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SANTA CLARA, Calif. – If you track the San Francisco 49ers’ John Lynch through an entire practice, you might catch the general manager planting himself in a familiar place. He’ll slide back behind the defensive secondary, park himself at his former free safety spot and open his ears.
Making mental notes, he’ll listen to conversations or study eyes and body language. And now more than ever, he’ll dial in on his presumptive franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, whose development will make or break this franchise for the next decade.
“I stand back there because that’s where I saw the game for all these years,” Lynch says. “I stand back there not to hang out with those guys, but because that’s where I can evaluate the best.”
Like most NFL general managers, Lynch likes to talk about evaluation in camp, predicting whose arrow is pointed up or noting which player has been a pleasant surprise. But unlike most GMs, Lynch has already earmarked $137 million to a player whose arc is still largely unknown – although you wouldn’t know it by the media coverage and gushing expectation lavished on Garoppolo.
Arguably no player in the NFL has seen his star rise more quickly than “Jimmy G” in the past eight months. His mini legend, fueled by five wins in five starts last season, created a suddenly blinding light at the end of a dark tunnel of 49ers football history. All of which is great, except that the underpinnings of NFL history promise some difficult times ahead because if we’ve learned anything in this league, it’s that game film is an incorruptible snitch when it comes to quarterbacks. Sooner or later, it’s going to tell on Jimmy G. And that’s when we’ll find out whether he’s worth the hype and lofty financial perch he’s been gifted.
“That remains to be seen,” Lynch said this week. “Jimmy’s aware that he’s early in his career. While we kind of showed a lot of faith in him by locking him up [with a franchise contract], I think you do that for a reason. We have every belief he’s up to the task. So what do you do? You go to work. You try to surround him with real talented people.”
Make no mistake, this is the top of the 49ers’ agenda – as it is with most franchises that are lucky enough to find a centerpiece quarterback. Find a guy, exploit that talent window as quickly and aggressively as possible. That’s what San Francisco is about right now: Adding and grooming the rest of the Jimmy G puzzle pieces, whether it’s along the offensive line or at the skill positions. It’s why they drafted offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey with the ninth overall pick and signed center Weston Richburg after missing out on mega free-agent Andrew Norwell. And it’s why they started fine-tuning the skill positions with players fitting the scheme of head coach Kyle Shanahan – with additions like running back Jerick McKinnon and second-round wideout Dante Pettis.
That’s essentially four players added with Garoppolo in mind – and it won’t end there. If San Francisco doesn’t have a wideout emerge as a consistent, impactful No. 1 in 2018, that will be a top priority in the 2019 offseason. Right alongside another running back to complement McKinnon and finish out a rotation predicated on matchup dominance. Look at the Atlanta Falcons offense. This will be the West Coast edition of that same blueprint.
“Our head coach is one of the most gifted play-callers in the league,” Lynch says. “We’ve added pieces. You add a center and it’s not the sexiest thing in the world, but we think that will help Jimmy. You add Jerick McKinnon, who we think is a game-breaker, but also is kind of a matchup problem. … The more guys we can surround Jimmy with, I think that plays to his talent.”
Of course, it’s on Garoppolo to take his own steps forward. While he’s remarkably in tune with Shanahan’s personality – both have a confidence flirting with cockiness – it’s going to be on Garoppolo to grow and challenge his head coach as much as the other way around. The best tandems push each other and for now, the 49ers are still working toward that. The true pain has yet to present itself, particularly in a scenario where Garoppolo loses, struggles, misfires and then is forced to adjust in-game, in-season, under mounting pressure.
That’s something teams try to replicate in training camp, before the games matter – often a faded facsimile at best. But San Francisco will at least settle for some day-to-day learning points, like Garoppolo’s pair of interceptions on Tuesday, which both appeared to result from wideouts getting pushed out of position on their routes. The result, they weren’t where they needed to be when Garoppolo expected them, triggering a pair of turnovers.
“It’s almost something different each day,” Shanahan said of Garoppolo’s continued learning curve. “There’s lots of things Jimmy needs to work on. There’s lots of things we’re all working on right now. There’s a ton here. We’re five days into our install [on offense]. We’ve got a few more left. Once we get through our entire install – it’ll be, I think, three more days – then we’ll start to reevaluate and see where we want to go.”
Pressed for where he’s still failing, Garoppolo pointed to fine-tuning in timing and some general mechanics of running an efficient offense – which are both high on the list of Shanahan’s expectations of him exiting this camp.
“[Learning on the fly] during last season, it was tough,” Garoppolo said. “We were studying defenses, learning offenses, a whirlwind of things. Just being able to slow down, these camp days we’re here for 12, 13 hours, so you get a lot of use out of it. … I need to get better at being smooth in and out of the huddle. Getting the play called and everything. The transition up to the line of scrimmage and then stacking successful plays one after the other. That’s what it’s all about.”
There was an underlying theme in what Garoppolo and Shanahan kept spelling out: It’s early.
There’s little doubt about that. In spite of the attention and headlines and optimism – not to mention a quarterback electricity the 49ers haven’t seen since Colin Kaepernick’s Super Bowl peak – there’s a wealth of unknown ahead. Jimmy G is one of the league’s biggest and brightest question marks of 2018.
Defensive coordinators have yet to throw everything they have at the answer. Soon enough, they’ll have the film to do it. And that’s when we’ll find out if all of this buildup has been worth it.
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