2022 was supposed to mark the official coming out party for San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance.
It still may be. But Monday's deal to retain Jimmy Garoppolo pumps the brakes on his coronation.
After failed efforts to offload the veteran quarterback via trade this offseason, the 49ers reportedly agreed to a one-year, $6.5 million guaranteed contract with Garoppolo on Monday that includes an additional $9.5 million in bonuses largely attached to playing time. The deal arrived hours before Tuesday's deadline to cut NFL rosters to 53 players and makes Garoppolo the league's highest-paid backup quarterback.
Garoppolo was previously due $24.2 million for 2022, money that wouldn't be guaranteed until Sept. 10. That would have left the 49ers in the position of taking the massive cap hit for a backup, or the more likely scenario of outright releasing him — neither of them attractive with the quarterback-needy division rival Seattle Seahawks his most likely suitor.
Now, after Garoppolo was all but out the door, he's provided the 49ers with a third option by agreeing to a new deal for less, but guaranteed money. It's one that comes with the opportunity to make more.
Garoppolo's deal comes with risk to Lance
Make no mistake. Lance, the No. 3 pick in the 2021 draft, is San Francisco's starter and presumed long-term answer behind center. The second-year quarterback will make his debut as San Francisco's leading man on Sept. 11 against the Chicago Bears. This is what the 49ers drafted him for. Head coach Kyle Shanahan said as much last season while Garoppolo was still the starter.
"There's a chance for anything, but I think we've made it pretty clear that Trey is our guy of the future, whenever that happens," Shanahan told reporters last November.
But he takes over with the knowledge that Garoppolo is just steps away in the event that things don't quite go as planned. And Garoppolo has run Shanahan's offense during his entire five-season tenure with the team.
San Francisco's results with Garoppolo at quarterback are a mixed bag — hence the move in a different direction. But they include a 31-14 regular-season record, four playoff wins, a trip to the Super Bowl in 2020 and another trip to last season's NFC Championship game. Meanwhile, the 49ers have a roster built to contend right now. The goal for this team is to win a Super Bowl.
That's a lot of pressure to place on a first-year starter with 71 NFL passes on his résumé. Where highly drafted quarterbacks tend to start their careers in relatively lower-stake scenarios — see Trevor Lawrence in Jacksonville — Lance will be expected to lead a playoff team in a division that includes the defending Super Bowl champions.
Lance is the starter. But is his job guaranteed? It seems less so now that Garoppolo's still in the mix.
Could Lance really lose his job this season?
The deal leaves the 49ers with options. If Lance thrives and remains healthy, they could still trade Garoppolo during the season. The market for his services can only improve with the risk of injury to starting quarterbacks that comes with live game action. Garoppolo's deal includes a no-trade clause that will leave him with veto power in the event of a potential trade partner.
But what if Lance struggles early? Do the 49ers stay the course like most teams with a significant investment in a young quarterback? Or do they pull the plug in favor of Garoppolo with the allure of championship contention as the overriding factor?
Then there's the injury scenario. Say, for instance, Lance sustains a multi-week injury midseason and the 49ers go on a run with Garoppolo holding the reins. What then? Does Shanahan go back to an unproven quarterback if Garoppolo has the 49ers riding high?
These are specific, and perhaps unlikely, scenarios. But they're not unfathomable. And they didn't exist prior to Monday's deal to keep Garoppolo under contract.
Ultimately for the 49ers, the deal could prove to be a good thing in the short run. Holding onto a premium insurance policy at football's most important position comes with undeniable upside. In a league with limited security at every job position, the short run rules.
But there's also no denying that the contract carries the risk of stunting the development of a young quarterback anointed as the future of the franchise. And the 49ers are willing to take it on. It's a risk they surely considered before agreeing to keep Garoppolo on board.