With so much discussion in recent weeks about what the 49ers plan to do with the contract-year quarterback they acquired from the Patriots for a second-round pick, it’s important to consider the situation from the perspective of the player. Without question, the best move for Jimmy Garoppolo is to sit tight, do nothing, and wait for the deadline for the application of the franchise tag.
The rules of the tag make it critical for any player who may be getting tagged to wait to see whether he’s tagged before he signs a long-term deal. Even if the 49ers offer Garoppolo a contract before the tag deadline based on the anticipated value of the tag (for 2018, roughly $23 million), it’s always better to get tagged before signing it, thanks to the Drew Brees grievance from 2012.
That year, Brees secured a ruling that tags applied in past years by past teams count toward the dreaded (by teams) third tag, which entails a minimum increase of 44 percent over the player’s cap number from the prior year or, for non-quarterbacks, the quarterback tag for that year, whichever number is greater. Brees, who had been tagged once before by the Chargers, was being tagged a first time by the Saints; the ruling made it his second career tag, giving him extra leverage for 2013, if tagged again.
The 49ers seem to know that the tag for Garoppolo is looming; they surely realized it before trading for Garoppolo. And while Garoppolo’s agent, Don Lee, has a history of doing below-market deals for a slightly more famous quarterback client, Brady essentially negotiates his own contracts, with Yee as a bystander. Some believe that, if anything, the Brady dynamic has made Yee more determined to pursue top dollar for Garoppolo.
If/when the 49ers tag Garoppolo, the question becomes whether it will lead to a long-term offer based on the progression of the tag, with a 20-percent bump for 2019 and eventually a 44-percent increase for 2020. (Here’s another interesting question: Would the 49ers consider the non-exclusive tag, which would invite a team to pursue him for a pair of first-round picks in return?) Ultimately, Garoppolo’s best play may be to go year-to-year, like Kirk Cousins has done in Washington.
In a weird sort of way, if the 49ers hope to sign Garoppolo before tagging him, their best play may be to play him. If he remains on the sidelines, he has no injury risk — and thus no reason to trade in the last year of a wage-scale contract for a major, life-changing contract that stops short of simulating the value of the tag in 2018 and 2019.
Ultimately, however, the 49ers likely don’t care about those nuances. They know they need a franchise quarterback. If they have one, they’ll pay him accordingly. And if that means going year-to-year at first, then so be it — especially since that approach would make it easier for them to back out, if they realize he’s not the guy they need.