If the late-2017 surge of rapper Cardi B is any indication, 2018 is the year of making “money moves”, and San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is likely to be one of the early beneficiaries. The late-season star is close to reaching a deal with the Niners worth close to $25 million per year, which would make Garoppolo one of the highest-paid players in NFL history.
Garoppolo has been on track to become a franchise quarterback for several years—but not with the 49ers. He spent almost four seasons as a backup on the New England Patriots and was poised to take over as the starter when Tom Brady eventually retired. In fact, the Pats reportedly offered him a contract worth $18 million per year to remain with the team. This deal wasn’t unwarranted; Garoppolo showed flashes of talent at the start of the 2016 season while Brady was serving a four-game suspension, passing for 496 yards and four touchdowns in two games before suffering a shoulder injury.
In late October, however, the Patriots shocked the football world by trading Garoppolo to the 49ers for a second-round draft pick. Fans struggled to understand why the Patriots dealt away their budding star and placed their future in the aging hands of Brady, who turned 40 last August. But the deal made sense for the 49ers, who had been in search of a serviceable quarterback since Colin Kaepernick opted out of a contract extension in early 2017.
Garoppolo excelled in San Francisco, winning all five of his starts to close out the season. Including his brief performance in a week 12 matchup against the Seattle Seahawks, Garoppolo threw for 1,560 yards and seven touchdowns, rushed for a touchdown and posted a 92.6 quarterback rating, good for 10th among qualifying QBs. Perhaps even more important than his stats was the fact that he brought energy to a team that was 1-10 prior to his arrival.
There’s little doubt Garoppolo has the talent to potentially become a franchise quarterback, but whether he’s worth $25 million per year—more than Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson—is something I’m much less willing to concede.
Most notably, Garoppolo has relatively little experience as a starting quarterback. He has only attempted 272 passes and started in 7 games, the equivalent of just more than half of one season. This is problematic because a quarterback can’t be defined by one stretch of games. In 2011, Tim Tebow led the Broncos on a six-game win streak and famously toppled the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs, but he never started another game and is now considered one of the bigger NFL busts in recent memory. Similarly, in 2012, Robert Griffin III passed for 3,200 yards, rushed for 815 more and led the Redskins to the playoffs with a seven-game win streak to finish the season. He has only won six of his twenty-three starts since. One might argue that Garoppolo is more talented than Tebow and RGIII, which is probably true, but they both demonstrate the impossibility of evaluating a player based on a hot streak of one or two months.
Another issue with Garoppolo’s contract is the price tag itself. Even if his final annual salary comes out to less than the anticipated $25 million, it’s an investment that may entail costly consequences if Garoppolo underperforms. Consider a quarterback who recently signed one of the most lucrative contracts in league history: the Oakland Raiders’ Derek Carr. Before the 2017 season, Carr was rewarded with a then-record-breaking deal worth $125 million over five years, or an average of $25 million per year. But Carr disappointed in 2017. Many of his satistics dipped to levels closer to those of his 2014 rookie season and the Raiders finished with a pedestrian 6-10 record. The post-contract decline was also true for Joe Flacco after he signed a six-year, $120 million deal with the Baltimore Ravens after their Super Bowl victory in 2012. Perhaps he had earned it; he made the playoffs in each of his first five seasons and brought home a championship. However, he followed up his heroic 2012 campaign with arguably the worst season of his career. If Garoppolo shares the same fate, the Niners may be stuck with a mediocre—and expensive— quarterback for several years.
Granted, a lot of the aforementioned statistics are anecdotal, and there are plenty of players who thrived after earning monumental paydays; names like Brady, Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford come to mind. Yet, I’d argue that those players—and even Carr and Flacco—had proven themselves for years, if not decades, before earning their contracts. Garoppolo has played less than a full season’s worth of games, and the 49ers are ready to award him a contract that only the NFL’s “elite” receive.
Unfortunately, this article will do little to affect the decision of the 49ers front office. Even if Garoppolo isn’t worth the rumored $125 million he’s set to earn, the 49ers won’t be able to sign him for much less. The cost of an NFL star, especially a star quarterback, continues to rise. Stafford pushed the envelope even further this past offseason, signing a deal with the Detroit Lions worth a whopping $27 million per year. Considering that Garoppolo could be the face of the future for the NFL and that he turned down $18 million annually in October, it’s unlikely he and his agent would settle for anything but a massive and somewhat-precedented deal. The 49ers will make an offer, and Garoppolo will sign it, but only time will tell whether he’s worth it.