The notion that the 49ers may not keep quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo for more than the balance of the season seems ludicrous on the surface, for a couple of reasons. First, they gave up a second-round pick to get him. Second, they have lavished sufficient praise on Garoppolo both publicly and privately to create the impression that he’s indeed the guy for 2018 and beyond.
But there’s a more subtle dance that will unfold over the next several months, arising from the dulcet tones of the franchise tag and the free-agency market. If the 49ers make it too clear that they intend to keep Garoppolo, their only option may be to use the franchise tag on a year-to-year basis, like Kirk Cousins has done in Washington. For that reason, it’s no surprise that ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports that the trade for Garoppolo doesn’t mean the 49ers definitely will sign him to a long-term deal.
Absent a long-term deal, it would cost roughly $23 million to keep Garoppolo for 2017 under the franchise tag. By rule, that $23 million would become $27.6 million in 2018. That’s $50.6 million that Garoppolo should want, fully guaranteed at signing, to do a long-term deal in San Francisco, if the long-term deal is based on the tag. Absent that kind of investment, Garoppolo should simply opt for the year-to-year approach — especially since the franchise tender would spike to more than $39 million in 2020.
The 49ers won’t want to do a long-term deal with the franchise tag as the starting point. To do that, they’ll have to persuade Garoppolo to base his expectations on market value instead. Which will require the 49ers to convince Garoppolo that the 49ers won’t use the franchise tag. Which arguably makes Schefter’s report the first step in selling this reality to agent Don Yee.
The next step likely will be a Sunday splash report or two later this year that the 49ers may still pursue Kirk Cousins in free agency. This would allow the 49ers to leverage Garoppolo against Cousins and Cousins against Garoppolo in the hopes of getting one of them for less than what it would cost to get Cousins signed without Garoppolo in hand or to get Garoppolo signed without the possibility of adding Cousins.
Of course, the 49ers would have to make their decision before the deadline for applying the franchise tag, which comes two weeks before the start of free agency. Which means that they’ll need to know what Cousins would want from the 49ers to sign there. Which means that they’ll have to tamper with Cousins, at some point. (It’s OK; everybody does it.)
The fly in the ointment for the 49ers could be a decision by Washington to tag Cousins for a third time, after San Francisco has a wink-nod deal in place with Cousins and decides not to tag Garoppolo. If that happens, however, the 49ers would still be able to sign Garoppolo before he hits the market, possibly for less than a deal that uses the tag as the starting point.
The bigger risk would be the use of the transition tag by Washington and a decision to match any offer Cousins gets. Under that scenario, the 49ers would have to be willing and able to make Cousins and offer via a structure that Washington couldn’t or wouldn’t match. Otherwise, they could end up without either guy.
However it plays out, it’s possible (as pointed out here on Monday night) that Garoppolo is merely a short-term rental with an option to buy, costing the 49ers a second-round pick for 2018 but with the chance of getting a third-round pick in 2019 via the compensatory draft, if they ultimately don’t keep Garoppolo around. Given the importance of having a franchise quarterback, a one-round downgrade (more like two rounds, since the price is a high second-rounder in 2018 for a low third-rounder in 2019) in the draft arguably is worth it to have the chance to fall in love with Garoppolo before having to decide whether to marry him.