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George Kittle: Experienced Jimmy Garoppolo vs. raw Trey Lance is a “toss-up for me”

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George Kittle talks to Mike Florio about Tight End University's origin story, what he hopes to achieve with the program and more.

When making the media rounds on Friday in support of the second annual Tight End University, 49ers tight end George Kittle placed no limits on the questions that could or couldn’t be posed to him. And he knew that the most compelling topic would relate to the biggest question swirling around the team.

Who will the quarterback be in 2022?

Kittle has said that Trey Lance has an “insane ceiling,” but that he needs the experience that comes from playing. So, for the coming season, does Kittle prefer an inexperienced Lance who is working toward his ceiling or Jimmy Garoppolo, who has all the experience needed to lead the team?

“That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?” Kittle said. “That’s one reason I’m glad I’m not the head coach of the 49ers. That’s all on Coach Shanahan. I’ll give you both ways. Jimmy G, awesome in the huddle, great leader, directs guys. People go to attention when he’s talking. He’s got a quick release, he knows the offense. Like I said, been to two NFC Championship games, knows what he’s doing. Trey Lance can run, extend plays, does all the play-action stuff incredible, could throw the ball 70 yards. I don’t know. It’s a toss-up for me.”

Kittle is fine with either guy playing, as long as they’re looking his way when they should be.

“As long as they’re throwing me the football, it is what it is,” Kittle said. “Football is a competitive sport. If there’s not competition, if you’re not fighting for your starting job every single day, then you’re not going to get any better. It was nice to see those two push each other all year. I think Trey learned a lot from Jimmy. If Trey is the starter and if there’s growing pains, hey, so be it. I think we have good enough players around him to help him succeed from Trent Williams, to [Brandon] Aiyuk, to hopefully Deebo [Samuel], to me, our run game. I think we have plenty of players around him to help him succeed.”

If the 49ers take both to camp and let them compete, the situation could become a distraction. How will the players keep that from happening?

“I mean we’re kind of used to it at this point,” Kittle said. “I mean, Jimmy G’s been under scrutiny since after the 2018 season where he tore his ACL. That whole season was like, ‘Oh, is Jimmy G the guy?’ Then he comes back, takes us to a Super Bowl, then we lose and then the next offseason is, ‘Oh, is Jimmy G the guy?’ We had another injury, 2020. It was a tough year for the Niners and then we came back and go to another NFC Championship game. We’ve been through this. It is what it is. I don’t think it’s really much of a distraction. I mean, I can’t tell being in the building. I see the guys show up every single day, go run routes, we lift weights, go to meetings, and it’s not really even a topic of conversation. We’re all here just trying to get better and whether that’s Jimmy G, whether it’s Trey Lance, whether it’s Nate Sudfeld, or our Mr. Irrelevant, Brock Purdy. Whoever is slinging that rock hopefully will just throw it to me more than anybody else.”

Still, the potential for dysfunctional remains high, if the 49ers insist on keeping Garoppolo around for training camp and the preseason. Several weeks ago, Garoppolo told Adam Schein that the 2021 season was “strange,” and that Garoppolo wouldn’t wish it on anybody. Did Kittle notice the awkwardness Garoppolo experienced?

“I mean, everybody can see it,” Kittle said. “When you trade three first-round draft picks for a quarterback, it kind of has a writing on the wall, doesn’t it? Jimmy did nothing but be a professional every single day. He didn’t complain about it one time. He wasn’t in a corner talking crap about the situation. He showed up every day as the starting quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers. He went out there and practiced every day. He worked hard every single day. He set good examples for all the young guys, for all of us, and he motivated everybody. I don’t know if there’s a better professional in the NFL than Jimmy Garoppolo with how he dealt with that situation. I think he made everyone around him better that year. . . . Hey, you’re dealing with something that no one else here is dealing with and you’re being incredible about it. I can deal with any of my stuff and move on and just go play football. It was great. The way he handled it was great for us. I wouldn’t wish that upon anybody else but, hey, he did a lot with it and he played at a high level.”

That could be the best case anyone could make to another team for trading for Garoppolo, or for signing him if he’s eventually cut. He handled himself like a professional in a very awkward situation. Thus, he’ll most likely handle himself that way under far less stressful arrangements.

The question remains whether and when the 49ers will move him. The worst-case scenario for Garoppolo continues to be that the 49ers will let them compete, that Lance will win, and that Garoppolo will be faced with the choice between taking a dramatic pay cut or being released in late August, at a time when all other depth charts are set -- and with no guaranteed salary for 2022. But that’s also the best-case scenario for the 49ers, since it will mean that Lance is ready to go, and that the 49ers will pick up millions in cap space that can be used to re-sign players like Samuel and Nick Bosa.

Through it all lingers the question of whether the 49ers think Lance is ready. If they have doubts, they’ll be tempted to string out the competition for as long as they can. If those doubts still linger after the preseason, perhaps they really will keep him them both, with Garoppolo continuing to serve as the starter.