Looking over the past 15 years, a few names stand out when it comes to the San Francisco 49ers. Running back Frank Gore, linebacker Patrick Willis and left tackle Joe Staley are synonymous with the franchise for their contributions on and off the field.
Staley spent 13 years with the 49ers. He was named to the Pro Bowl six times and helped the team make two Super Bowls. The future Hall of Famer hung up the cleats following the 2019 season but remains a popular figure among the organization and The Faithful.
Staley has been making the media rounds this offseason and hopped on NFL Total Access. He was asked about the 49ers’ QB situation between incumbent starter Jimmy Garoppolo and incoming rookie Trey Lance.
“Jimmy has been since day one, he’s been a winner when he’s been with the San Francisco 49ers. He hasn’t been available in a lot of games, and I think that’s what the Niners did with drafting Trey Lance. It’s a little bit of an insurance policy.
“But Jimmy’s going to [get] every opportunity to win that starting job for training camp, and I think it’s good for him because, honestly, as a player myself, I felt entrenched as a left tackle, but when I would get guys that came in as rookies trying to vie for my job, it definitely pushed you a little bit more in training camp. Competition just breeds more success on the football field if you frame it the right way, and I know Jimmy will.”
Staley spent 2.5 seasons with Garoppolo in the Bay Area. The 49ers acquired Jimmy G from the New England Patriots midway through the 2017 campaign. Once he took over the starting role, Garoppolo led the team to a 5-0 finish. Staley was thrilled with what he saw from Garoppolo at the end of the 2017 season and shared his excitement with the NFL Network’s Mike Silver after the Week 16 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“It’s exciting, man,” Staley told. “I was telling our offensive line coach, I wish it was Week 6. I can’t wait — next year’s gonna be pretty special. Now the pressure’s on the rest of us: We can’t [screw] it up!
“It’s like having Tom Brady,” Staley said about playing with Garoppolo, before adding, “I don’t know. I never played with him. But it feels like it would be. And after where we’ve been, trust me, we’ll take it.”
Unfortunately, the pair were only on the field for three games in 2018. Garoppolo suffered a season-ending knee injury during the Week 3 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Garoppolo returned in 2019 and managed to stay healthy all season. He helped the 49ers go 13-3 and came within minutes of winning the Super Bowl.
As Staley points out, Jimmy G’s health has been a sticking point this offseason. He has missed 23 starts due to injury the past three seasons, and the 49ers only won six of those games.
But when he has been in uniform, Garoppolo has led the 49ers to a sparkling 24-9 record, including the playoffs. Head coach Kyle Shanahan loved what he saw from Garoppolo during OTAs and has repeatedly said he expected Jimmy G to be with the team in 2021.
“I think Jimmy had his best spring since we’ve had him,” Shanahan said. “We had the spring the first year with him. The second year he had the ACL, so we didn’t get that. And then last year, it was COVID, so this is really his second one not being on an ACL.
“I thought Jimmy came in in great shape, really locked in, a good place physically and mentally. And I thought he had as good of OTAs as he’s had.”
Garoppolo’s injury history forced Shanahan and general manager John Lynch to evaluate the team’s QB situation. After retaining several key free agents and signing a couple of proven veterans, Shanahan and Lynch elected to make a move to get their QB of the future.
They traded three first-rounders, plus a third-round selection to the Miami Dolphins for the No. 3 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. The 49ers used the selection on Lance, who can push Garoppolo for the starting position with a strong showing at next month’s training camp.
Staley likes what he has seen from the North Dakota State product so far and believes Lance’s attributes will mesh well with Shanahan’s system.
“Trey is a very exciting player as well,” Staley said. “His skillset and what he’s going to be able to do in Kyle’s offense is going to be exciting to see this whole season, and it’s going to be really interesting to see how it plays out.”
Staley was also asked about the return of pass-rushing extraordinaire Nick Bosa. The former No. 2 overall pick tore his ACL in Week 2 of the 2020 season, which deeply impacted the 49ers’ defense.
Staley’s final NFL season was Bosa’s first, and he got to see just how dominant the Ohio State product was en route to capturing the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
“From Day 1, I never saw a rookie come in and totally transform a defense like Nick Bosa did for us my last year there, he was an unbelievable talent,” Staley said. “Losing him last year was such a huge loss for that team.”
Even though the 49ers had a top-five defense last season, they were missing a finisher. Bosa’s return will have a ripple effect on the unit in 2021 and should make everyone better just with his presence on the field.
“What he can deliver off the edge really sets up that whole entire defense,” Staley said. “Allows the linebackers to play a little more downhill, allows the cornerbacks to play a little bit more aggressive. That pass rush is really key for what they want to do there. I’ve been talking to him this offseason, I know he’s ready, he’s been training incredibly, incredibly hard. This is going to be a huge piece for the Niners going forward.”
Staley also called his replacement — Trent Williams — a “generational talent” at left tackle and that he was glad to see the 49ers were able to find a top-notch lineman as his replacement.