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49ers embark on their quarterback quest for 2021

Mike Florio and Charean Williams take turns proposing possible trade scenarios for Deshaun Watson, naming the Jets, Dolphins and 49ers as potential buyers.

The fact that the 49ers reportedly made an attempt to trade for quarterback Matthew Stafford confirms what many have suspected for months. With quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo entering the outer years of his contract, with a relatively minimal cap charge associated with trading or cutting him, all options are on the table as the 49ers determine the identity of their quarterback for 2021.

The 49ers have only $2.8 million in unallocated signing-bonus charges arising from the contract given to Garoppolo three years ago. He has a $24.1 million base salary for next season, none of which is currently guaranteed -- and none of which becomes guaranteed at any point before the start of the regular season.

Thus, the 49ers can treat Garoppolo like any other potentially available quarterback option that may be available to them. Whether it’s pursuing a free agent who may become available or whether it’s trading for an established option at the position, the 49ers can do whatever they want to do.

Last year, they considered adding quarterback Tom Brady. They decided to stick with Garoppolo. The fact that Brady has vaulted the Buccaneers in his first year with the team to the Super Bowl surely has the 49ers wondering whether they made the right call.

Yes, the rash of injuries sustained by the 49ers this year would have made it very difficult for the 49ers to thrive even with Brady. Still, Garoppolo once again failed to show the kind of durability that characterizes true franchise quarterbacks like Brady, who but for a fluke low hit in Week One of the 2008 season would be in the midst of a two-decade streak of showing up and performing, each and every week.

Garoppolo has missed 23 games in three full seasons with the 49ers. Although he performs well when able to play, the inability to play becomes a major factor in the ability of the 49ers to justify continuing to ride with Garoppolo.

So what will they do? A trade offer for Deshaun Watson remains possible, although the price will surely be high. Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, the player whom 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan assumed the team would sign as a free agent in 2018 but for the Garoppolo trade, could be available in a trade. It’s not news that Shanahan would be interested in the player he and his father drafted nine years ago. The news will arise if/when the Vikings decide to move on from Cousins -- and if/when the 49ers decide to absorb a contract that pays $56 million fully guaranteed over the next two years.

The Vikings first would have to be willing to trade Cousins. Before the Vikings would do that, they’d need to be willing to absorb $20 million in dead money for 2021. They’d also need to be confident that they have another viable option at quarterback.

If not Cousins, who would the Vikings quarterback be? Cam Newton? Andy Dalton? Mitchell Trubisky? Ryan Fitzpatrick? Jacoby Brissett? Jameis Winston? Alex Smith?

Minnesota could try to trade for Deshaun Watson, if he’d be willing to play there. But that would require multiple first-round draft picks (probably three) and maybe more.

Although Cousins has played well during three seasons in Minnesota, the Vikings have only one playoff appearance during his tenure with the team. However, absent someone in whom they’d have sufficient faith for 2021, they’d potentially be taking a step back, especially since they currently have no offensive coordinator.

The Vikings made an all-in move when they signed Cousins. There’s no similar all-in move they could make this year, unless they go ultra-all-in for Watson. Would a trade for someone like Sam Darnold make a difference in a year that likely will entail coach Mike Zimmer and G.M. Rick Spielman inching toward the hot seat? The Vikings pick too low to get one of the top incoming rookies, and placing full faith in a first-year player would entail significant risk.

From a continuity standpoint, especially if Klint Kubiak becomes the next offensive coordinator, it makes sense to keep Cousins. Barring a highly-unlikely decision by Tom Brady to ask for a trade or a release by the Buccaneers and a willingness by Brady to continue his career in his mother’s native state, there’s no obviously viable option who will help the Vikings do enough in 2021 to keep the power structure in place for 2022.

Even a trade with the 49ers that would bring Jimmy Garoppolo to Minnesota wouldn’t be enough to ensure that the Vikings will be competitive. Although there’s no reason to think the Vikings will suddenly become dominant if Cousins gets a fourth season, putting all eggs in a different basket could be the quickest way to get all of those eggs busted.

Thus, even though plenty of Vikings fans may be ready to move on, the coaching staff and the front office need to keep Cousins, if they hope to keep at bay the possibility of the Vikings pressing the reset button after the coming season. Only Cousins minimizes that risk.

By 2022, things could be very different. But 2022 may as well be 2032, as far as the Vikings are concerned. Despite the hard ceiling that seems to reside over Minnesota’s chances to contend at a high level in 2021, the folks who need to get as close to that ceiling as possible next season likely will decide that Cousins gives them the best chance to do so.

So where does that leave the 49ers? That remains to be seen, as the coaching carousel begins to spin, thanks to the kick start that the Saturday night news of a Lions-Rams quarterback trade has provided.

Regardless of where things end up, it’s obvious that the 49ers already have begun to explore all available options.