Leading up to the start of NFL free agency, NESN.com will break down the New England Patriots’ top potential veteran quarterback options. Next up: San Francisco 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo.
2021 status: Under contract with 49ers
2020 stats: 94-for-140 (67.1 percent), 1,096 yards, 7.8 yards per attempt, seven touchdowns, five interceptions, 92.4 passer rating, 61.5 QBR; 10 carries, 25 yards (six games)
Pros: No available quarterback knows the Patriots’ offense better than Garoppolo, who spent his first 3 1/2 NFL seasons in it as Tom Brady’s backup.
Brady’s mind-blowing longevity foiled Bill Belichick’s expertly crafted succession plan. But Garoppolo looked great in his few opportunities to actually run New England’s system, posting a 113.3 passer rating with four touchdowns and no interceptions in two starts during Brady’s 2016 Deflategate suspension. One year later, with Brady in the midst of an MVP season at age 40, Belichick begrudgingly shipped Garoppolo to San Francisco at the 2017 trade deadline.
Garoppolo won his first five starts after the trade and steered the Niners to an NFC championship in his lone complete season as a starter to date, reaching Super Bowl LIV after missing most of the 2018 campaign with a torn ACL.
That 2019 Niners team (which lost to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl) was built on rushing and defense, but Garoppolo was an above-average passer, ranking fourth in completion percentage, third in yards per attempt, eighth in passer rating, 12th in QBR, ninth in expected points added per play and 11th in completion percentage over expected.
Though Garoppolo hasn’t lived up to the five-year, $137.5 million contract he signed in 2018, the 49ers are 22-8 in games he has started and 7-27 in ones he hasn’t over the last four seasons. His prior experience in Foxboro would lessen the steep learning curve that Cam Newton struggled to overcome in 2020.
49ers general manager John Lynch has publicly committed to Garoppolo for the upcoming season, but San Francisco’s desire to upgrade at the quarterback position is no secret. If they can acquire a better — or cheaper — option, they’d happily move on from the 2014 Patriots draft pick, either by trading him or, if no team is willing to take on his contract, outright releasing him.
Showing Garoppolo the door would be financially beneficial for the Niners, as doing so would create $23.6 million in salary cap savings while leaving behind just $2.8 million in dead money.
Garoppolo would carry a 2021 cap hit of $25 million for his new team if traded, but a restructure could drop that number to $11.8 million.
Cons: He just cannot stay healthy. Garoppolo has missed 23 games due to injury over the past three seasons, displaying a frightening level of fragility for a franchise quarterback.
There was the aforementioned ACL tear that ended his 2018 season after three games. Then there were the ankle injuries that sidelined him for two games early last season and shelved him for the rest of the year in early November, forcing the Niners to rely on Nick Mullens and C.J. Bethard for their final eight contests.
Garoppolo’s durability concerns date back to his time in New England. He suffered a shoulder injury while scrambling midway through his second NFL start. What should have been a four-game showcase was cut short after less than six quarters.
His on-field performance also hasn’t been commensurate with the massive contract he signed three years ago. His 2.94 percent interception rate is fourth-highest among QBs with 20-plus starts over the last four seasons (only Jameis Winston, Sam Darnold and Ryan Fitzpatrick are higher), and he’s been more game manager than difference-maker in Kyle Shanahan’s offense.
Garoppolo in 2019 ranked second-to-last among starting quarterbacks in average intended air yards and first in yards after catch per completion, according to Pro Football Reference. He also ranked last in deep pass percentage, per Pro Football Focus, airing it out on just 31 of his 526 pass attempts. On average, his passes got even shorter in 2020.
Timing is an issue, too. The 49ers aren’t likely to simply boot out Garoppolo unless they find a more desirable signal-caller (Deshaun Watson? Sam Darnold? Teddy Bridgewater?) and that process could take weeks or months — and could end with San Francisco ultimately opting to keep him for another year.
Waiting for those necessary dominoes to fall would be a risky venture for the Patriots, who could have a hard time wooing free agent pass-catchers without a viable starting QB locked up. Currently, New England has just Jarrett Stidham and Jake Dolegala under contract for 2021.
Verdict: Excluding pipe dreams like Watson, Russell Wilson and Dak Prescott, Garoppolo would be our top-choice QB for the Patriots, even with his injury history. But how long can they wait for him?