Maybe the San Francisco 49ers should have built around Jimmy Garoppolo for at least another year. Perhaps they'd have won a Super Bowl.
The 49ers blew a fourth-quarter lead in the NFC championship game to the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams didn't take the lead until 1:46 remained. One play could have turned it. During that game, the third overall pick of the draft — who cost San Francisco three first-round picks and a third-rounder in a trade — was one of two 49ers players to not play a single snap. There are plenty of 2021 rookies who could have made the one play the 49ers needed to seal that win and go to the Super Bowl.
And a year after drafting Trey Lance, the 49ers' situation is still awkward.
The 49ers went to an NFC championship game with Garoppolo and the easiest prediction of the offseason seemed to be that he'd be traded. Garoppolo had what amounted to a farewell media conference. When you give up a fortune to draft a quarterback third overall, he's not sitting multiple years. It was highly unusual Lance sat most of last season. But the 49ers never got that trade done in the offseason. Garoppolo underwent shoulder surgery and that might have scared teams a bit. Teams with quarterback needs ended up settling on players like Marcus Mariota, Mitchell Trubisky and Drew Lock. There weren't any interested suitors left. The 49ers had a quarterback with a $24.2 million salary, no spot for him on their roster and no chance to trade him anywhere else. And, the 49ers barely missed going to a Super Bowl with Garoppolo just a few months ago. Lance might not be any good. We don't have any idea yet.
Maybe there will be a temptation to keep Garoppolo. Lance could struggle in camp or early in the season. Then again, Lance could struggle because he has Garoppolo over his shoulder. Most likely, Garoppolo will be traded to a team that takes on an injury at quarterback or he'll be cut, but it hasn't happened yet.
Yeah, it's complicated.
The quarterback weirdness is happening atop a roster that should feel like it can win a Super Bowl. The 49ers came agonizingly close last season, leading 17-7 going into the fourth quarter against the Rams. They likely would have beat the Rams if safety Jaquiski Tartt had caught a Matthew Stafford pass thrown right at him. The 49ers got that far (and to a Super Bowl at the end of the 2019 season) with Garoppolo, who has proven to be a fine game manager but not a transcendent quarterback. The 49ers have to feel like they can be very good with average quarterback play. If Lance is special, there's championship (dynasty?) upside.
The 49ers can run the ball regardless of who is at running back, a tradition started by Mike Shanahan and passed down to his son and 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan. The running game was really interesting when receiver Deebo Samuel lined up in the backfield. Samuel was unhappy during the offseason but is still on the 49ers roster, and last year he emerged as one of the best players in football. The defense was perhaps the best in the NFL down the stretch last season. There's a lot to like.
The list of things to like includes Lance's potential. He started two games last season and while he was inconsistent, he also had moments that showed off his tremendous arm strength and movement skills.
Introducing the Trey Lance to Deebo Samuel connection 🙌 pic.twitter.com/7Rsgcc0zyM
— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) January 2, 2022
Lance has an upside that Garoppolo doesn't have. Yet, the 49ers have had a lot of success with Garoppolo being a mostly efficient quarterback who can run the offense exactly the way Shanahan wants. He can get the ball out quickly to the team's playmakers like Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and tight end George Kittle. The offense will change with Lance (assuming it'll be Lance), and there's no guarantee it'll be a better formula for the 49ers.
Either way, the 49ers are one of the most fascinating teams heading into this season. The biggest problem is that anything short of another NFC championship game will feel like a step back.
The lack of a Jimmy Garoppolo trade hurt. His cap hit of $26.95 million was on the books all offseason when the 49ers could have been taking advantage of Trey Lance's rookie deal and signing some outside help. But the 49ers didn't want to lose Garoppolo for nothing, which is understandable. Cornerback Charvarius Ward was signed from the Kansas City Chiefs on a surprising three-year, $40.5 million deal. That's a lot for Ward, who has been a good but not great corner, but clearly the 49ers think he can reach an elite level. San Francisco lost guard Laken Tomlinson and defensive tackle D.J. Jones on huge deals to other teams. The 49ers didn't spend more than $3.2 million per year (which went to S George Odum) on any other outside free agent. The draft was light due to the Lance trade. The 49ers' top picks were USC edge rusher Drake Jackson in the second round, then LSU RB Tyrion Davis-Price and SMU WR Danny Gray in the third. The latter two didn't seem like obvious needs, though perhaps San Francisco uses Davis-Price as their physical back after whiffing on the Trey Sermon pick last year. Free agency and the draft were underwhelming largely due to Garoppolo's contract and the trade for Lance, respectively. The biggest blow of the offseason might be losing seven-time Pro Bowl center Alex Mack, who retired. There are many questions on the interior of the 49ers' offensive line.
Trey Lance has been debated and doubted a lot for a quarterback who has thrown just 71 NFL passes. Here's what we know: Lance was a tremendous college player at North Dakota State, he was good enough to be the third pick in the draft, he had some promising moments as a rookie (he also was hampered by a finger injury most of the season) and he has gotten some good reviews during offseason practices.
"Defending him has been tough," defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said, via 49ersWebzone. "He's putting the ball on the money every time he throws it. The accuracy is there. The deep ball is there. To show whatever he wants, he can zip it in there and make a lot of plays. So I'm excited for Trey and what he can do."
Praise from within the team during the offseason means little, and maybe Lance will prove to be overwhelmed in his big jump from FCS football to the NFL. He didn't look great in his first start against the Arizona Cardinals, though the game plan of Lance doing it all with his legs wasn't ideal. He looked much better in a late-season start against the Houston Texans, throwing for 249 yards and a 116 passer rating. It's time for the 49ers to find out if Lance can be a championship-level quarterback.
The 49ers' win total at BetMGM is 9.5, and the odds on the over are -140. That means a lot of people are betting on a double-digit win season from San Francisco. There's no reason that can't happen, as long as Trey Lance is as good as Jimmy Garoppolo was last season. It's a little tougher to punch a ticket on the 49ers as division champs at +190 because the Rams look good again, but the odds are OK. For a decent longshot, Lance to win MVP at 40-to-1 might be worth betting. You can tell yourself a story in which that ticket cashes.
From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "Brandon Aiyuk was drafted before Deebo Samuel in most fantasy leagues last year. This summer, Samuel is going about 90 picks earlier. The value hunter in me is going to focus on Aiyuk.
"I love Samuel’s real-life game, but it could be difficult for him to return value on a Yahoo ADP of 20.4. Samuel surely won’t run as much as he did last year — he’s made it clear to the Niners he wants to scale back the hybrid role — and the offense might be less proactive throwing the ball as inexperienced quarterback Trey Lance gets his feet wet.
"Meanwhile, fantasy managers would be buying Aiyuk at an interesting time, after a down year and with a juicy discount baked in. While last year’s rankings look silly in retrospect, let’s be mindful that Aiyuk still has plenty of plausible upside. See if you can land him around his current Yahoo ADP of 109.9."
In an 11-game stretch that started with a primetime win over the Rams and lasted through a divisional round playoff win over the Green Bay Packers, the 49ers defense allowed 285 yards per game. Only one team (Buffalo Bills) allowed fewer than 305.9 yards per game last regular season. The 49ers allowed 327 or fewer yards in 10 of those 11 games. The 49ers defense faltered when it mattered most in the fourth quarter of the NFC title game, but they still held the eventual Super Bowl champs to seven points through three quarters. San Francisco's defense wasn't just good over the last half of the season, it might have been the best in football. There are some exceptional players, like edge rusher Nick Bosa, defensive lineman Arik Armstead, linebacker Fred Warner and safety Jimmie Ward, with some good complementary players too. The 49ers believe Charvarius Ward can be a true No. 1 cornerback, based on the contract they gave him. On top of it, coordinator DeMeco Ryans returns after he got some head-coaching interest in the offseason. The 49ers might be a top-five defense again.
Will Deebo Samuel be satisfied with 49ers?
Samuel had a monster 2021 season, with 1,770 yards from scrimmage and 14 touchdowns. His dalliance with running back means you're going to hear the term "the next Deebo Samuel" for years to come whenever a big receiver lines up in the backfield. But then Samuel expressed displeasure with the 49ers and requested a trade. The 49ers did the smart thing and resisted.
"He's just too good of a player," 49ers GM John Lynch said, according to NFL.com.
Samuel attended the team's mandatory minicamp after skipping OTAs, but he wasn't seen doing any on-field work and his presence doesn't mean he's content. He wants a new contract and reports have said he might be unhappy with his role as a part-time running back. The 49ers need to resolve the issue if they want to be a contender this season, because Samuel has emerged as a difference maker on offense. They would take a big step back without him.
The 49ers are loaded. Trent Williams is the best tackle in football, and one of the best ever. George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel are fantastic playmakers in the passing game, and some combination of Elijah Mitchell and rookie Tyrion Davis-Price will run for a lot of yards. The defense was dominant for most of last season. What if Trey Lance lives up to the hype he had a year ago? Lance has the physical skills to be a superstar, and maybe that happens right away. If it does, the 49ers could win a Super Bowl. They came within a play or two of doing it last season, and Lance has a much higher ceiling than Jimmy Garoppolo.
It's hard to know what the 49ers' endgame is with Jimmy Garoppolo. A trade would be ideal, but it might not happen. The Carolina Panthers' trade for Baker Mayfield eliminated yet another option. The 49ers don't want to cut Garoppolo, but keeping him on the roster into the season could set up a potentially damaging situation. The 49ers know they can win a lot of games with Jimmy G and it would be tempting to make a make a switch if Trey Lance struggles early on. Lance knows all that too, and who knows how that affects a young first-time starter? It's also worth noting that the 49ers wouldn't have even been a playoff team last season had they not pulled out a dramatic Week 18 win at the Rams; the Saints would have gotten the final NFC spot if the 49ers lost that game. There wouldn't be much buzz about San Francisco without that win and the postseason run that followed. Roster-wise there really aren't many questions — maybe the offensive line struggles due to questions at guard and center, perhaps the cornerback situation isn't as settled as San Francisco hopes it is. The Deebo Samuel situation could get messy, but the 49ers' season seems to rest on one position. And if Lance fails miserably, last year's trade could set the 49ers back a long way.
I believe in Trey Lance. His rookie season was an anomaly; most top-five picks play right away but the 49ers never found a reason to make the change. That doesn't mean Lance can't play. We've barely seen him, and some of the things we saw last season were very good. I think he has a nice breakout and the 49ers have a very good season. I couldn't rank them higher due to the uncertainty about Lance and Deebo Samuel (I also worry I'm overrating them based on a playoff run when they needed an overtime Week 18 win to get in the postseason), but it wouldn't surprise me if the 49ers are a top-five team. I can see them in the same spot as last season, finishing second in the NFC West and being the most dangerous wild-card team in the field.
32. Houston Texans
31. Atlanta Falcons
30. New York Giants
29. Jacksonville Jaguars
28. Chicago Bears
27. New York Jets
26. Seattle Seahawks
25. Detroit Lions
24. Carolina Panthers
23. Washington Commanders
22. Pittsburgh Steelers
21. Minnesota Vikings
20. Miami Dolphins
19. New Orleans Saints
18. Las Vegas Raiders
17. Arizona Cardinals
16. Tennessee Titans
15. Cleveland Browns
14. Indianapolis Colts
13. Philadelphia Eagles