I said yesterday that the 49ers biggest question heading into the 2018 season is the pass rush. I’ll stick with that given the lack of offseason additions to a shaky unit, although if the team brings back Elvis Dumervil, that will be an upgrade.
All that being said, the quarterback position is still the most important position on the roster. There are plenty of questions surrounding Jimmy Garoppolo, but if he can answer some or all of them, the 49ers will have their answer at the quarterback position for the foreseeable future.
Projecting out players is never a simple task, and so I was curious what Football Outsiders had to say about Garoppolo given his limited sample size. FO puts out an annual Almanac, and you can purchase the 2018 version here. The Almanac includes projections and analysis, including that of the quarterback position. For the quarterback position, they offer the following explanation of their projection:
Each quarterback gets a projection from our KUBIAK fantasy football projection system, based on a complicated regression analysis that takes into account numerous variables including projected role, performance over the past two years, performance on third down vs. all downs, experience of the projected offensive line, historical comparables, collegiate stats, height, age, and strength of schedule.
For Jimmy G, they project 4,244 passing yards, with 24 touchdowns, 15 interceptions, and a 64.8 percent completion percentage.
I spoke with Carl Yedor about Garoppolo, and asked him what kind of history there is for a player with such significant success in this kind of smaller sample size. Additionally, I asked him if there were any areas that jumped out as potential pain points heading into 2018.
We actually go into this at length in the 49ers chapter of the book, as both Garoppolo and Deshaun Watson both excelled last season on a small sample of passes (Garoppolo with 185, Watson with 221). The short answer is that there is no solid historical comparison for how Garoppolo will perform moving forward, but interestingly enough, of the nine quarterbacks with a DVOA over 20% in 120-250 pass plays in their first significant playing time, five of them played for San Francisco: Garoppolo, Colin Kaepernick, Tim Rattay, Elvis Grbac, and Steve Bono. Grbac and Bono are not super relevant for comparison since they were just backups to some guy named Steve Young. Rattay flopped immediately after his short burst of success, and Kaepernick was still a top-10 quarterback in 2013, even though his play fell off later on in his career. The other comparable quarterbacks were the aforementioned Watson, Marc Bulger, Paul Justin, and John Fourcade.
Those quarterbacks are obviously not all superstars, but Garoppolo’s DVOA was the best of those nine, with his DYAR narrowly behind Grbac. There’s reason for optimism because of that, but I would hesitate to anoint Garoppolo as the savior just because he has such a small track record. Now, if he puts up similar numbers in 2018? That’s a different story, but the small sample size is really the only pain point. It would be hard for him to produce at a much higher level than he did last season; Matt Ryan finished with 39.1% DVOA in 2016 under Kyle Shanahan, which is identical to Garoppolo’s mark from 2017. That was in a full season after a year getting acclimated to Shanahan’s offense, and Ryan was understandably unable to hit that lofty mark again the following season. The early returns are clearly promising, but I wouldn’t expect him to put up an all-time great passing season over all 16 games just yet.