SANTA CLARA, Calif. — San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan will tell you that he has lived with all his eggs in one quarterback basket. And he’ll be the first to tell you that decision turned out poorly more than once, leaving him to learn a tough lesson.
“When we’ve lost Jimmy [Garoppolo] — the two seasons we have — the season hasn’t been very good. It’s been tough,” Shanahan said. “Granted, last year we lost a lot of other people along with him. But we’ve got a good team and I don’t want to put all those eggs in one basket again.”
This is why the 49ers made one costly decision in the offseason, trading a significant haul of draft picks for the right to select Garoppolo’s presumed successor, Trey Lance. It’s also why the 49ers made another less conventional decision — holding onto Garoppolo and rolling the dice on 2021 with both players in the same quarterbacks room. It's not because there weren’t opportunities to pick up the phone and take trade calls on Garoppolo this offseason, but because Shanahan knows the 49ers are sitting on a no-lose situation by retaining an extra starter on the roster.
Jimmy Garoppolo is giving Trey Lance chance to breathe
If the first week of training camp has reminded us of anything, it’s that despite a considerable amount of quarterback talent flowing into the league, it takes only a couple veteran injuries at the position to raise the hairs on the necks of every franchise in the league. The Cowboys and Colts are officially there, with Dallas starter Dak Prescott already out with what the team hopes is a mild shoulder strain, and oft-injured Colts starter Carson Wentz staring at potential foot surgery in the coming days.
While the severity of the two injuries appears very different, Prescott and Wentz showcased how quickly a vital part of the preseason can get derailed. And make no mistake, this next month is as important an incubation period as it has ever been for NFL coaches, many of whom continue to be irked by the lessened practice time and contact in the offseason. Not only do many coaches feel like missed practice time in camp is more detrimental than ever, they’ll tell you that losing quarterbacks this early threatens to throw off the team for weeks or longer.
Shanahan said this is part of the reason why he’s thrilled to have Garoppolo on the roster right now. It's partially because it takes the pressure off Lance — who the 49ers chose third overall in the draft — and partially because the existence of Lance might produce the best Jimmy Garoppolo that San Francisco has seen to date.
“It would be awesome if Jimmy is the starter, because I’d love not to put that pressure on Trey right away,” Shanahan said. “In order to be as good as you’re going to be, you’ve got to go through a lot of stuff. And Jimmy’s already been through some stuff. He’s got a chance, especially with the way he’s handled this, to play at the top of his game. Trey, he’s going to come in and he can do a lot stuff and I know he’s only going to get better. But to not put that pressure on him right away is a great thing. And if we need to put more pressure on him, we will.”
A grinning Shanahan made sure to pound home one more point on Garoppolo: “Offseason-wise, it has upped Jimmy’s game a little bit. I think that can help us out a ton. I like being in this situation.”
The interesting part of this scenario — beyond the fact that the 49ers will essentially have two quarterbacks pushing for the starting job as long as both are on the roster — is that it’s easier to see the upside of keeping Garoppolo around.
First, he doesn’t turn 30 until November, which means that if he has a strong 2021 season, the 49ers can take Garoppolo to the trade market with a legitimate argument that he’s a quality starter with a large remaining window in his prime. Second, Garoppolo’s no-trade clause drops off his contract after this season. Third, any deal continues to be extremely salary-cap friendly for the 49ers. Finally, and perhaps most important, given this week, Garoppolo provides a measure of insurance that Shanahan has never given himself as a head coach.
Basically, Jimmy Garoppolo is now insurance ... to prevent the type of void that Jimmy Garoppolo has left on the team in the past.
Jimmy Garoppolo gives 49ers robust trading options
It’s odd to consider Garoppolo an insurance policy against the injury problems he has created at the position in the past, but that’s what he is. He and Lance together guarantee that Shanahan will have a starting quarterback that he wants under center, not one that he’s forced to put under center. If you don’t think that’s an important distinction, consider what Dallas might look like if Prescott’s mild shoulder issue turns into something bigger. Or if the Colts are staring at a prolonged period without Wentz. That’s two potential playoff teams that are already feeling quarterback anxiety over what any kind of long-term problem might mean.
For once, the 49ers aren’t worried about that. And they also have additional upside if Garoppolo plays well through the preseason, because he’s just as tradable now as he was all summer. That means there’s always the possibility of a desperate chapter of preseason injuries opening a door of opportunity. Something like when the Minnesota Vikings lost starter Teddy Bridgewater in 2016, pushing the team to flip a first- and fourth-round draft pick to the Philadelphia Eagles for Sam Bradford (who was about to lose his job to then-rookie Carson Wentz). As part of the deal, the Eagles paid $11 million of Bradford’s $18 million salary, which helped grease the wheels on the deal.
Guess which team is in that position right now? It’s the 49ers with Garoppolo. Not only is he a valuable player they can dangle to any playoff-caliber team that might suffer a loss at quarterback, but San Francisco can also offer to pay a large chunk of Garoppolo’s 2021 salary to help facilitate a deal. That’s an enticing option. And it will only look better if Garoppolo continues to have a strong training camp.
Effectively, what it means is the 49ers are in a good position for a trade now or later. And in the meantime, Shanahan can go to bed at night knowing his eggs are spread across two players at the position. One way or another, he’s going to be happy with his starter. And until Garoppolo is ultimately off the roster, Shanahan will gladly take the extra insurance that many other NFL teams don’t have.
As Shanahan put it: “The best possible situation for us is we get really good quarterback this year — whoever that is.”
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