Colts' Carson Wentz trade shows 49ers must be careful with QB carousel

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Josh Schrock
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Colts' Wentz trade shows fine line 49ers walk on QB carousel originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

The Indianapolis Colts have a roster that is, for the most part, Super Bowl ready. Only one thing was missing after Philip Rivers' retirement: A Super Bowl-caliber quarterback. 

So, general manager Chris Ballard and head coach Frank Reich, seeing their window as open, pushed their chips in the center of the table, agreeing to trade a 2021 third-round pick and a conditional 2022 second-round pick -- that could become a first-round pick -- to the Philadelphia Eagles for Carson Wentz on Thursday, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported.

This gamble, one that risks years of roster building on statistically one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL last season, shows why the 49ers have remained patient in watching the quarterback carousel both last offseason and this one, and how tight a rope they must walk this offseason as they debate the future of Jimmy Garoppolo as the starting quarterback.

The Colts could have waited out the market and tried to land a cheaper option like Sam Darnold later on. But patience was not on the docket in Indy, as Ballard gambled a carefully built roster on the idea that Reich, who was Wentz's offensive coordinator in 2017, could fix the fallen star.

Like the Colts, the 49ers have spent time building a solid foundation and crafting a roster that can contend for conference and Super Bowl titles year-in and year-out. The 49ers also have been at the final question on their Super Bowl exam for over a year now, unable to answer if Garoppolo is indeed a quarterback who can lead them to a Super Bowl title.

The 49ers thought about hopping on the quarterback carousel last offseason, but decided the price to ride could be too steep. They checked in on Tom Brady and decided to pass, giving the keys to the car back to Garoppolo for another ride. Brady made them look foolish by playing at a near-elite level at age 43 and leading the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl win over the Kansas City Chiefs with the perfected version of the 49ers' game plan from Super Bowl LIV.

Garoppolo, meanwhile, played in only six games and once again enters the offseason as the 49ers' biggest question mark.

This brings us back to Wentz. He wanted out of Philadelphia after getting benched for Jalen Hurts last season. His relationship with the Eagles was, like his game, broken in pieces. Now, he heads to Indianapolis hoping Reich can help him rediscover his MVP form from 2017.

It's a win for Wentz. But the Ballard and Reich just pushed all their chips in on a quarterback who has been below average in four of his five NFL seasons. Wentz's four-year, $128 million contract is just kicking in, so he and the Colts are married now.

Indy needed a quarterback. Perhaps Wentz's relationship with Reich made him the most logical choice. There's a chance that putting Wentz behind a good offensive line (Indy does need a new left tackle), with solid weapons while playing eight games in a dome with be the elixir that turns Wentz back into a top-level quarterback and propels the Colts to the Super Bowl that Ballard has been building toward.

But there's also the chance that Wentz will never rediscover the magic he wowed everyone with in 2017. That he is, in fact, cooked.

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If that's the case, the Colts will have gambled years of work away. Ballard didn't give up the house for Wentz. If Wentz plays poorly, he could, in theory, try and move on from him next offseason for a decent dead cap hit.

But that would put the Colts back to square one, and will cost Ballard and Reich a lot of the goodwill they have built up while constructing this roster.

The 49ers know the risks of making a move at quarterback. Garoppolo, when healthy, is a solid, yet unspectacular option. When he plays, the 49ers win more often than they lose. But he's often injured and his limitations in Kyle Shanahan's offense are clear.

Sticking with Garoppolo likely secures the 49ers at least 10 wins in 2021, barring another injury. Is he enough to win a Super Bowl? That's unclear.

But what is clear is that the 49ers have to be sure they can upgrade in order to make a move. A mistake would be too costly.

The Colts chose to gamble in order to maximize a title window that could start to creep shut without the right quarterback. But if Wentz implodes, Ballard and Reich will have started the clock on their expiration date.

That's something the 49ers have avoided to this point as they walk the quarterback tightrope. Shanahan and Lynch are aware that one false step on the quarterback carousel and years of hard work can come tumbling down.

The Colts went all-in. So did the Los Angeles Rams in acquiring Matthew Stafford. The level of risk is different but the bet is the same: It's Super Bowl or bust.

For the 49ers, they have to decide which risk, if any, is worth taking. Or if the safe route, letting Garoppolo pilot the ship one more time, gives the greatest runway for building a Super Bowl power.

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