoppolo during the season. The market for his services can only improve with the risk of injury to starting quarterbacks that accompanies live game action. Garoppolo’s deal includes a no-trade clause that will give him veto power in the event of a potential trade partner.
But what if Lance struggles early? Are the 49ers staying the course like most teams with a big investment in a young quarterback? Or do they pull the plug in Garoppolo’s favor with championship appeal as the overriding factor?
Then there is the injury scenario. Say, for example, Lance suffers a weeks-long injury midseason and the 49ers go running with Garoppolo in charge. Then what ? Does Shanahan revert to an unproven quarterback if Garoppolo has the 49ers up to snuff?
These are specific, and possibly unlikely, scenarios. But they are not unfathomable. And they didn’t exist before Monday’s deal to keep Garoppolo under contract.
Ultimately for the 49ers, the deal could turn out to be a good thing in the short term. Maintaining a premium insurance policy at the most important position in football has undeniable advantages. In a league where security is limited to every position, the short term reigns.
But it’s also undeniable that the contract carries the risk of delaying the development of a young quarterback anointed as the future of the franchise. And the 49ers are ready to take it on. It’s a risk they surely took into account before agreeing to keep Garoppolo on board.