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Jimmy Garoppolo’s arrival heralds a new day for 49ers

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Jimmy Garoppolo took his first reps in practice on Wednesday in Santa Clara. Even if he doesn’t end up being the 49ers quarterback of the future, he’s a worthy investment. (Courtesy Sam Hustis/KNBR)
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Halloween 2017 was Day 3 of the New Millennium 49ers Franchise Turnaround (trademark pending).

Day 1 was the day that Jed York handed six-year contracts to Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch to run the team.

Day 2 was the 2017 Draft that saw a universally applauded trade and picks including current and future contributors Reuben Foster, Solomon Thomas, Ahkello Witherspoon, George Kittle and Trent Taylor.

Day 3 could end up being the most critical of all, though — for the first time under this new regime, the 49ers have a player on the roster who at the very least might be their Quarterback of the Future.

Let’s zoom out, though, because understanding how important this week is to the Quest for Six requires understanding how Kyle Shanahan sees the quarterback position in general and NFL roster-building overall.

“I’ve seen it throughout my whole career, but it’s hard to come across opportunities to get guys that you believe have a chance to be your quarterback for a while,” Shanahan said on Tuesday. “I think every team is looking for that … except for probably six teams. And when those opportunities come around, if you believe that’s the case, you don’t hesitate and you don’t look back.”

The key point is there are a little more than a handful of teams that have a really good quarterback, a guy worth investing big money in over the long term. You can reel these players off pretty easily: Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck if healthy, maybe Matt Ryan.

That doesn’t mean everyone else is bad. There are a handful of young guys whose teams can reasonably hope will join the elite, from the Eagles’ Carson Wentz to the Raiders’ Derek Carr. There are decent players who can thrive in the right environment, from the Chiefs’ Alex Smith to Washington’s Kirk Cousins. But if you pay those players top-tier money, it’s difficult to build a Super Bowl contender (see: Stafford, Matthew; Flacco, Joe).

When your head coach is among the league’s most respected offensive gurus, you can bet he will choose to build the franchise by having one of the top five quarterbacks in the league and paying him.

When the Niners chose to draft defense in Round 1 this year, a few avenues opened up for their quarterback pursuit: (1) Free agency, where they were widely presumed to be targeting former Shanahan draft pick Kirk Cousins; (2) The 2018 draft, where they are nearly assured a top-five pick; or (3) A trade like the one they engineered for Garoppolo this week.

Shanahan and Lynch chose the best option.

The most obvious reason for this is that the trade for Garoppolo precludes nothing in terms of the 49ers’ ongoing search for a cornerstone quarterback. The absolute worst case scenario is that Garoppolo is terrible — so bad that the team wants to cut ties at the end of this season. That would not look good, but they could let him walk and would still have in the neighborhood of $100 million in cap space and a top-five draft pick, plus second- and third-round picks from the Saints and Bears to soften the blow of the second they lost in the trade.

If the team isn’t ready to make a decision on Garoppolo by season’s end, they still have options. His market value will rise or fall with his performance, so they may be able to get a good price on a longer deal, but they’ll always have the option of using the franchise tag to give him another year of audition time while making contingency plans through the draft or free agency. Their glut of cap space allows for an expensive test drive.

If Garoppolo shows promise, though, the 49ers can use all those assets to acquire the help he’ll need to thrive.

At 26 years old today, Garoppolo is a uniquely appealing QB prospect. We know reasonably little about him for a guy that is midway through his fourth season as a pro, but what we do know is encouraging.

We know that he is Bill Belichick-approved — the Patriots probably could have gotten more for Garoppolo if they had been willing to move him earlier, but the best head coach in football history desperately wanted to keep the kid around as long as possible. New England was confronted with losing a high-value asset for essentially nothing at the end of the season, so it had little choice but to take what it could get for him now.

We know that Kyle Shanahan liked him coming out of Eastern Illinois — the young 49ers headman rated Garoppolo and Derek Carr as the top two passers in the 2014 draft before his Cleveland Browns made the ill-fated Johnny Manziel pick.

We know that he has had three-plus years of the best football education you can find — sitting behind Tom Brady and studying from Bill Belichick.

Perhaps most encouragingly, we know that in his short opportunity Garoppolo looked great. He has two starts to his name in the NFL, both during Brady’s Deflategate suspension last season. In two New England wins, Garoppolo was 42-for-59 passing for 496 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. His supporting cast in San Francisco is not the 2016 Patriots, but those are still impressive statistics.

More to the point, Garoppolo’s two games of action give a football fan more to latch on to than anything a 49ers quarterback has done on the field since Colin Kaepernick was playing in the Super Bowl.

Quarterback scouting is as much a game of darts played by a drunkard with tennis elbow as it is a science. But acquiring one of the most desirable unknown quantities at the position without risking more than a second-round pick is a no-brainer.

And, maybe, the best-case scenario is realized: Garoppolo is a playbook savant who devours Shanahan’s system in short order and succeeds on the field within a couple of weeks. It might not be the most likely outcome, but for the first time in a long time it’s a distinct possibility.

With Jimmy G on board, the team can go back to work on manufacturing Day 4 of the New Millennium 49ers Franchise Turnaround: the first win of the Shanahan/Lynch era.

Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. Find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.

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