Like a bolt from the blue, the San Francsico 49ers appeared to have leapt into an unassailable head start in the 2018 QB Hunt. Whilst other sides were likely focusing on analyzing the performances of the college quarterbacks, the 49ers were called by the New England Patriots (it seems) and offered the opportunity to revisit a trade that had been pitched during the offseason but had failed to come to fruition.
The 49ers secured themselves a veritable bargain. A second round pick was far less than the value the Patriots were allegedly placing on Garoppolo back in March of this year. Furthermore, the 49ers would have had to use a high first round pick to draft any of the college quarterbacks who were in the same city (let alone ballpark) as Garoppolo in terms of polish, pre- and post-snap recognition and ability to play from the pocket.
Having spent the last couple of days watching Garoppolo, I was struck by his decisiveness and poise. This decisiveness stems from his ability to quickly diagnose what defenses are doing. He also showed an excellent understanding of play design and the consistent accuracy to ensure that his decisive decision making was not wasted by the sort of poor throws that we have seen plague the 49ers’ quarterbacks this year. In his two starts last season, Garoppolo compiled an 80.5 percent adjusted completion percentage, per PFF. That rate would be second in the NFL this season (though it is unlikely that such a rate would have been sustainable). A small drop off into the high 70s would still place him in line with the top quarterbacks in the league however.
Conversely, in their action this season, Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard have had an adjusted completion percentage of 68.9 percent and 66 percent respectively, per PFF. Both Hoyer and Beathard have shown that they generally know where the ball should go, but have often been unable to deliver it with anything close to the consistent accuracy required of a starting calibre quarterback in the NFL. Beathard is a rookie so we can forgive him this to an extent, but he clearly has a long way to go. Nevertheless, when the opportunity presented itself to acquire Garoppolo, it was far too good to pass up - the brilliance of Shanahan’s scheme needs a quarterback who can get the ball where it needs to go on time and accurately. Garoppolo has these tools.
The vast majority of these plays are actually from the first few drives of Garoppolo’s first NFL start. Garoppolo was incredibly efficient on the night, going 24 of 33 (good for a 72.7 percent completion percentage) for 264 yards and one touchdown as he led the Patriots to a narrow 23-21 at the Arizona Cardinals. Garoppolo demonstrated all the traits you look for in a starting quarterback in the NFL against one of the best defenses in the NFL, making plays with relative ease. Primarily this stemmed from his ability to quickly diagnose the defense and his understanding of how this intersected with the offensive play call, and he then had the accuracy to get the ball where it needed to go. This was especially notable on third downs as well as first and over ten yards.
This is the first play of the game, on a play action pass that moves Garoppolo to take him slightly further away from the Cardinals’ pass rush. Such plays will frequently appear during his time as a 49er. He correctly identifies cover one and targets Danny Amendola running a deep out route against Tyvon Branch. This was clearly a route the Patriots earmarked. Unfortunately, Garoppolo’s throw was high and incomplete, but the quick recognition of the defense and decisive decision making was on show here. The accuracy on the throw was a disappointment and his deeper accuracy certainly does leave a little to be desired.
On 3rd and 10, Garoppolo recognizes the Cardinals are playing cover two man coverage. Once again, he identifies the out route as a good option, especially given the mismatch between Deone Bucannon and Julian Edelman. He was looking at Edelman the whole way, which led Tyrann Mathieu into the vicinity of the pass. Nevertheless, Garoppolo had diagnosed the Cardinals’ defense well, understanding that if the ball was accurate and on time Edelman would get the first down, regardless of Mathieu’s presence. Garoppolo executed and the Patriots drive rolled on.
On 1st and 19, Garoppolo shows excellent patience and diagnosis of the defense. Diagnosing cover two zone, he understands pre-snap that the best spot for a chunk play is between the hash marks. The play action pass moves the linebackers and Garoppolo throws with excellent anticipation - he was winding the throw up before Edelman was actually open. By throwing early, he ensured he could complete the throw in front of Mathieu and the accuracy of the ball allowed Edelman to keep running, break Mathieu’s tackle and get a first down. Even if the tackle hadn't been broken, the Patriots would have had a second and short.
On 2nd and 8, Garoppolo recognizes the Cardinals are again playing cover one. He identifies the mismatch between Edelman and Tony Jefferson and from the snap of the ball is only going in one direction. The ball is accurate on the out route once again, is on time and enables Edelman to run for the first down.
Garoppolo identifies cover three before the snap and decides he’s going to attack rookie corner Brandon Williams deep. Williams plays the route awfully after being beaten off the line, but it was nevertheless a smart first direction to go in and an accurate throw that led Chris Hogan to the pylon as well as hitting him in stride to ensure Tony Jefferson had no chance to make the stop short of the goal line.
On 3rd and 5, Garoppolo identifies cover three. Due to Edelman’s alignment, Garoppolo correctly concludes that the defender responsible for the flats (Tyrann Mathieu) will stay inside long enough to allow the running back running to the first down marker to get the first down if the throw is accurate. Garoppolo is once again on time with the ball. Though it is a little low, it’s outside which allows James White to get the first down.
Garoppolo identifies cover three (seemingly with some pattern matching concepts). The Patriots are running a dagger concept, with the number two receiver clearing the coverage to open up a dig route for the number one receiver. Julian Edelman is running a drag route underneath from the other side. The throw is inaccurate but the most impressive thing about this throw is the anticipation from Garoppolo. The gif is paused when Garoppolo unwinds to throw the ball, and it would appear that the dig route is double covered. In fact, Garoppolo sees that Tyrann Mathieu becomes preoccupied by Edelman coming open late in the play on the drag route and he throws the ball back behind where Mathieu came from. If Garoppolo could have been a touch more accurate, this would have been a sensational play.
This is the negative of Garoppolo’s decisiveness. He thinks that once again the out route will be on, spotting the matchup between Amendola and Branch in addition to the Cardinals’ defensive alignment indicating cover one or cover three. Branch reads the play and arguably should have come away with a pick-6. Garoppolo is probably saved by the fact his ball placement would have been exquisite had Branch not been in the vicinity - as it was, the ball was far enough outside that Branch was unable to reel it in. Nevertheless, Garoppolo’s desire to go to his pre-determined read almost cost the Patriots great field position, made all the worse by the fact that Martellus Bennett was uncovered in the flats on the opposite side of the field - another predictable outcome of the play calls from both teams.
On 1st and 15, Garoppolo once again demonstrates the ability to make a play early in the series to put his team back within a shot of the first down. Identifying cover one and the matchup between Edelman and Branch (with Branch playing well off) he goes to the out route once again. The throw is accurate, on time and well thrown, gaining ten yards and getting the Patriots to 2nd and 5.
Garoppolo identifies cover one and the matchup between Mitchell and Williams. He again seeks to attack it (perhaps giving Patrick Peterson too much respect on the opposite side of the field but that can be forgiven). He realises Williams has stayed on top of Mitchell, and goes to the back shoulder throw. It was a good decision given the one-on-one matchup, but he perhaps could have put some more air under the ball. Mitchell should probably have expected the pass as well, as the quick drop from Garoppolo indicated it was a quick pass play and he hadn’t beaten Williams as quickly as Hogan had for his earlier touchdown.
Once again Garoppolo identifies cover one before the snap, and locks onto Edelman as his primary target. He is accurate and on time despite the pressure on him, allowing Edelman to pick up the first down. Garoppolo’s willingness to stand in the pocket and take a hit whilst delivering an accurate throw is impressive here.
On 3rd and 9, Garoppolo identifies cover three. The alignment of the running back forces the flats defender to remain closer to the centre of the field, thus Garoppolo earmarks Edelman on a curl route as the go to option. The closest defender was supposedly responsible for the deep third and was allowing considerable cushion. The ball is on its way as Edelman turns around and is well thrown and accurate allowing Edelman to pick up the first down with some extra effort after the catch.
Garoppolo demonstrates good composure here in the red zone. His tackles are under considerable pressure and he does well to step up in the pocket before delivering a strike to Amendola for a touchdown. The throw itself required a good catch from Amendola but it was thrown smartly away from the linebacker in the vicinity to allow Amendola the chance to make the play.
Undoubtedly one of the best aspects of this trade is the likelihood that Garoppolo still has significant room to develop as an NFL quarterback. His deep accuracy is far from perfect - though he does flash impressive ball placement and has the arm strength to make all the required throws. This is certainly an area that he will need to improve in if he wants to take himself into the upper echelon of franchise quarterbacks.
Nevertheless, what makes him such an attractive option is his ability to diagnose the defense pre- and post-snap, which allows him to be a decisive decision maker. This trait - supposedly shared by Brian Hoyer - combined with Garoppolo’s short and intermediate accuracy makes him an excellent fit in Kyle Shanahan’s offensive scheme. Shanahan does not require a quarterback who can consistently launch bombs downfield, but he does need his quarterback to accurately throw to the correct receiver on a play by play basis. Garoppolo possesses several of the key traits for that and though not perfect, he has shown more than enough ability in this area already to justify the second round pick spent on him.
Furthermore, though arguably not as mobile as C.J. Beathard, Garoppolo has also demonstrated the mobility required to extend plays as well as steal cheap first downs when the defense leaves him unaccounted for as a runner. His understanding of route concepts and how they intersect with defensive play calls resulting in his ability to anticipate receivers coming open late in the play complements his capacity to extend plays.
Even if we see little of Garoppolo this season, I am extremely excited to watch him in action as a 49er. I am optimistic that John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan will be richly rewarded for their own decisiveness in taking the opportunity to bring the former Eastern Illinois Panther to the Bay and genuinely believe that the 49ers may have landed their quarterback of the future in the midst of an otherwise gloomy campaign.