Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers rebuild was in Year Zero — a proto-rebuild year, where he could survey the state of the team and determine firsthand where he should start the painful process of rebuilding.
But the rebuild entered Year One on Monday, when Shanahan made the boldest move of his tenure in charge of the 49ers, trading for New England Patriots quarterback and Tom Brady understudy Jimmy Garoppolo, a player the 49ers brass clearly feels can be a franchise cornerstone as the team efforts to return to respectability.
There’s a lot to dissect with this move, but here are the four big things it told us about this still-new 49ers’ administration:
1. This Niners’ front office is judicious, but not conservative
On Monday, the Niners traded away what will in all likelihood be a top 36 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft.
And while the Patriots will almost assuredly trade that pick away for more picks in April, that’s still a significant price to pay for a player like Garoppolo, who hasn’t proven that he’s a quarterback worthy of being declared a “franchise” player.
But he hasn’t proven that he’s not a franchise-caliber quarterback either, and the 49ers are more than willing to risk a second-round pick for the opportunity to find out if he is the real deal (they have a theory — more on that later) firsthand.
If he is the real deal — if he is the quarterback who can lead a 49ers turnaround — giving up a second-round pick to land him will look like a pittance in a year or two.
If it doesn’t, well, you have to pay to play in this game, and the Niners will still have a high first-round pick and a ton of money to spend in the offseason. [Not to mention a second-round pick, via the Saints, and a third-round compensatory pick, should the Niners not re-sign Garoppolo (who is a pending free agent) before he can hit the open market.]
I’ve had a ton of people reach out to me on social media and email (still waiting for my mail to be delivered) saying that a second-round pick was too much to give up.
I couldn’t disagree more. We’re dealing the quarterback position, here. Teams give up multiple firsts and seconds to trade up to the first round to select unproven rookies at the position.
If you don’t have a franchise quarterback, you better have an elite defense — otherwise, you’re going to be a losing team.
Is the 49ers’ defense going to be elite anytime soon?
This isn’t to say that you can’t get a good quarterback in the second round or beyond. There have been some excellent players selected in the second round in recent years, but quarterback is a position of such importance that rarely do players identified, pre-draft, as likely (or even probable) franchise-level talents make it out of the first round.
Yes, teams have found fortune on Day Two — Derek Carr was a second-round selection, Russell Wilson was a third-round pick — but the notion that the Raiders or Seahawks knew, deep down, that those players were going to be franchise-changing talents is revisionist history: The Raiders had traded for two-time Pro Bowl selection (!!!) Matt Schaub before the 2014 Draft, when they selected Carr — Schaub was supposed to be the starter; the Seahawks had signed Matt Flynn to be their starter before selecting Wilson in the 2012 Draft.
Both rookies stole away starting jobs — it worked out for the teams. But don’t pretend like that was the plan.
But when a team can steal a franchise-caliber player on the second day of the draft, they claim they knew what they were doing all along and that they’re geniuses. If their second-day quarterback pick busts, they claim the draft is all luck and that all the good quarterbacks go in Round 1.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle: you have to be good at identifying QB talent, but you have to get lucky too — there are plenty of “sure bets” that never panned out.
For every Carr or Wilson, there’s a handful of Geno Smiths or Tom Savages.
That makes this trade for the 49ers a risk, but a judicious one to take: High reward, relatively low risk, at least compared to the draft. You’re taking your bets off the roulette wheel and moving your chips to the blackjack table — better odds, but still in the house’s favor.
The Garoppolo trade isn’t a sure thing, but it carries far less risk than needing a rookie to be a franchise cornerstone. Maybe the 49ers missed out on the next Odell Beckham by trading away their second-round pick. Maybe they missed out on the next Justin Hunter.
We’ll never know, but they will probably have a quarterback going into next year. That’s an upgrade.
2. Shanahan wasn’t in on this year’s rookie class of quarterbacks
Either because he didn’t like what he was seeing (hard to imagine he’s had much time to break down the tape — he has enough to deal with his winless team), or because he wasn’t keen on putting an unproven rookie at the helm of this squad (he saw that C.J. Beathard didn’t exactly energize the Niners when teams were able to prepare for him), Shanahan’s move for Garoppolo was an indictment of this 2018 Draft’s quarterback class.
Garoppolo should still be considered a prospect — he has two regular-season starts — but Shanahan clearly felt that he would be a better short- and long-term option than USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, or Wyoming’s Josh Allen, the triumvirate that going into this season was considered one of the best quarterback crops in recent history.
There has been some souring on the three youngsters in recent weeks, but I imagine that sentiment will swing back to positivity once the season ends — optimism and quarterback thirst ramps up in January and continues into April.
Shanahan, who hired general manager John Lynch and as such should be considered the man in charge of personnel, declared with his move on Monday that he’s not going to be part of that chaos unless everything — and I mean everything — goes wrong in the next eight weeks.
3. Shanahan believes Garoppolo is the real deal
Even though I don’t think a second-round pick is anything to hold a funeral over, it’s not a small bounty, particularly for a team that needs all the help it can get. Shanahan must believe that Garoppolo is the kind of player that he can rebuild a franchise around and that he’s worth at least $20 million a year starting next season (the price of putting a franchise tag on Garoppolo).
The second part — the contract part — is key. The 49ers have as much money to spend as any team in the league this upcoming offseason, but Shanahan and co. made it clear that they’re not just going to toss it around when they barely spent this past offseason. To make a deal like the one made Monday and implicitly state that you’re interested in paying someone $20-plus million — Garoppolo could command a five-year deal worth $100 million before he even hits the open market (where I believe his price would be driven up further) — requires a conviction.
Shanahan must have that conviction.
And if you have that conviction, you don’t let that quarterback walk after eight games.
Monday I wrote this trade was a rent-before-you-buy situation. I maintain that. But the 49ers are clearly dead-set on buying Garoppolo. The trade was, essentially, to have exclusive negotiating rights with him for three months. That’s a valuable commodity — it’s hard to sell a winless team and a franchise that’s hit rock bottom because of front-office and boardroom incompetence.
Shanahan is going all-out to land Garoppolo long term. He had to.
The offensive guru was brought to San Francisco for this very reason — to find a quarterback and to build an exceptional team around that quarterback.
Shanahan has placed his bet on Garoppolo. He didn’t go all-in on the QB, but if he loses this bet, it’s hard to imagine he’ll have enough chips to keep playing the game.
4. Kirk Cousins was unlikely to sign with San Francisco
Either because he was going to be too expensive, or because Shanahan picked up a hint, via agent or members of his former organization, that he wasn’t going to be able to convince the Washington quarterback to come to San Francisco.
Either way, Shanahan could not have felt comfortable going into the offseason with a Cousins-or-bust mentality — even if the Washington quarterback was his first choice to be the 49ers’ quarterback next year.
He couldn’t risk striking out. If that happened, where would he go? The draft? Beathard? Eli Manning?
Shanahan must have determined that those alternatives were not viable options.
Good decision — even with his six-year deal, fans would have been calling for Shanahan’s job had he not brought in a viable, long-term QB option before the start of the 2018 season.
Garoppolo is a compromise between the two top options: He’s not as seasoned as Cousins, but he won’t be as expensive; and while he’s more expensive than a first-round quarterback pick, you’d have more confidence in Garoppolo to win you games next year.
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