The San Francisco 49ers briefly made Jimmy Garoppolo the highest paid quarterback in the NFL earlier this offseason. That was surpassed on an APY basis when Kirk Cousins signed with Minnesota, and on a total possible value basis when Matt Ryan signed an extension with the Atlanta Falcons. Nonetheless, Garoppolo’s contract remains a sizable one for a guy with only seven starts under his belt.
ESPN’s Bill Barnwell ranked Garoppolo’s deal No. 20 on his list of the 20 most bloated contracts in the NFL. He took each contract’s three-year payout and compared it against the top 20 contracts at the position.
For quarterbacks, Garoppolo ranked No. 20, Matthew Stafford ranked No. 19, and Matt Ryan ranked No. 8. Each of these quarterbacks has a decidedly different set of context to factor into any analysis. Ryan and Stafford came into the league in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Both consistently surpass 4,000 yards passing and are key cogs to their respective offenses.
Garoppolo has seven starts under his belt, and took potentially long-term hold of a starting job last season for the first time in his career. He was in a unique position, hitting free agency after having sat behind Tom Brady for much of his career. The 49ers acquired him at the trade deadline, and he and the team got hot, closing out the season with a five-game winning streak.
When the season ended, the 49ers could have worked to extend Garoppolo, used the franchise tag to buy time or potentially trade him, or simply let him walk and get a comp pick in return. The last option was not an option, and given the importance of the quarterback position in the NFL, using the franchise tag to in turn trade him seemed an unlikely scenario. That left signing him to an extension now, or franchising him to buy some time.
Given the limited sample size, the argument for franchising him and waiting made some sense. If he builds on those final five games, it will cost you big time, but you still have the opportunity to sign him. Instead, the 49ers worked out a sizable extension for him and decided to simply end any hint of drama before it could begin.
Although Barnwell included Garoppolo’s contract on the list, but he acknowledged the structure provided flexibility and long-term stability. The 49ers gave Garoppolo a “mere” $7 million signing bonus, but then gave him a $28 million roster bonus. In doing so, they rolled up the biggest cap hit in year one ($37 million). They could have given him a big signing bonus and rolled their extra cap room this year into future years. But as Barnwell noted, going the roster bonus route gave them some cost certainty with flexibility in case Garoppolo struggles moving forward.
It’s almost impossible to imagine that the Niners would move on from Garoppolo after one year. If Garoppolo struggles after two seasons, though, the 49ers could cut or trade him while paying just $4.2 million in dead money. They’ll have paid as much as $61.2 million out of pocket to Garoppolo when they could have franchised him twice and paid just over $51 million, but when you want flexibility and long-term stability, that’s the cost of having your cake and eating it, too.
They get their cake and can eat it, too, but it will cost them in the early years. But given the importance of the quarterback position, that is fine. There is no position more premium in the NFL than the quarterback position. Garoppolo impressed in his first five starts with the 49ers, and Kyle Shanahan has to think he can do big things with the young quarterback. It is a roll of the dice given Garoppolo’s lack of experience, but given what they saw in the small sample size coupled with the importance of the position to winning, it was the move they had to make.