Even before the 49ers decided to select quarterback Trey Lance with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the decision-makers within the organization agreed Jimmy Garoppolo was not going anywhere, yet.
General manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan pitched the idea to CEO Jed York. If Garoppolo gave the 49ers the best chance to win games in 2021, he should remain as the starter.
But there also is the possibility that the work Lance is doing now will place him in position to open the season as the 49ers’ starting quarterback.
“If he’s the best player, then he would play,” York told NBC Sports Bay Area last month. “And if he’s not ready to do it, yet, we’re not going to put that on his shoulders. And whether that’s Trey or whether that’s anybody else, we want to make sure there’s competition throughout the team.”
If Garoppolo proves during training camp he is far ahead of the rookie, the 49ers do not have much of a decision to make. Garoppolo will start, and there might be weekly packages for Lance to showcase his skills as a runner or passer.
But what if Lance ends up winning the job from the beginning?
That is a scenario that would significantly complicate the continuation of the 49ers-Garoppolo union.
After all, the 49ers have to swallow hard to pay Garoppolo his scheduled $25.5 million pay this season for salary and bonuses when they already have made a large commitment to Lance for the future.
The 49ers moved from No. 12 overall to No. 3 in the draft to add Lance. The 49ers sent their first-round draft picks in 2022 and ’23, along with a third-rounder next year, to the Miami Dolphins in order to select the quarterback who will eventually replace Garoppolo.
If Lance wins the job at the beginning of the season, it could lead to an eventful two weeks after the team’s final preseason game on Sunday, Aug. 29. The 49ers’ regular season opener is Sunday, Sept. 12, at the Detroit Lions.
The 49ers can justify paying Garoppolo his scheduled salary if he is the starter and they believe he gives them their best chance to win a championship.
And based on Garoppolo’s performance during the offseason program, coach Kyle Shanahan seems to believe Garoppolo is set up for a career year.
“I think Jimmy had his best spring since we've had him," Shanahan said at the conclusion of the team’s offseason program.
“I thought Jimmy came in in great shape, really locked in, a good place physically and mentally. And I thought he had as good of OTAs as he's had.”
But all that could change once the team reports back to Santa Clara in late-July to begin preparations for the regular season.
It is within the realm of possibility that Lance wins the job. Then, the 49ers would almost assuredly want Garoppolo to remain in Santa Clara ... but only at the right price.
Nine-year veteran Case Keenum is the league’s top-paid backup quarterback at $6 million. Of course, he has no chance to win the starting job with the Cleveland Browns as long as Baker Mayfield is around.
The New Orleans Saints have an interesting situation after Drew Brees’ retirement. Dual-threat quarterback Taysom Hill is scheduled to make $11 million this season, while Jameis Winston is on the books for $5.5 million.
The market rate for a backup quarterback is about one-third of what Garoppolo is currently scheduled to earn for the upcoming season.
The 49ers are $17.7 million under the salary cap, but every dollar they save now can be rolled over into future contracts for linebacker Fred Warner, defensive end Nick Bosa, receiver Deebo Samuel and others. The 49ers loaded their roster with one-year contracts in the offseason, so they will have to spend some money next year to remain competitive.
Barring a significant injury in training camp, it seems unlikely the 49ers would be able to trade Garoppolo if Lance takes over as the starter. It also seems unlikely another team would be willing to pay Garoppolo his scheduled pay for 2021 if he becomes available in early-September.
The 49ers would almost assuredly approach Garoppolo about accepting a dramatic pay cut to remain with them as the backup.
After all, Garoppolo would not be able to go anywhere else as a starter. And with an unproven rookie quarterback, knowledge of the system, familiarity with the locker room and a strong supporting cast, Garoppolo would have a better chance to make a contribution as a backup with the 49ers than with any other team.
The 49ers have to be prepared for anything.
If it looks as if Lance is going to make a strong challenge in training camp, the 49ers should give Nate Sudfeld and Josh Rosen more practice time. One of them might be needed to serve as the backup.
Although it might be an unlikely scenario right now, there is no guarantee Garoppolo will be with the 49ers when the regular season kicks off.
Chicago Bears coach Matt Nagy recently said veteran Andy Dalton will be the starter ahead of rookie Justin Fields when the season opens.
Shanahan has made no such comments. He wants to promote competition. He wants Garoppolo to be at his best as he tries to hold onto his starting job.
And he wants to leave the door open for Lance to prove from Week 1 that the 49ers selected the right quarterback for them.