Jimmy Garoppolo’s Future in Question

This season has been a rocky one for San Francisco 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo. It began with the 49ers drafting QB Trey Lance with the #3 pick in the 2021 draft, all but spelling the end of the Garoppolo era in San Francisco after 5 seasons. With his massive contract ending this offseason, I would be shocked if the 49ers decide to retain the former Patriots backup, leaving him to search around for his next gig in the NFL. While his career numbers are decent and he’s had a few great moments, Jimmy G hasn’t been able to stay on the field for a full season, starting just 45 of the 87 games since joining the 49ers in 2017. At 30 years old, what does the future hold for Jimmy G?

If you’re looking for a silver lining in the career of Jimmy G, it’s 2019. He played in 16 games (of 19 total including playoffs) and took the 49ers to the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, they lost to the Kansas City Chiefs, but made bay area fans believe that the future was bright. The 49ers were up 20-10 going into the 4th quarter, but Patrick Mahomes dropped 21 unanswered points (that’s never happened before, right?) and the Chiefs took home the trophy. Jimmy G went 20 for 31 for 219 yards, but threw 1 TD and 2 INTs which didn’t help his cause. In the previous game (AFC Championship), a win against the Green Bay Packers, Garoppolo didn’t have a big impact throwing just 8 times (completing 6) for 77 yards with no TDs or INTs. He was helped by a few INTs by his defense and a solid run game.

Overall, while his career numbers are pretty decent, Jimmy G hasn’t proven he can make the big throw in the big moment consistently when his team needs him the most. Garoppolo is 33-14 in 63 regular season and playoff games as an NFL QB (both starting and off the bench) with a 67.7 completion percentage and 11,852 yards (including 2-0 with the Patriots in his 2 starts in 2016). He has 71 TDs and 38 INTs in his career with an 8.4 yards per throw average which are all solid, if not great, numbers. When looking at his ability in big games, it’s not as pretty of a picture. He is 4-2 in the playoffs in 6 starts, but has thrown 4 TDs and 6 INTs and has a completion percentage of just 60.6% and a quarterback rating over 24.5 points lower than his overall career numbers. I know the competition is stiffer in the playoffs, but a precipitous drop in performance certainly won’t be looked at highly by potential suitors.

With such an influx of young talent at the QB position, where does that leave a very good regular season QB at the age of 30? This past season, just 10 QBs aged 30+ started 10+ games for their respective franchises. Of those 10, 1 has already retired (Ben Roethlisberger) and it’s likely that 1 or maybe even 2 more join him (Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, maybe Matt Ryan). While 30 is not old, if given another starting opportunity Jimmy G will be one of the oldest QBs in the NFL, which is crazy to think about. The emergence of QBs coming out of college ready to compete within a few seasons on much more economical deals has made GMs think twice before investing $25+ million in a free agent, like the 49ers did with Jimmy G in 2018. GMs will be looking to strike it rich with guys like Joe Burrow in Cincinnati and Josh Allen in Buffalo who are both 25 and have more than proved their immense value this postseason.

The overall picture isn’t amazing for Jimmy G, but there are a few interesting landing spots for his talent. The Denver Broncos, New Orleans Saints, Washington Football Team, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Pittsburgh Steelers seem like the most likely spots for Garoppolo if he’s going to find another starting gig. The Bucs is an unlikely scenario, but as a Pats fan, a fun one to think about if/when Brady retires. They drafted University of Florida QB Kyle Trask this year, but if he’s not ready, they may want a veteran for a year to fill the gap. The Saints made sense with Sean Payton at the helm and a potential need for a QB, but with his retirement, I’m not sure what the future system will look like. The Broncos and the Football Team (still odd to type) have picks in the top 11 of the draft and both will likely be looking for their next guy. They both seem to have cap space to bring in Jimmy G to provide a veteran presence to guide the future young QB and maybe keep the team competitive in the short-term.

An interesting spot for me is the Steelers. They are without a viable starting QB and don’t have a high draft pick to grab one (#20), so they might need a stop-gap for a few years to get and develop their next guy. If so, Jimmy G could be a really enticing option as a veteran who can step in and win some games post-Big Ben. The team is solid overall and with a healthy Jimmy G could make a playoff run in year 1 without a major drop-off. Garoppolo loves a run-heavy, short-to-mid passing game scheme and the Steelers could fit that bill with the talented young RB Najee Harris and a solid receiving core with WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR Diontae Johnson, and the Massachusetts native TE Pat Freiermuth.

At this point in his career, I think Jimmy G is still an NFL starting QB. He’s not likely to get a big and/or long deal, but will be an intriguing option for the next year or two for teams looking to be competitive while thinking through longer-term options. I don’t think I’m the only one in New England that hopes Garoppolo can find a starting job and stay on the field in 2022.

Outside of Mac Jones, Rookie QBs are Struggling

Heading into the draft this year there was a lot of attention on the top 5 QBs to come off the board. All 5 QBs came off the board in the top 15 picks, including the top 3 picks, and they were all considered to be potential franchise changers. Just 7 weeks into the season (6 games for the Jets and Jaguars), there have been some surprise performances from this group, mostly on the negative end of the spectrum. Of those 5 QBs, #1 Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), #2 Zach Wilson (BYU), #3 Trey Lance (North Dakota State), #11 Justin Fields (Ohio State), and #15 Mac Jones (Alabama), only Jones has over 1,500 yards passing and a completion percentage above 60%. It’s been a struggle for the other 4 higher-drafted QBs thus far in 2021.

Of the 5 QBs, 3 were handed the starting job in week 1 – Wilson, Lawrence and Jones. Fields has now been given the starting job in Chicago and has 5 starts, but appeared in all 7 games, while Lance has started just one game due to a Jimmy Garoppolo injury and appeared in 4 games. I’m putting Lance aside for this next bit because he hasn’t had enough time on the field to really be analyzed yet, although his 1 start and 3 other appearances left a lot to be desired.

Wilson, Lawrence, and Fields are a combined 4-13 when starting with 1 win each for Wilson and Lawrence and 2 for Fields, while Jones has led the Patriots to a 3-4 record on the young season. On the QB performance side, Wilson, Lawrence, and Fields all have more interceptions than TDs (combined 13 TDs compared to 23 INTs) with just 4 TDs for Wilson and 9 INTs, which is tied for the worst in the NFL. On the flip side of that group, Jones has a positive TD to INT ratio with 9 TDs and 6 INTs. While 6 INTs is still high, mistakes are expected with younger QBs, ideally they are outweighed by the positives.

To me, the most glaring difference amongst the group is in completion percentage and what that says about the QBs, their teams, and their maturity. Wilson, Lawrence, and Fields all have completion percentages between 57.3% and 59.7% which are well below the league average of 65.9% thus far, while Jones has the 4th highest completion percentage in the NFL this season at 70.4%, only behind Kyler Murray, Dak Prescott, and Russell Wilson. Jones has shown veteran maturity when making decisions about when and where to throw and that’s reflected in his percentage, while the others have struggled a bit more with consistent decision making.

Because Wilson, Lawrence, and Fields are being asked to do more on the field than Jones, you would expect to see them throwing down field more often and completing fewer low-percentage passes than Jones, but the stats don’t bear that out. Wilson, Lawrence, and Fields are ranked #27, #29, and #31 in yards per attempt this season, while Jones is 8 spots ahead of the group at #19. Both Jones and Lawrence are averaging around 36 pass attempts per game, while the other 2 are at 30 or below. Jones is completing the shallow-to-mid passes at an incredibly high rate, while the others are not.

The other area I anticipated a bigger advantage for the other QBs over Jones is in the run game. Fields and Wilson especially showed off their athleticism in college and proved to be dual-threat QBs when needed. Thus far, no one in this group has earned a dual-threat crown despite being super athletic. Lawrence and Fields are averaging about 20 yards on the ground per game, while Jones has just over 6 yards per game and Wilson has just under 4 yards per game. None of them are exactly lighting it up on the ground just yet and I’d say it’s mostly a wash.

There are certainly other factors involved in the success of a young QB including offensive line protection, receivers to throw to, quality of the running game, etc, but it’s interesting to see that outside of Mac Jones, none of the rookie QBs are really matching expectations at this point. Jones came into the league the most polished and game ready, but the intangibles and athleticism of the other QBs in the class were expected to make them significantly better. Over time that may be the case, but through 7 weeks that narrative has failed to come to fruition.

To be fair to Wilson and Lawrence, their teams are terrible, which certainly doesn’t help them settle in and learn the NFL game, but most everyone expected more from them regardless. It is an extra long NFL season and it’ll be interesting to revisit the QB conversation when each of these players has had more experience under center. It will also be interesting to see if the 12-game college season vs a 17-game NFL season causes some deeper struggles in the last few games of the season.