It is not a common occurrence that a quarterback who led their team to a Super Bowl can have their future with that team hanging in the balance just a few months later, but that is the situation facing Jimmy Garoppolo with the San Francisco 49ers. Injuries in the NFL are a concern for most players, especially with the league’s next man up mentality. A spell on the sideline could mean that another player steps up, performs, and takes your place on the field permanently. However, one position is usually reasonably safe from this, the quarterback.
In the case of Garoppolo, things are slightly different. Despite being in his seventh year in the league, Garoppolo has started just 28 games, playing just one full season, in 2019. After suffering a high ankle sprain against the New York Jets in Week 2, Garoppolo missed practice on Wednesday. With Nick Mullens set to get the start in Week 3 if Garoppolo cannot play, questions marks could start to be raised if Mullens performs well this week.
Garoppolo’s contract puts him in a perilous position
When he signed his big shiny extension, there was general amazement that a player who had started just seven games could be so lucratively rewarded. On the face of it, the deal was a nice payday for Garoppolo, with $137.5 million spread across five years, $48.7 million of which was fully guaranteed, and over $70 million guaranteed for injury.
The deal looked even better when it became apparent that within the first year, Garoppolo would take home $35.8 million in bonuses, with a further $13.7 million in the form of guaranteed salary over the first two years. However, it is the structure of these bonuses that have left Garoppolo at risk of being finished in San Francisco after the 2020 season.
A small signing bonus and a huge roster bonus
Garoppolo’s deal came with over $35 million of bonuses, but these were cleverly structured by the 49ers. $28.8 million of that bonus was a roster bonus in the first year of the deal. What that meant is that just $7 million was a signing bonus. As roster bonuses are absorbed in a cap hit in the year they are given, only that $7 million would serve as prorated money in the form of salary cap hits across the life of the contract.
Therefore, if the 49ers decided to cut Garoppolo, they would only be on the hook for $1.4 million multiplied by how many years were left on his deal. After 2020, there will be just two years left, meaning the 49ers would be left holding just $2.8 million in dead cap if they decided to move on from Garoppolo. Given that his base salary of $24.1 million in 2021 is not guaranteed, they could save themselves that and a further $1.4 million in roster and workout bonuses.
Cutting Garoppolo after the 2020 season could result in $25.5 million in savings, both against the cap and in terms of real money in 2021, and a further $25.6 million in real money in 2022. That would essentially mean that Garoppolo’s deal was a three-year $86.4 million deal, with minimal penalties in either of the final two seasons. With the future of the salary cap in 2021 still unknown, that money could be extremely valuable over the course of the next two seasons.
Has Garoppolo done enough to convince the 49ers to keep him?
You would argue that leading a team to a Super Bowl should be enough to warrant a team keeping you around. However, while Garoppolo undoubtedly had his moments, the team was built around a strong running game down the stretch, and when they needed their QB late in the most important moment, he fell flat. In the Super Bowl, Garoppolo could only manage to go 20-of-31 for 219 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.
Across the rest of the season, his numbers are somewhat average in general. He completed 69.1% of his passes for 3978 yards, 27 touchdowns, and 13 touchdowns. While he ranked top-five in completion percentage, his completion percentage over expectation was just 1.7%, suggesting that he was not making tough plays, but rather the offense was creating nice looks for him throughout the season. In terms of yards and touchdown rate, he was a top-12 QB, but he also ranked in the bottom-10 in interception rate.
His impressive completion percentage is somewhat explained by his ranking second lowest in the league in intended air yards per pass attempt at just 6.5, further demonstrating the team was keeping things simple for him. However, he did what was asked of him well, with an on-target percentage of 80.7% according to Pro Football Reference, which was good enough for fourth in the league.
Quite simply, Garoppolo did what was asked of him in 2019, which is further evidenced by his Offensive Value Metric (formerly known as OSM). Across his graded games, Garppolo finished with an OVM above 30 on six occasions, above 20 on 12 occasions, and registered a grade below 10 just twice.
Grades above 20 and 30 suggest that a quarterback is doing what is asked of them to a reasonably competent standard. The problem for Garoppolo is that the team was seemingly not asking very much of him, which is an issue when you are asking to count potentially as much as a seventh of the cap in 2021.
What are the options for the 49ers?
The 49ers have a backup in Mullens who is generally seen as one of the more competent backups in the league. In 2018, Mullens registered eight weeks with an OVM score, topping 20 on four occasions and finishing above 15 in all eight games. While his peaks were not as high as Garoppolo’s neither were his troughs.
As a replacement option in 2018 was certainly not spectacular. His completion percentage over expectation was -1.5, while he ranked dead last in intended air yards that season (6.6).
However, Mullens was thrown into the fire midway through his rookie season so his numbers were always likely to suffer a little because of that. With another season plus under his belt, an extended run for Mullens under center could leave the 49ers with the potential of a replacement for Garoppolo.
Now Mullens is not currently under contract for 2021, but even if he was to have a successful year, it is unlikely he would b able to command a similar number to what the 49ers are set to pay Garoppolo in 2021. If Mullens gets an extended run in this team and can prove he is capable of being a safe enough pair of hands under center, then the 49ers may not hesitate to move on from Garoppolo this offseason.