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QB Tiers: Jimmy Garoppolo lands in Tier 3; Trey Lance Tier 4 of annual QB rankings

Not much has changed for Garoppolo, while Lance is ranked near the bottom

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Houston Texans v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

The Athletic’s Mike Sando polls NFL coaches and executives around the NFL each summer and then releases his annual QB Tiers list. This year makes the ninth list for Sando.

For those of you who have never seen these, there are five tiers, with one being the highest and five the lowest.

Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, and Justin Herbert were part of the first tier.

Matthew Stafford, Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, Lamar Jackson, Dak Prescott, Derek Carr, Kyler Murray, and Matt Ryan fell into the second tier.

That brings us to the third tier, where 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo ranked 16th behind Kirk Cousins. Garoppolo’s average voting was 2.88, which was lower than last offseason and in 2019 — both seasons where decision-makers gave his injuries the benefit of the doubt:

The 49ers have won with Garoppolo but not necessarily because of him, and now they have given him permission to seek a trade as San Francisco moves closer to starting Trey Lance.

“Reminds me of (Ryan) Tannehill,” a coach said of Garoppolo. “Wins games, doesn’t play for the opponent, teammates respect him — the exact kind of guy we find ways to kick off the team.”

The decision appears agonizing for the 49ers.

“Jimmy is a 2, in my opinion, and the only reason anyone would say he’s a 3 is because of the injuries,” a head coach said. “Most of the 3s with a good run game and a good defense are still like .500 quarterbacks. San Francisco has been either to the Super Bowl or the NFC Championship three times with Jimmy. Once you do that, you are in that 2 category.”

Only six other voters agreed with the Tier 2 designation for Garoppolo. Garoppolo missed two games last season, 10 the season before and none in 2019. The 49ers are 25-12 with him in the lineup across those three seasons. They averaged 25.3 offensive points per game last season when Garoppolo started, compared to 16.5 in the two games Lance started as a rookie.

“Why do you think they don’t like Jimmy G so much?” a former GM asked. “He is close to a 2 to me, but I’ll give him a 3. If I was the owner there, it would really piss me off (to be trading so much capital for Lance at Garoppolo’s expense, possibly without getting better).”

The 49ers want more than a Tier 3 system quarterback.

“Jimmy fits that Tier 3 category perfectly,” a quarterbacks coach said. “Like you say, a lower-volume drop-back pass offense, lots of movement, lots of play-action, lots of eye candy with fly/jet sweeps. And then you need playmakers around him like he has had in San Francisco.”

“The exact kind of guy we find ways to kick off the team” feels harsh but true. The Tier 3 list of quarterbacks is the list of purgatory. Cousins, Garoppolo, Tannehill, Carson Wentz, Jared Goff. These are players who have flashes but crumble in the biggest moments.

But there aren’t enough quality starters in the NFL at the position, which is why we have the same discussion between these quarterbacks yearly.

I’d love to ask the personnel people what makes Jimmy a Tier 2 guy. The more you ask of him or the longest the play goes, the worse things get. Sure, there’s a risk that you won’t get better, but Kyle Shanahan is the real quarterback, and the assumption is that Lance’s physical tools will make up for any shortcomings.

Speaking of Trey, he’s in Tier 4 — one spot ahead of Daniel Jones and one below Zach Wilson:

Lance started two games, played in four others and attempted 71 passes all season, so there wasn’t much to analyze. Based on what voters did see, and based on the learning curve they anticipated for Lance, some said they selfishly hoped San Francisco would make the change from Garoppolo this season.

“That would be like my early Christmas present if they just get rid of Jimmy, so that way he can’t play for them, and then make Trey be your guy,” a coach whose team plays the 49ers this season said.

The 49ers are a contender in the NFC with Garoppolo, even if they haven’t been able to win it all with him. Voters think Lance would struggle initially, with no guarantees he’ll develop.

“I love the skill set (of Lance), but he had ball-accuracy concerns on his tape coming out, and he was really raw,” a head coach said. “The very little I’ve seen of him last season, he’s got a little Tim Tebow to him — it’s a long delivery. It seems like there are some mechanical things he has to work out. But that is from watching a limited number of plays.”

Again, not much to go on, but lots of discussion.

“It’s amazing how quickly you can lose the perception,” an evaluator said. “Three months before the draft, people were like, ‘Ahhh, I’m not sure Trey Lance is a first-rounder.’ Then as it got closer to the draft, ‘Hey, really smart, handles himself really well, has CEO traits, I can understand it.’ And now people are completely dumping on him. It happens at that position more than any other. You either have it or you don’t.”

Voters agreed that Lance struggled against Arizona and did not appear ready to start.

“Sure, the more he plays, the better he will probably get, but he is a 4, and I feel like he is probably the bottom 4 for me,” a voter from the NFC West said. “Just think about it. You get Russell Wilson out of here and now we’ve got Trey Lance playing and it is like, ‘Oh, thank you.’ It just went from a really good quarterback division to being one of the softer divisions.”

I wouldn’t confuse Lance’s inevitable struggles and take that as he’s a downgrade from Jimmy. Trey is going to have plenty of head-scratching moments. That’s the case with every first-year starting quarterback.

And to the last comment, there are two Tier 2 QBs in the division, and another one is a top-5 pick. I think the unknown and small sample sizes really throw people off. Let’s be honest, how many NFL execs really sat down and watched Lance play or are aware of the lack of practice time or his finger injury that slowed him down in the preseason?

It’s also tough to fault anybody for ranking Lance so low. This should be viewed as a starting point for an unknown commodity. Hopefully, we can look back and laugh at this ranking by the season’s end.