It feels inevitable. And yet if you had to place odds on it at this very moment, Jimmy Garoppolo might not fall very high on the list of possible Patriots quarterbacks for 2021 because, well, he's technically unavailable.
But before we get there, let's acknowledge the obvious.
No. 1: The Patriots need a quarterback.
No. 2: Backing themselves into a corner by waiting until the draft to address the position carries significant risk.
No. 3: The options for veteran starters were diminished by two over the weekend with Matthew Stafford and Jared Goff swapping teams.
Now all eyes turn to the guy who was once expected to be The Next Guy in New England. Sure, Ryan Fitzpatrick is out there as a free agent. As are Jacoby Brissett, Andy Dalton, Jameis Winston and Mitch Trubisky. Maybe Marcus Mariota is available via trade. But of that group, Garoppolo (when healthy) might be the best of the bunch.
Does that mean there could be a bidding war for Garoppolo's services? Will the Niners even be willing to trade him? If they are, what should the Patriots be willing to give up?
Let's do some digging.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
This piece matters.
Garoppolo has a $24.1 million base salary for 2021 and carries a $26.4 million cap hit next season if he were to stay with the Niners. However, because of the way in which his contract was structured, if the Niners trade (or cut) Garoppolo then they'd free up $23.6 million in cap space.
That's significant. If the Niners deal him away, suddenly they'd almost quadruple their available cap space in a year when the cap is about to crater.
Does this matter from a Patriots perspective? Of course. His base salary would count against the cap, as would a fraction of his per-game roster bonus money. But Bill Belichick's club is one of the few teams that could handle Garoppolo on their cap once the new league year begins since they're flush with space.
The other quarterback-needy teams with enough space to bring Garoppolo aboard? The Colts and the Football Team.
It should be noted that once he is acquired, a team could re-work his contract to knock down his cap hit. As it stands right now, he has two years left on his deal, and his base salary for 2022 would be $24.2 million. He has no guaranteed money coming his way in either season.
IS IT FEASIBLE?
Let's first assume Garoppolo is available via trade. Aside from the cap space he'd take up, how much would he cost?
That'll depend on the other teams interested and the level of their desire to acquire him. If the Colts think he's the only option who could step into their locker room and make them a legitimate contender, they may be willing to pay a heavy price.
Maybe Washington feels it has another chance to win the division with a solid-if-not-spectacular quarterback, meaning it would be willing to swallow hard and pay up for him.
In a vacuum, the price for Garoppolo should not be steep. He's missed 23 games over the last three years in the Bay Area, playing all 16 as he helped the Niners get to the Super Bowl in 2019. He'll be 30 years old by the middle of next season.
When considering prior trades involving quarterbacks looking to rebuild their reputations as starters, Garoppolo might only be worth a third or fourth-round pick. Ryan Tannehill was dealt to the Titans for a fourth-round pick and a swap of late-round picks. Joe Flacco went to the Broncos for a fourth-rounder. Teddy Bridgewater and a sixth-round pick were sent by the Jets to the Saints in exchange for a third-rounder.
Garoppolo is in all likelihood closer to that caliber of quarterback than, say, Alex Smith back in 2017. Smith, who'd made three Pro Bowls with the Chiefs, was sent from Kansas City to Washington in the 2018 offseason for a third-round pick and a starting defensive player.
In that sense, it would be feasible for the Patriots. A third or fourth-round pick for a chance to reunite with Garoppolo? No problem. There just looms the possibility that another club drives up the price.
For any of that to happen, though, Garoppolo has to be available. The Niners remain a talented roster with one of the best offensive minds in football calling the plays. They should be competing for championships in this window, meaning they won't part with Garoppolo just to clear cap space.
Deshaun Watson? Kyle Shanahan favorite Kirk Cousins? Teams hoping to nab Garoppolo have to hope that San Francisco lands that type of player -- or that the Niners trade up in the draft for a quarterback -- in order for him to become expendable.
CAN HE PLAY?
Garoppolo has been about average as a quarterback under Shanahan, which may be cause for some alarm.
Shanahan's scheme and play-calling has resulted in below-average quarterbacks becoming efficient passers. Helped by a heaping dose of play-action, Shanahan has had every one of his quarterbacks in the top 15 in yards per attempt over the last dozen years. Matt Schaub in Houston (2nd in YPA in 2008, fourth in 2009). Donovan McNabb (15th in 2010) and Rex Grossman in Washington (14th in 2011). Brian Hoyer in Cleveland (8th in 2014). All of 'em. Shanahan's system has also made temporary superstars out of Robert Griffin III and Matt Ryan (2016 MVP).
Before getting hurt this season, Garoppolo was one of the shortest throwers in football (6.4 air yards per attempt), his average throw traveling farther than only Smith's (5.2), Drew Brees' (5.9) and Nick Mullens' (6.3). Garoppolo ranked 26th in completion percentage over expected (0.3), 17th in success rate (50 percent) and 24th in quarterback rating (92.4). He was, however, a top-half-of-the-league player when it came to his completion percentage (67.1 percent, 14th) and -- of course -- yards per attempt (7.8, 9th).
Last season, Garoppolo was 23rd in completed air yards per attempt and his air yards per attempt number (6.1) was shorter than every quarterback in football other than Brees, Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr. Garoppolo completed over 70 percent of his passes in 2019 and had the sixth-best rating in the league. But his air-yards-per-attempt and yards-per-attempt figures en route to a Super Bowl would indicate he's more of a game-manager in a well-schemed offense full of after-the-catch playmakers.
If the Patriots are looking for a quarterback who can manage a game, complete the throws he should and buy the team some time before they find their next face-of-the-franchise type? Garoppolo makes sense. If they need someone to elevate the talent around him as the roster is rebuilt, he has not necessarily proven himself to be that kind of player in San Francisco.
That the Niners have only lukewarmly committed to him over the course of the last calendar year -- kicking around the idea of bringing aboard both Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford in that time -- speaks volumes.
WHAT WOULD BUILDING AROUND HIM WOULD LOOK LIKE?
Let's say, if the Patriots traded for Garoppolo, they kept him on his current contract. In this exercise, then, they'd send a third-round pick to the Niners and lose about $25 million of their almost $60 million in cap space.
Building around him could look a bit like what it might've looked like had the Patriots built around Matthew Stafford, which we examined here. Adding receiver Corey Davis and tight end Jonnu Smith is still a possibility and would provide Garoppolo with a pair of big targets. The Patriots could also still bring back James White and David Andrews with the money left.
Then there's the draft. If Garoppolo only cost a third-round pick from the Patriots, that'd leave the Patriots with first and second-rounders to spend on cornerstone types. If they trade Stephon Gilmore, it could potentially give them two second-rounders. We mocked corner Patrick Surtain to the Patriots with their first-rounder. With two seconds they could go after a tackle (Clemson's Jackson Carman is a behemoth they might like on the right side) and a receiver (Elijah Moore from Ole Miss is undersized but has tons of speed and would be a vertical option out of the slot).
Take it all together and that'd give Garoppolo a strong offensive line, a dependable pass-catching back (White), an athletic tight end (Smith), a big-bodied receiver on the outside (Davis), a dynamic slot (Moore) and two "Z" options in Jakobi Meyers and Julian Edelman.
It's not what Garoppolo had in San Francisco. But for a passer who focuses on the short area of the field and lets his playmakers go to work after the catch ... it's not bad.
CHANCE IT HAPPENS
Because he's not available until the Niners find a better option, this one is hard to peg. Let's set the odds at 5-to-1. If and when the Niners find an upgrade, though, those odds would have to skyrocket.