By clinging to Jimmy Garoppolo, 49ers risk undermining Trey Lance
When the 49ers traded up from No. 12 to No. 3 last March, most assumed that starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s days in San Francisco were numbered. They were. As it turns out, there was a very high number of them.
Now, 368 days after the trade was made, Garoppolo continues to be on the 49ers’ roster. They entered the offseason believing they’d be able to trade him, for something more than a low-round draft pick. As both G.M. John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan have said this week, Garoppolo’s shoulder surgery -- which he underwent without even telling the team -- caused the market to dry up.
So now they’ll wait, carrying more than $25 million in surplus cap space for Garoppolo at a time when they’re presumably hoping to help Trey Lance take over at the most important position on the team. They’re surely hoping that a quarterback with another team will suffer a freak injury, creating a demand for Garoppolo at a time when one otherwise doesn’t exist.
They need to better assess the risk and the reward. The chances of having a quarterback tear an ACL during non-contact drills are small. (Not impossible, as Teddy Bridgewater would attest, but small.) The damage to the overall development of Lance could be significant. Garoppolo has taken the 49ers to a Super Bowl. He nearly took them to another. He’s beloved in the locker room.
Lance continues to be the new guy. He’s trying to win acceptance, to prove himself. Having his predecessor still on the team necessarily makes that harder.
Then there’s the Garoppolo angle. His decision to undergo shoulder surgery without telling the team sends a message in the form of a middle finger emoji. What do they expect from him now? Full cooperation as they try to facilitate a trade that suits their interests but not his?
At some point, any team that trades for Garoppolo will want him to adjust or extend his contract. All he needs to do is refuse to make any adjustments to the final year of his deal, and a trade isn’t happening.
The 49ers could respond by saying, “Fine. We’ll just keep you under contract until just before the start of the regular season, and then we’ll cut you when no one else will have a spot for you.”
But first the 49ers still need to get that point. What will they do once Garoppolo is cleared to practice and shows up for work? They can’t keep him away. If he gets injured while working out or at practice, they could be on the hook for his full salary for 2022.
It could get ugly, like it did between the Titans and Steve McNair in 2006. The Titans locked him out to avoid a potential injury that would have locked in his full salary. He fought it, and he won. As a result, teams can’t put a player on ice in the offseason, for fear of him suffering an injury.
That would be the ultimate irony for the 49ers. While waiting for another quarterback to get injured and create a trade market that currently doesn’t exist, Garoppolo gets injured and the 49ers are on the hook for his full salary.
Meanwhile, that $25 million in cap and cash space could be used to reward players like defensive end Nick Bosa and receiver Deebo Samuel, both of whom are due for new deals -- and both of whom will want to be at the top of the market for their respective positions.
So what are the 49ers really doing here? They surely don’t intend to pay Garoppolo $25 million to be the backup to Lance. Unless they think Lance isn’t ready (which is possible), the sooner they clear Garoppolo off the roster, the better off Lance will be.
At best, it feels like a clumsy effort to save face. At worst, it speaks to the potential existence of a fundamental disagreement within the organization as to whether Lance is ready. If they think he is, or if they believe he will be, they need to quit chasing ghosts with Garoppolo and turn the page to the player in whom they have invested three first-round picks and a third-round pick.
Maybe Lance is the guy. Maybe he isn’t. Either way, they’ve already decided Garoppolo isn’t. So why are they clinging to him?