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Veteran vs. rookie - How should the 49ers answer their pressing QB3 question?

A free agent could be pricey, but it’s tough to find another Brock Purdy.

NFL Combine Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

A 49ers’ offseason is generally the football equivalent of Groundhog Day. They are seemingly doomed to forever wake to their alarm clock blaring out questions about the situation at the quarterback position.

This year, the question surrounds whether Brock Purdy will be ready to start the 2023 season following his impending surgery on a torn Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) and – if he does recover in time – whether he would get the nod ahead of former third overall pick Trey Lance.

At full health, Purdy would surely be the favorite to start ahead of Lance. Brock just spectacularly led the Niners to the NFC Championship Game after taking over for the injured Jimmy Garoppolo in a stunning rookie year for the final pick of last year’s draft.

But with Purdy facing a recovery of at least six months, depending on whether he has a UCL repair or a full reconstruction that would wipe out his season, the likelihood is the most unexpected star of 2022 for San Francisco will not be ready to go when the Niners begin 2023.

That means Lance will get a shot to make the job his, and the more pertinent debate at quarterback for the 49ers this offseason is not one evaluating the merits of Purdy versus Lance, but one discussing the approach they should take when adding insurance behind their top two signal-callers.

Veteran insulation incoming?

General manager John Lynch has made no secret of the 49ers’ desire to “insulate” themselves from another injury nightmare at quarterback, having literally run out of players capable of running the offense in the Conference Championship loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

That insurance could well take the form of a veteran free agent, with San Francisco reportedly considering Matt Ryan, Andy Dalton and Jacoby Brissett.

However, San Francisco’s front office has done some homework on the quarterback class, meeting with UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who impressed in his workout at the Combine, during the East-West Shrine Game in Las Vegas.

What the 49ers must decide is whether to invest a not insignificant amount in a veteran who can serve as a reliable, high-floor in case of emergency option or gamble on their ability to develop young quarterbacks and select another in the late rounds of this year’s draft.

On the surface, the answer is easy. Unearthing quarterbacks who can perform to the level Purdy did last year on a consistent basis is not easy and, in the event Lance suffers another injury, a veteran like Brissett or Dalton is better-equipped to keep the Niners afloat than a rookie such as Thompson-Robinson.

Yet Brissett, who finished last season 10th in Expected Points Added per play in an impressive year with the Cleveland Browns, and to a lesser extent Dalton – 20th in the NFL with a positive EPA per play for the New Orleans Saints – should be in high demand. If the 49ers cannot land either, then the options become significantly less compelling.

For as much as he has experience thriving in Kyle Shanahan’s system, Matt Ryan’s performance last season for the Indianapolis Colts was one of a quarterback in the dying embers of his career.

There is no guarantee that Ryan, in a hypothetical scenario where he is signed by the 49ers and pressed into action because of injuries, would be able to produce the performances needed to win games. That is obviously also far from a certainty with a rookie, but there are several advantages to going with another first-year quarterback over an established veteran.

Cap and ceiling considerations

For a team that has little salary cap wiggle room, eschewing a veteran in favor of a rookie brings valuable financial flexibility. Using Thompson-Robinson as an example, there are also clear on-field benefits to taking the risk of picking youth over experience.

His presence as an intriguing day two or day-three pick is an illustration of the dual-threat talents that can consistently be found later in modern drafts because of the college game’s emphasis on players who can excel as both a thrower and a runner. While Thompson-Robinson would take much longer to adapt to Kyle Shanahan’s offense, as a quarterback, he is a more comparable talent to Lance and Purdy than the players seemingly under consideration by the 49ers.

With his big-play threat running the ball, Thompson-Robinson would theoretically have little difficulty operating the kind of quarterback-run infused offense the 49ers appeared to be implementing when Lance went down with his season-ending ankle injury in Week 2 last year. His mobility has also allowed him to produce the kind of second-reaction plays throwing the ball that were a feature of Purdy’s emergence in 2022.

The upside with an athletic quarterback of Thompson-Robinson’s talents is markedly higher than with the veterans who are available on the market. The potential floor is also much lower for a quarterback who has significant strides to make as a processor if he is to have a chance of succeeding at the highest level.

But, as he has proven with almost every quarterback who has played for him during his time with San Francisco, Shanahan’s offense is one that raises the floor of quarterbacks and provides significant protection from the flaws of the man under center.

There is less need for such insulation with veterans such as Brissett and Dalton, yet even those quarterbacks eyeing roles as high-end backups may be more expensive to sign in the wake of Derek Carr penning a four-year, $150 million deal with the New Orleans Saints.

Shanahan would probably prefer to bring in a veteran who would quickly be ready to go if Lance were to get hurt, with Purdy still unavailable.

But the hope is Purdy’s in-season absence will be a short one. Given their other needs and the limited salary cap space the 49ers possess, committing a large chunk of their financial resources to a third-string quarterback whom they hope will not have to see the field does not represent value for money.

The risk with a rookie, regardless of whether it is Thompson-Robinson or another of the mid to late-round prospects, is substantially increased.

Still, a more astute deployment of the salary cap space the Niners do have may be to bet on Lance and Purdy to stay healthy – however improbable that may seem – and on Shanahan, quarterback coach Brian Griese and the offensive staff to develop another quarterback while spending elsewhere to solidify one of the NFL’s premier support systems.