The New England Patriots’ offseason officially has come full circle now that we’re back to discussing a potential reunion with current San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
NBC Sports’ Peter King floated the idea of Garoppolo being traded back to the Patriots for a second-round pick in a column on Monday morning. That might not just have been speculation or the act of assembling quarterback puzzle pieces. The Patriots have certainly done their work on this year’s quarterback draft class from Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence down to second-tier options like Florida’s Kyle Trask.
But when we asked a league source which quarterback the Patriots are actually most likely to land, Garoppolo, not the multitude of rookie options, was the answer. There are teams around the NFL who believe Garoppolo is realistically in play to return to New England.
The Patriots still think highly of Garoppolo. They wanted him back in New England earlier this offseason, but the San Francisco 49ers were standing firm in holding on to their starting quarterback at the time. So, New England signed Cam Newton to a team-friendly one-year contract. The 49ers then traded two first-round picks to move up from No. 12 to No. 3 where they’ll take their quarterback of the future. Michael Lombardi — along with other NFL insiders — believes the 49ers will take Alabama’s Mac Jones (or North Dakota State’s Trey Lance).
The only reason to take Jones over quarterbacks with more perceived upside like Lance or Ohio State’s Justin Fields would be if 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan believes the ‘Bama product fits San Francisco’s system better than the other options. Shanahan must have looked at Jones last season at Alabama and thought, “I want him to do exactly that in our offense.”
Jones was accurate, protected and distributed the ball well, avoided sacks, played it safe and won a lot of games.
So, why would the 49ers trade two future first-round picks to move up from No. 12 to No. 3, take a quarterback who appears to be relatively pro-ready without serious growth potential but still keep around Garoppolo and his $24 million cap hit?
Shanahan took a morbid turn in the art of deflection when asked if Garoppolo would still be a 49ers by the end of the weekend.
“I can’t guarantee that anybody in the world will be alive Sunday so I can’t guarantee who will be on our roster on Sunday,” Shanahan said in a news conference.
But thinking frugally, the 49ers instead could either spend that $24 million or carry it over into next offseason if they trade Garoppolo. There’s certainly some value in having a bridge starter or insurance option alongside Jones, but it doesn’t make any sense to pay that insurance option $24 million.
You don’t buy a car for $30,000 and then pay $100,000 to insure it.
Garoppolo landing back in New England is far from a sure thing. First, the 49ers actually have to draft Jones. Because if they don’t, the Patriots would have some interest in the Alabama quarterback. Second, another rookie quarterback that New England likes couldn’t fall to it at No. 15 overall. If the Jacksonville Jaguars take Lawrence at No. 1, the New York Jets draft Zach Wilson at No. 2 and the 49ers select Jones at No. 3, that leaves Fields and Lance with 12 picks until the Patriots draft at No. 15.
It would be slightly surprising if Fields winds up in New England. If Lance tumbles past the Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions, Carolina Panthers, Denver Broncos and Philadelphia Eagles, then maybe the Patriots could wait for him at No. 15 overall or trade up a few spots without giving up the farm. New England might also want to read the situation and see how far a player like Trask is going to fall down the board before making a decision on adding another veteran to the quarterback room.
While it seemed all but certain that the Patriots would get a quarterback through the draft as recently as a few days ago, Garoppolo is once again seeming like more and more of a legitimate option.
There are even more dominos that need to fall. Garoppolo would need to accept a trade to New England since he has a no-trade clause in the 2021 league year that must be waved. The Patriots also would need to adjust his contract. He’d come with a $23.6 million cap hit, and the Patriots have roughly $15.6 million in salary-cap space, according to Miguel Benzan, aka @PatsCap on Twitter.
One way to lower Garoppolo’s cap hit: Convert some of his salary into not likely to be earned (NLTBE) contract incentives, which would be easy since he played just six games last season. There’s reason to believe Garoppolo would rather be competing with Newton in New England than in a lame-duck starting role next to the No. 3 overall pick in San Francisco. One would imagine — unless Garoppolo really wanted to return to New England — that another team also couldn’t be willing to trade for him and give him his full salary. The only QB-needy teams with over $23.6 million in cap space are the Jaguars, Jets and Broncos. The Chicago Bears — Garoppolo’s hometown team — have just $410,075 in cap space. Creating $23 million out of thin air would be tough without trading wide receiver Allen Robinson. And, quite frankly, what’s the point in dealing for a quarterback if you can’t keep around his best weapon?
The Patriots like Garoppolo the 49ers should want to trade him and Garoppolo should want out of San Francisco.
If there’s a 100-percent chance that the Patriots add a quarterback this weekend and every option represents a fraction, there are people around the league who believe a reunion with Garoppolo represents the largest slice.