Super Bowl LIV feels like a lifetime ago for the 49ers. Twelve months ago, they were coming off a narrow defeat to the Kansas City Chiefs, were slated to bring most of the roster back and expected to be right back in the title round in Tampa Bay in 2021.
That, of course, didn't happen as injuries derailed the 49ers' return trip before it even got out of the station, while Tom Brady, who the 49ers passed on in the offseason, led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl victory over the Chiefs using a perfected version of the 49ers' game plan.
Now, the 49ers enter the offseason in a much different position than they did a season ago. DeForest Buckner now plays for the Indianapolis Colts. Richard Sherman, who is slated to be an unrestricted free agent come March, told NBC Sports Bay Area's Matt Maiocco that a return to the 49ers is unlikely. Jason Verrett, K'Waun Williams and Jaquiski Tartt also are slated to hit the free-agent market. Joe Staley retired last offseason and his replacement, Trent Williams, also will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. George Kittle was paid handsomely last offseason and Fred Warner's time for an extension is coming.
I say all this to say that the 49ers' roster, which was loaded 12 months ago, has and will continue to undergo some changes. Super Bowl windows open and shut in the blink of an eye. As the 49ers look to keep theirs open as long as possible, it would be prudent to explore all their options to replenish what was the best roster in the NFL a season ago.
One way to do that is, of course, to follow the path that helped the 2013 Seattle Seahawks and 2019 Kansas City Chiefs construct Super Bowl-winning rosters: Build around a rookie quarterback.
Now, I'm not here to tell you the 49ers should absolutely jettison Jimmy Garoppolo to parts unknown. This isn't a "ditch the quarterback" article. It's about the best way for the 49ers to rebuild out their roster and maximize their title window.
The most likely scenario remains the 49ers restructuring Garoppolo's contract to give them some financial wiggle room this offseason and having Garoppolo return as the starter for 2021. But let's venture down a different path. The 49ers aren't going to make some massive move up the draft board for top prospects like Zach Wilson or Justin Fields. The cost would be too steep for general manager John Lynch's liking. They could hope Trey Lance slides to them at No. 12, but that feels like an unlikely proposition.
That leaves Alabama's Mac Jones as the most likely quarterback for the 49ers to draft at No. 12. Before we get into Jones' pros and cons and how he might fit in Kyle Shanahan's system, let's look at some cap math, thanks to OverTheCap.com.
As of right now, the 2021 salary cap is projected to be at $182.4 million. That leaves the 49ers with $13.2 million in available cap space. Of course, some of that can be massaged by restructuring and whatnot, but let's stick with that for the purpose of this exercise. That doesn't include the number needed to sign the incoming draft class, which would equate to about $4.6 million since each player signed would replace a player on the current top-51 who counts toward the cap.
So, let's round-up and give the 49ers an even $9 million in cap space after the rookie class. That's not a lot to re-sign Williams (a top priority) and replenish the secondary, bolster the interior of the offensive line and add another reliable edge rusher to pair with Nick Bosa. Once again, the expected restructuring of Garoppolo's contract will help here should the 49ers go the expected route.
But, let's say the 49ers choose not to gamble on Garoppolo staying healthy for a full season, something he has only done once in his career. They could draft Jones, who just finished the highest-graded season by a Power Five quarterback in Pro Football Focus history, and cut or trade Garoppolo, should there be any takers for his contract, for a dead cap hit of $2.8 million. That would automatically take the 49ers' projected cap space from $13.2 million before the draft class to $36.1 million. If the 49ers choose to cut Dee Ford, who has struggled with injuries in his two seasons in San Francisco, that number rises to $41.2 million.
Having roughly $32 million available (outside the draft class) would allow the 49ers to give Trent Williams the lucrative contract he wants, helping keep their offensive line roughly whole, and likely allow them to bring K'Waun Williams and Verrett back if they want. They'd still have some money left over to add a cheaper edge rusher or could look to select one of the prospects who might slide into the second round like Azeez Ojulari, Jayson Oweh or Carlos Basham.
Jones' NFL trajectory and whether or not Shanahan believes he can run his system, obviously, is the lynchpin in this idea.
This season, Jones completed 77.4 percent of his passes for 4,500 yards, 41 touchdowns and four interceptions. For comparison, in nine games with Alabama last season, Tua Tagovailoa completed 71.4 percent for 2,840 yards, 33 touchdowns and three interceptions. If you remember before the hip injury and Joe Burrow's meteoric rise, Tagaovailoa was expected to be the No.1 pick in the draft.
Yes, Jones was surrounded by an elite offensive line and was throwing to the Heisman Trophy winner in DeVonta Smith. He's not going to wow you with his athleticism and won't make a ton of off-script plays. He needs protection, playmakers around him and a good play-caller. Jones is very accurate in the short and intermediate game, and while he doesn't possess eye-opening arm strength, he does throw a good deep ball. He has a high football IQ and former Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian told ESPN's Todd McShay that he has never had a quarterback pick up as many concepts in such a short period of time as Jones did. While not super mobile, Jones is savvy in the pocket, showing great feel and the ability to make subtle moves to extend plays. He's a good anticipatory thrower who is good at making throws where the receiver is about to be open.
Jones also is adept when facing pressure. Per Sports Info Solutions, Jones went 56 of 88 passes for 976 yards, 556 air yards, 13 touchdowns, two interceptions and a quarterback rating of 131.4 when facing pressure. There was a ton of talent at Alabama, but it ultimately was up to Jones to make that work.
While Jones' efficiency was off the charts during this past season, he did have a pretty easy job with the amount of talent around him. That being said, Alabama never had to alter the game plan to protect itself from Jones and he carved up two good defenses in Notre Dame and Ohio State to finish the season. Now, Jones' lack of mobility could hamper his NFL ceiling and likely will cause the 49ers to look elsewhere. As USA TODAY's Doug Farrar noted, on bootleg plays, which are prevalent in the Shanahan offense, Jones completed 12 of 21 passes for 135 yards, three touchdowns, one interception, two sacks and a passer rating of 96.2. That's not ideal, but Alabama also didn't have to roll him out a ton given the talent gap in most of their games.
I'm not sitting here pounding the table for the 49ers to draft Mac Jones. I am bullish on his abilities in the NFL, especially when paired with a great offensive mind and weapons like George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel, who excel at creating space.
But what I am going to say is that, given the cap crunch facing the 49ers this offseason and Garoppolo's inability to stay healthy, Jones is worth taking a look at. He just set the FBS record for QB efficiency and would cost a fraction of what Garoppolo costs, allowing the 49ers to replenish the roster and keep the window open longer than with Garoppolo at the helm.
Garoppolo is a solid NFL starter who wins games. There's no doubting that, when he's healthy, the 49ers are a playoff-caliber team. But he does have an obvious ceiling. So does Jones. But Jones is seven years younger and can almost certainly give the 49ers a large portion of the production they would get from Garoppolo in 2021.
The 49ers are facing a crucial offseason. Restructuring Garoppolo's contract and bringing him back as the starter figures to be a key piece of the offseason puzzle.
But if Shanahan likes what he sees from Jones, the 49ers can go another route. It wouldn't give the 49ers a surefire upgrade at QB in 2021, but it could allow them to elevate the entire roster back to the level it was at following their Super Bowl loss while banking on Shanahan's ability to get Jones to reach what could be a Philip Rivers-like NFL ceiling.
In order to win a title, teams either need an elite quarterback or a top-tier roster built around a quarterback who can properly execute their offense. The 49ers had that roster two years ago. It has changed and now they face some tough decisions. Their best option to return might be to go the route traveled by the Seahawks at the start of the last decade and put loads of talent around a smart, efficient quarterback with a winning pedigree.