Will Jimmy Garoppolo Be Worth the Huge Price Tag?
The San Francisco 49ers traded a second-round pick to the New England Patriots for Garoppolo on October 31st and were 0-8 at the time. Incumbent starter C.J. Beathard kept the reins for two more weeks and went 1-1 before Garoppolo took over in Week 13. In the final five games with him at the helm, the 49ers went 5-0 and looked like a completely different team than the one that started the season destined for a top-three pick in the draft.
Garoppolo’s streak came at the perfect time since he was slated to become a free agent. At minimum, the 49ers were poised to put the franchise tag on the quarterback, which would have him under contract for at least one year for around $23.5 million. The preference was always going to be getting a long-term deal done and that’s exactly what they did, to the tune of five years and $137.5 million.
With an annual average value of $27.5 million, Garoppolo will sign the NFL's richest contract. There’s going to be a lot of focus on that, but it won’t last for long. Kirk Cousins, who is actually is a free agent, will top it in just over a month. Matt Ryan, whose contract expires after 2019, will top it. Aaron Rodgers will top it. Russell Wilson will top it in 2020.
Last June, Derek Carr took the mantle as the NFL’s highest-paid player only to be passed over by Matthew Stafford a month later. In this age of the NFL with quarterbacks getting better and the salary cap continuing to rise, the next big quarterback due for a new contract will be the one at the top of the market.
Still, that doesn’t mean $137.5 million isn’t a lot of money. It’s just not the most. Adjusting for era and the cap at the time of the deal, Garoppolo’s new contract (15.4 percent of the cap) comes in as the fifth-highest percentage of the past few years behind the contracts of Rodgers, Ryan, Stafford, and Andrew Luck.
The 49ers will slightly front-load the deal, with just shy of $90 million coming within the first three years — a popular metric for measuring contracts — putting about 65 percent of the money in the first 60 percent of the deal. This is another place where even as the quarterback deals get bigger, the structure has gotten smarter. No longer are teams handing out Joe Flacco-like contracts that continually balloon as the years go on, forcing restructures to free up money.
Even while making it rain on their quarterback, this deal won’t hinder San Francisco from making other moves to improve overall. The 49ers will have around $86 million in cap space for the 2018 offseason, per Over The Cap, who had them with a league-leading $113.9 million before this deal. The $86 million would still give them the second-most cap space for any team, behind only the Cleveland Browns.
Now that we know San Francisco has committed this much money to a quarterback, is he worth it? All of this is based on a small sample -- even when factoring in his time with New England, he only has seven career starts — but everything about that sample points to a pretty good signal caller.
No quarterback rated better on a per-play basis this past season by Net Expected Points (NEP) than Garoppolo. Among 45 quarterbacks with 100-plus drop backs, his 0.35 Passing NEP per drop back was the best (Tom Brady was second at 0.28 and the average among that group of quarterbacks was 0.04). His 56.5 percent Success Rate — the percentage of plays that positively impact NEP — was also tops among this group.
No one should look at those numbers and believe they mean Garoppolo is the NFL's best quarterback, but it’s also not easy for a bad quarterback to sustain such a high level of play even over that period of time. Garoppolo’s five starts this season even hold up against the best five-game streak of Brady’s 2017 MVP season.
|2017||Comp/Att||Yards||TD/INT||Pass NEP||PNEP/DB||Success Rate|
|Brady Wks 7-12||126/175||1,414||13/1||69.97||0.38||55.74%|
|Garoppolo Wks 13-17||118/176||1,542||6/5||59.41||0.32||55.98%|
The only major difference is the touchdowns and interceptions. Even though it's a massive one, those are likely to improve in a full year. Plus, the fact that he was still so efficient with a touchdown-to-interception ratio that poor is a good sign. If you're looking for a sign of improvement from year-to-year, you'd rather see a good performance with a touchdown rate that could get better rather than a season inflated by a high one that's not sustainable.
Even if Garoppolo is only 60 percent of what he was in 2017 — a pretty significant drop off — he’d be worth 0.22 Passing NEP per drop back, which would have been sixth among quarterbacks this season between Ben Roethlisberger (0.23) and Jared Goff (0.21). Would the 49ers take top-10 efficiency at this price? Probably.
It's also worth noting that Garoppolo immediately fit into the offensive scheme of head coach Kyle Shanahan. That hasn’t always proven to be easy in the first year. Robert Griffin III did it in Washington as a rookie, but Matt Ryan struggled with some of the concepts in Shanahan’s first year with Atlanta before winning league MVP in 2016.
If there’s a glimpse into how well Shanahan and Garoppolo can work together, it might be the Week 16 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. They carved up a defense that ranked first against the pass by Adjusted Defensive NEP per play. The young quarterback was worth 0.46 Passing NEP per drop back in that game, easily the best performance against the Jaguars this season. He was almost twice as good as Brady was in the AFC Championship Game, where his 0.27 was the second-best quarterback performance against the Jags all year. Only four other quarterbacks even put up a positive performance against Jacksonville in 2017.
The jury is still out on what the ceiling is for Garoppolo as a quarterback, or even what his average level of play will be. However, the 49ers have put themselves in a position with the right coach and the financial flexibility to find out. It’s a lot of money, but it could also be the next major step in San Francisco making itself a contender again.