The 49ers have one of the most coveted positions in the entire NFL: The backup quarterback spot. Every team values their second-string quarterback, but few organizations ask more on the field out of their backup than the Niners.
Brock Purdy figures to miss most if not all of training camp. Trey Lance is expected to be ready for the team’s offseason program, but there are no quarterbacks on the roster besides Lance. Jimmy Garoppolo and Josh Johnson are both unrestricted free agents.
Kyle Shanahan emphatically said he doesn’t see a scenario where Jimmy returns. History suggests ruling out a return for Johnson is foolish, but he’s 36. Let’s look at five potential backup quarterback options for the 49ers.
Money matters. The Raiders released Fresno State alum Derek Carr Tuesday, but he’s not coming to the Bay Area for what San Francisco can offer. The options we’ll look at would come for the opportunity, not the money, which eliminates a few obvious names, such as Daniel Jones.
2022 guaranteed salary: $4.5 million
Bridgewater, 30, appeared in five games for the Dolphins this past season, where he threw the same number of touchdowns as interceptions (4).
Bridgewater couldn’t play in the playoffs due to a dislocated pinky finger on his throwing hand. Bridgewater has sustained three concussions since October 2021 and was also listed on the injury report in 2021 with a shin bruise. His injury history could (should?) scare teams away.
There’s a reason Mike McDaniel coveted Teddy. It’s the same reason Shanahan and the 49ers called the Carolina Panthers for a potential Bridgewater trade during the offseason leading up to the 2021 season.
Bridgewater’s processing speed rivals a Core i9 chip. It’s the No. 1 trait Shanahan looks for in a quarterback, and is a big reason why Purdy had success the second he stepped onto the field.
Nobody will argue that Teddy has never been one to push the ball down the field. And his recent injury won’t help his chances, but if the Niners feel as though he’s a student of the game and could be signed for cheap, then Bridgewater will be the team’s backup in 2023.
2022 guaranteed salary: $0
Heinicke’s cap number for the Commanders last season was $3.6 million, but for two years he was guaranteed a total of $500,000. That will change on the open market. The question is by how much?
Heinicke feels like a player the 49ers would rally around. He brought a spark to the Commanders. His 12/6 touchdown-to-interception ratio is a tad inflated, but Heinicke is a gamer.
He’ll turn 30 a month from today. He’s undersized, mirroring Purdy’s stature, but has similar athleticism and pocket presence. Knowing that it’s unlikely a team will give Heinicke starter money, he feels like a dark horse option for the 49ers.
Over the Cap’s valuation of Heincike’s 2022 season is around $7.9 million. With 25 starts in the previous two seasons, that feels fair. I wouldn’t be mad nor fault Shanahan for pursuing a quarterback who’s a proven competitor.
2022 guaranteed salary: 1.9 million
Dalton was not expected to start 14 games in 2022. An 18/9 touchdown-to-interception ratio might be intriguing, and the Saints caught teams by surprise for the first month Dalton started. But the honeymoon phase quickly wore off as Dalton left a lot to be desired down the stretch.
But this is about what Shanahan and the staff wants at the position, and Dalton qualifies. It may be difficult to convince the defense after they shut out Dalton last season. Although, he seems like the type of veteran who would thrive with the Niners weapons, and would almost certainly help Lance and Purdy develop off the field.
2022 guaranteed salary: $1.5 million
Brissett played the best football of any quarterback that’ll be on this list last season. His numbers may not reflect it, but there were a handful of games where he elevated the talent around him and had Cleveland competing in games they had no business being in.
Brissett, 30, would serve as a quarterback coach as much as a backup for the duo of Lance and Purdy. He’d be my preferred choice for the 49ers to sign, knowing he’d be affordable and checks the boxes the team is looking for. Oh, and he’s incredible at quarterback sneaks.
The Browns run a similar version of the 49ers offense, so there wouldn’t be a significant learning curve for Brissett, either. He’s younger and cheaper than the other two, while contributing just as much on and off the field.
2022 guaranteed salary: $18.5 million
It goes without saying that the 49ers won’t have to pay Darnold anywhere close to $18 million next season. Darnold, who is somehow only 25, was supposed to have a career reboot in Carolina. He started Weeks 12-18, and was impressive in each game up to the final week.
The former Trojan oozes with talent and will have a couple of “wow” plays a game. The Jets reportedly turned down a first round from the Niners for Darnold a couple of years ago, which speaks to Shanahan’s infatuation, if not for a brief period, for Darnold.
If Heinicke is the dark horse, then Darnold is the wild card. He’s still young enough where a coach will feel like they can get the most out of the former No. 3 overall pick. Darnold comes with more risk than reward, and perhaps less stability, but there’s no denying he’s the most talented of the five quarterbacks.
2022 guaranteed salary: $0
There are a few other options. Neither feel realistic, so why not go with the quarterback who looked like a star against the 49ers this past season? Shanahan spoke about Stidham before the Raiders game this past season:
“I remember we really liked how he threw. I liked him as a guy just working with him. Never enjoyed going to Mobile that time of year, it’s just not always a good feeling. It means you didn’t do very well and you really want a break and you don’t get it, but I do remember enjoying him. I know he was a talented player that we all believed was going to get drafted and I was not surprised that New England took him.”
Stidham turns 27 in August. He doesn’t have much experience, and when he did, before this season, it wasn’t pretty. Still, for many coaches, they’ll remember the last thing they see or the one exposure they had for a player, which makes Stidham a candidate.