Here are 10 thoughts about the 49ers’ franchise-shifting trade Friday, sending three first-round picks and a 2022 third-round pick to the Miami Dolphins for pick No. 3 and the chance at finding a new starting quarterback.
1. The 49ers don’t have to trade Jimmy Garoppolo. They have the flexibility to keep him and see how things play out.
The trade no doubt put a dent in Garoppolo’s long-term standing with the 49ers. But they don’t have to get rid of him immediately. Why would they?
Yes, Garoppolo is making $24.1 million in base salary this season. But San Francisco has already budgeted the salary cap with that number in mind, and yes, there’s still enough room to give a market-setting contract to linebacker Fred Warner before the season starts.
Barring another star player suddenly becoming available from another team, what do the 49ers need cap space for in the short term? Would that cap space more important than having an experienced veteran in the quarterback room? I don’t think so. The big free agency moves and non-draft trades are done.
The 49ers will get that cap space when they move on from Garoppolo in 2022. The rookie would have a veteran to compete with in the meantime. Garoppolo should be familiar with such a scenario, given what happened with him playing behind Tom Brady in New England.
Keep in mind, if Garoppolo wants to continue his career and keep getting paid like a starting quarterback, it would behoove him to win the starting job or be a model citizen if he doesn’t. He’s a professional that’s made almost $90 million with just 35 starts under his belt. He should be able to handle this.
If not, cue up Don Draper yelling, “That’s what the money’s for!”
2. The big question: Does Kyle Shanahan want another Kirk Cousins or will he adapt his thinking?
Shanahan has admitted he passed on Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson in the 2017 draft when San Francisco infamously took Solomon Thomas third overall because Shanahan was planning to sign Kirk Cousins in free agency. Then the Patriots surprised him by making Garoppolo available in a midseason trade for a second-round pick.
Whether Shanahan still wants a quarterback like Cousins would offer a clue about how he looks at this incoming quarterback class. Alabama’s Mac Jones is often compared to Garoppolo and Cousins, though he doesn’t have nearly the athletic upside of Justin Fields or Trey Lance.
So does Shanahan want another version of Cousins badly enough to trade two future first-round picks to get him? That seems like a stretch — but it can’t be ruled out. A Kirk Cousins on a rookie contract might be Shanahan’s dream.
Or has Shanahan’s vision of quarterbacks shifted to the point he’d take a quarterback with more athleticism?
Imagine what Shanahan could do by making the quarterback an extension of his already-complicated running game. The 49ers could get boosts in the red zone and short yardage situations with Fields or Lance. That’s a dynamic Garoppolo and Jones don’t give them.
3. There’s a good chance the move was made with intel about what the Jets are doing.
Shanahan’s former defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur are now picking one spot in front of the 49ers with the Jets. Shanahan is close with both, so he has to have a good idea of which direction they’re leaning with their No. 2 pick.
That means Shanahan has to know his guy(s) will be available at No. 3 (or this could be a major failure if he misses his target). There’s no way Shanahan makes this trade without having a clear idea, and plan, based on the first two picks, which will presumably be Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson.
Failing on his plan after trading away three first-round picks would be a fireable offense.
4. The pandemic offseason has to be accounted for.
One thing known about Shanahan’s system is it takes a long time to master. That’s been true for Matt Ryan, Garoppolo and even George Kittle, who said as a rookie he was playing like a chicken with his head cut off because of the playbook’s density.
And with the pandemic not quite over, this offseason may be virtual-only, with players not hitting the practice field until late July or August. Eleven-on-eleven practice last summer didn’t begin until Aug. 17, and there were only 14 padded practices before the regular season started.
Throwing a rookie starter into that scenario this year would be a bad idea. The veterans in the locker room might not be thrilled with leaving their Super Bowl dreams up to a rookie with such little practice time.
By the way, a rookie quarterback has never started in a Super Bowl.
5. The NFC is wide open.
The 49ers are 6-1 against the Packers and Rams the last two seasons. The Buccaneers will be trying to repeat as champions, which hasn’t been done since the Patriots in 2004 and 2005. Drew Brees retired, leaving the Saints with Jameis Winston and/or Taysom Hill under center.
The NFC is open at the top. The 49ers are in position to make a leap if they can stay healthy and get back to their 2019 form when they were the best team in the conference.
Shanahan needs to thread a delicate needle: compete for a Super Bowl while also developing a highly drafted quarterback. Both could be possible even if the plan is overly optimistic and unprecedented.
6. Is it too early to say Zach Wilson to the Jets is a sure thing?
Gang Green is expected by just about everyone to tap Wilson at No. 2, though he would also be an excellent fit for Shanahan. He’s the most talented passer in the draft, he throws well on the run and he’s athletic enough to incorporate his legs into the offense.
But it might be too early to set Wilson to the Jets in stone.
Consider how Saleh was influenced before getting to this point in his coaching career. His second job was with the Seattle Seahawks in 2011. The team a year later drafted quarterback Russell Wilson, made him the starter and won on the back of a great defense, mobile quarterback and strong running game.
Saleh helped San Francisco get to a Super Bowl behind an elite defense and the NFL’s second-ranked rushing attack that called more running plays than every team aside from the Ravens.
Does Zach Wilson align with that vision? Or would Saleh prefer a quarterback to operate in a running game complementing his defense, similar to what the Ravens do with Lamar Jackson or Seattle with Russell Wilson?
If so, Fields or Lance would be a better fit with that style, which could make Zach Wilson available at three.
That would justify Shanahan’s conviction to make Friday’s trade. Landing Zach Wilson would be the best-case scenario and Shanahan would look as smart as he thinks he is.
7. Is there enough information on Trey Lance to make such a commitment?
Lance, the North Dakota State quarterback, hasn’t played since 2019 and only started for one season. But his athleticism and arm strength might give him the highest upside of any quarterback available. Some have been comparing him to Steve McNair, though his lack of experience indicates he could use a year of development.
Keeping Garoppolo and setting a rookie up for a red-shirt season seems like an ideal situation for Lance. But can Shanahan decide on Lance with just 18 college games and 288 career passing attempts to evaluate?
To compare, Wilson threw 837 times in college. Fields, 618. Jones, 556. If Lance is Shanahan’s guy, it would take a lot of projection on his part. Projecting always comes with risk.
It’s also hard to ignore 28 passing touchdowns, no interceptions, 1,182 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns in those 18 games. Lance is fascinating.
8. What’s to make of all the people in the know saying not to rule out Jones?
NBC analyst Chris Simms and Shanahan have matching tattoos. NFL Network’s Mike Silver has been covering the 49ers since the glory years and is as plugged in as anyone. ESPN’s Adam Schefter was first to report the trade.
Publicly, all three are not ruling out Jones as the pick at No. 3. Simms ranks Jones third in the quarterback class ahead of Fields (fifth) and Lance (sixth). Someone inside the organization is saying something to make them believe Jones is in the mix.
Does that mean the 49ers are going to take Jones? Absolutely not. But it indicates a chasm between what the NFL thinks of Jones versus what internet mock drafts and big boards are saying.
What’s more certain, fans have not been enamored with the idea of Jones. Many thought he would be picked outside of the top 10, making San Francisco a possibility at 12. There would be no winning the news conference if the team takes Jones third overall. Not that Shanahan would care.
9. Shanahan knows the defense is going to be worse without Saleh, which indicates he’s confident the offense is going to be better.
The 49ers can’t count on the defense being as good as it was in 2019. That crew had a future All-Pro in DeForest Buckner, who now plays for the Colts, Richard Sherman in All-Pro form, a version of Dee Ford that was somewhat healthy and useful, and Nick Bosa with an intact ACL.
That team also had an elite defensive coordinator who just recently became a head coach. The defense will have a harder time becoming a top-five unit in 2021 under first-time coordinator DeMeco Ryans. Which means contending would require a significant improvement from the offense (which ranked second in scoring and fourth in yardage in 2019).
Shanahan has to know that, which will matter in his decision about keeping or moving on from Garoppolo.
10. What’s Garoppolo’s role in all of this?
How Garoppolo embraces this challenge is significant, should he stick around. The 49ers established a strong locker room culture since Shanahan took over in 2017, but roster politics haven’t been an issue to this point.
Does that change with a rookie there to take Garoppolo’s job? How would Garoppolo handle it? Will he be like Brady and use it as motivation, or will he wilt, pout and ask to get traded?
Garoppolo has a no-trade clause for 2021 only. But it’s unlikely he would waive it because it would mean punting on two years and $51 million remaining on his contract. The 49ers could threaten to release Garoppolo if he decides to use his no-trade clause, forcing him to hit the market and sign for whatever a new team offers him. Garoppolo might try to steer away from the tire fire also known as the Houston Texans, but that’s probably it.
Garoppolo must know embracing the situation, and succeeding in 2021 is the best path for his career, which could be good news for the 49ers given the hit-and-miss nature of rookie quarterbacks.
-Chris Biderman, The Sacramento Bee