During an already wild NFL Trade Deadline period, the San Francisco 49ers made, perhaps, the biggest deal of all. On Monday, the team traded for New England Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, a coveted young signal-caller who now becomes the centerpiece of San Francisco's rebuilding efforts. While the deal breathes new life into the moribund franchise, it represents one of the biggest QB gambles in recent history.
To bring Garoppolo to the Bay Area, the 49ers parted with their second-round pick in 2018, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. That draft choice could realistically fall at the very top of Day 2 given the team's woeful 0-8 start to the season, making it a particularly valuable selection for the Super Bowl-contending Patriots. Meanwhile, Garoppolo becomes a free agent after the end of the season. As such, the Niners must either sign him to an extension or apply the franchise tag to retain his services past 2017.
The trade comes as a surprise in part because the Patriots seemed intent on keeping Garoppolo. The team reportedly turned down bigger offers earlier in the year with the apparent intention of training him as Tom Brady's successor. Those plans changed at some point, and with Garoppolo creeping closer to free agency, New England opted instead to accept a valuable draft pick from a non-conference opponent.
The 49ers' interest in Garoppolo seemed to come out of left field as well. Though the team needed a quarterback, it appeared more likely to pursue Washington's Kirk Cousins, a former pupil of head coach Kyle Shanahan, next offseason. Furthermore, with highly touted passers like Josh Rosen and Sam Darnold expected to enter the NFL through the draft next year, San Francisco could have waited and chosen one with their likely top-three pick. Perhaps the front office soured on the top collegiate prospects or felt unsure about them declaring -- both Darnold and Rosen can return for 2018 -- and decided instead to focus on a player with NFL experience. However, the team passed up viable options.
The process of grooming Garoppolo to become a star in San Francisco begins immediately. Whether he makes his first start this upcoming weekend remains unclear. The 49ers play the division-rival Arizona Cardinals Sunday, which would give Garoppolo five days to prepare, a short window for any quarterback. Even the following matchup with the New York Giants presents challenges given Garoppolo's lack of familiarity with Shanahan's offensive scheme. Perhaps the Niners' upcoming tilt with the Seattle Seahawks -- a home date that arrives after the Week 11 bye -- offers a better and more realistic debut opportunity, although that would present its own challenges.
Regardless of when Garoppolo makes his debut, he possesses an intriguing combination of physical tools and football smarts. The young quarterback has above-average athleticism for the position and one of the quickest releases in football. He also plays efficiently and largely avoids mistakes. As a starter, Garoppolo completed more than 71 percent of his passes and averaged 8.4 yards per attempt. He also posted a touchdown percentage of 6.8, a figure that would have ranked second in the NFL had he attempted enough passes to qualify.
Beyond the numbers, the Patriots coaching staff didn't limit the offense in any significant way to account for the drop-off from Brady. Rather, Garoppolo made the necessary throws within the scheme design and maintained his poise on the occasions when the play broke down, both traits of a franchise quarterback.
But while Garoppolo offers reason for optimism, he also carries tremendous risk. In roughly three and a half seasons, Garoppolo has started just two games. He has managed only 94 career pass attempts, 16 fewer than 49ers rookie C.J. Beathard. The lack of exposure doesn't mean Garoppolo can't develop into a franchise quarterback, but it highlights how little San Francisco knows about the player they traded a premium asset to acquire.
And while Garoppolo has played well in his few opportunities, he benefited from considerable assistance in New England. His only meaningful snaps took place on a team directed by Bill Belichick, arguably the greatest coach in NFL history, and alongside a talented roster that went on to win the Super Bowl. Now removed from that setting, Garoppolo must prove his success with a far inferior supporting cast.
In an ideal situation, the 49ers would have several years to evaluate Garoppolo before signing him to a lucrative long-term deal. However, because his contract expires after 2017, the team must make that decision much sooner, perhaps even before he plays a down in San Francisco.
Teams have gambled on quarterbacks with comparably limited experience in the past, and it tends to work out poorly. Instructively, the Arizona Cardinals made a remarkably similar deal in 2011, trading a second-round pick for Kevin Kolb. With Kolb scheduled to hit the open market the following offseason, the Cardinals signed him to a multiyear extension. Kolb, who flashed potential in his only seven starts to that point, immediately assumed the mantle of starting quarterback in Arizona. He started just 14 more games before washing out of the league altogether.
In theory, the 49ers could wait until after the season to address Garoppolo's contract to help avoid a Kolb-like mess. Doing so would allow them to see their new quarterback in action and gauge his progress. Should Garoppolo fail to perform, San Francisco could allow him to depart in free agency.
However, The 49ers didn't wager a premier draft pick on just eight games of Garoppolo. The cost to bring him to the Bay Area -- essentially a late first-rounder given their winless record -- commits them to the fourth-year quarterback for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, Garoppolo's price tag could skyrocket if he plays well and reaches free agency, and San Francisco surely hopes to avoid the franchise-tag headaches that have plagued Washington and Kirk Cousins.
The 49ers have only one reasonable course of action: extend Garoppolo before his demands can soar and hope he rewards their faith.
Still, even if Garoppolo develops into a star, the 49ers forfeit the opportunity to build around a signal-caller signed to a cheap rookie deal. Quarterbacks make little money on their first contracts, allowing their teams to invest at elsewhere and construct a more balanced and deep roster. The 49ers need only look inside their division where the Seahawks reached back-to-back Super Bowls with Russell Wilson earning less than some backup passers.
At some point, every team without a proven signal-caller has to roll the dice. The task of winning a championship is difficult enough with a franchise quarterback let alone without one. The 49ers understand this and gambled on Garoppolo. However, they didn't have to place their bet so soon, and their impatience could bear a considerable cost.