Who says the NFL never has any trades? After the Houston Texans sent Duane Brown to the Seattle Seahawks to finally provide Seattle with the left tackle it had sought for years, the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers consummated a stunning trade on Monday. The 0-8 Niners were expected to target their quarterback of the future this offseason, but they’ve made a move earlier than anybody expected in trading their 2018 second-round pick to the Patriots for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
The short-term ramifications of the Garoppolo deal aren’t much — the 49ers are all but eliminated from the playoffs and Garoppolo wasn’t playing behind Tom Brady in New England — but there are huge reverberations for a number of players and teams across the league that will be felt in the months and years to come. Let’s break them down and trace the dominoes of the Garoppolo deal:
Jimmy G’s fit in San Francisco
And let’s start with the one player to actually change hands in the deal. The 49ers took half-measures this offseason to address the quarterback position, signing Brian Hoyer as a result of his experience playing under new coach Kyle Shanahan before using a third-round pick on C.J. Beathard. Neither move has borne much fruit. Hoyer posted his worst passer rating in five years before being benched after six games, and Beathard has subsequently been worse. Only the Bears and have Browns have fielded passers with a cumulative Total QBR worse than San Francisco’s 28.4 mark this season.
Enter Garoppolo, who probably won’t start against the Cardinals this week but might very well be ready to enter the lineup against the Giants on Nov. 12. With the 49ers on bye the following week, Garoppolo will likely be under center no later than Nov. 26, when the fourth-year quarterback will be up against the mighty Seattle Seahawks.
Anyone who tells you that Garoppolo will be a great fit for Shanahan’s scheme is guessing. Truthfully, we’re not even sure Garoppolo is a great fit in Josh McDaniels’ scheme, given that the sample size of Garoppolo as a starting quarterback playing meaningful football amounts to six quarters and 63 pass attempts. As I wrote about at the time, Garoppolo looked great while attacking rookie Cardinals cornerback Brandon Williams, who has barely seen the field on defense over the last year. A week later, he beat up a Dolphins pass defense that would end the year ranked 16th in DVOA, targeting linebacker Jelani Jenkins, who has already been on three different rosters this season.
A sprained shoulder ended his time as the Patriots’ starter before Brady returned, and injuries remain a huge unknown in terms of estimating Garoppolo’s value. The 49ers are likely making this deal with the intention of having Garoppolo start under Shanahan in the long term, but there should be no rush in giving Garoppolo a long-term deal because he’s in line to make just $434,158 more over the rest of the season. The Niners can also easily franchise Garoppolo in 2018 at a price which will exceed $23 million, given that general manager John Lynch should have in excess of $100 million in room after carrying over $60 million in unused space from this season’s cap.
The 49ers will also have to be patient with Garoppolo. Shanahan’s reputation holds that his offensive scheme takes a year to percolate before sticking, with the Falcons as the most notable example. Matt Ryan looked frustrated and lost at times in 2015, but he won league MVP behind a better offensive line in 2016. Ryan had a training camp to learn the scheme; Garoppolo will be learning the playbook overnight. We won’t really know what the Niners have under center until the end of the 2018 season.
Garoppolo won’t have much to work with, either, given how beat up the Niners are on offense. The strength of the offense was their tackle duo, but Joe Staley fractured his orbital bone in the loss to the Eagles on Sunday, while breakout right tackle Trent Brown missed the game with a concussion. Garoppolo’s nominal top receiver is Pierre Garcon, but the former Washington standout missed most of the second half against Philadelphia with a neck injury after crashing into Eagles linebackers coach Ken Flajole just before halftime. It’s a drop-off going from Rob Gronkowski, Chris Hogan, and Julian Edelman to George Kittle, Trent Taylor, and Marquise Goodwin, and there’s every reason to believe Garoppolo’s performance will drop accordingly.
In looking at Garoppolo’s possible landing points, though, San Francisco was one of the best-case scenarios. He’ll join an organization that is seriously committed to its coach and general manager, with the Niners having handed both Shanahan and Lynch six-year deals before this season. Garoppolo doesn’t have to worry about joining an organization and having the guys who wanted him leave town for the foreseeable future. He’ll be working with an offensive-minded coach with a track record of improving his quarterbacks. When Staley and Brown are on the field, the 49ers have a pair of useful pass protectors on the edges, even if Staley has slipped some. There are certainly worse places for a quarterback to land.
What the trade means for Kirk Cousins in 2018
If Cousins does leave Washington as a free agent this offseason, the popular assumption was that he would end up in San Francisco. Cousins reportedly clamored to be dealt to the Bay Area during the offseason, given that Washington has shown little interest in signing Cousins to a market-value extension. His fallback plan might have been to play under fellow former Washington offensive coordinator Sean McVay in Los Angeles, but with Jared Goff breaking out after a dismal 2016 campaign, the Rams aren’t going to be in the Cousins market.
After the Garoppolo trade, Cousins’ path out of Washington isn’t anywhere near as clear. If both Los Angeles and San Francisco are blocked, Cousins will be down to a few options. The Giants and Steelers could presumably in the market for a quarterback if Eli Manning or Ben Roethlisberger retire. The Jaguars suddenly look like they’re a good quarterback away from being one of the best teams in football, given how effectively they can run the ball and hold up on defense. The Broncos and Vikings could clear out cap room and move on from their myriad of possible answers under center if Cousins came calling. The Bills are clearing out space and may move on from Tyrod Taylor. The Browns and Jets will happily throw a dump truck of money at Cousins. (The Cardinals probably won’t be able to afford to.)
If Cousins hits the market and wants to get paid, he won’t lack for suitors. No team might be quite as appealing as the familiarity he sought with Shanahan, though, which strengthens Washington’s position. Sure, if Roethlisberger retires, Cousins would be a great replacement, but that’s hardly a lock. It’s entirely possible that the relationship between Cousins and this Washington administration has been destroyed to the point that Cousins might have no choice but to leave, but if Washington finally makes a real offer to its best quarterback in a generation, Cousins might be more apt to listen if Garoppolo’s entrenched in San Francisco.
There’s also a scenario in which the 49ers play this beautifully and end up with the quarterback they wanted all along and extra picks in the process. Let’s say Cousins doesn’t get the franchise tag, hits the market, and wants to play in San Francisco. If Garoppolo plays poorly, the 49ers kept the trade compensation low enough that they can wipe their hands of the deal and just end up with Cousins anyway. (They would theoretically be in line to recoup free-agent compensation, but given that the Niners are likely to be spending in free agency, I doubt they would actually come away with a pick.)
If Garoppolo plays well, though, the Niners can do all kinds of things. They can franchise Garoppolo and trade him to the highest bidder for what would likely be a much stronger return than a second-round pick. They can sign Garoppolo to an extension with a large first-year roster bonus, pay the bonus, and then deal Garoppolo on what amounts to a friendly contract for an even better trade haul. While the chances your “COUSINS” 49ers jersey investment will pay off have dropped precipitously, it’s too early to rule out anything.
What the trade means for Brady, Belichick and the Patriots
Something changed over the last six months for the Patriots. We might not know what happened for a while, but if you believe any of the reports about the sorts of offers the Patriots were expecting to field for Garoppolo this offseason, they played their cards all wrong. NFL executives suggested the Patriots would get a first-round pick in a Garoppolo deal. The Pats were reportedly asking for two first-round picks, but were willing to settle for the first overall pick. The Pats reportedly turned down an overture from the Browns during the first round of the draft for Garoppolo.
If it wasn’t about the trade value, then the Patriots were holding onto Garoppolo as part of some scheme to be revealed after the season. They wanted Garoppolo because he was about to be the “next great quarterback” in New England. The Pats were going to franchise Garoppolo and trade him to the highest bidder. Maybe Don Yee, the agent to both Patriots passers, would arrange for Garoppolo to sign a new deal with a structure that would see his salary soar just as Tom Brady ran off into a field of kale. The Patriots would come away with some outsized return because Bill Belichick is always going to be smarter than the guy on the other side of the table.
After Monday’s trade, Occam’s Razor suggests none of that to be true. The Patriots weren’t going to be able to slap the franchise tag on Garoppolo because of their needs on defense as cornerback Malcolm Butler hits free agency. Belichick doesn’t appear to think Garoppolo is his quarterback of the future, because if he thought Garoppolo was going to be a franchise passer for the next decade, the same guy who has kicked every other Patriots legend out the door would have moved on from Brady this offseason. The Patriots probably weren’t offered a juicy first-round pick this offseason, and while they waited to see if any competitor got desperate and made them a Sam Bradford-sized offer, the trade never came.
In the end, the Patriots waited until just about the last second and took the best available offer on the table. If you treat the offers that might have been available six months ago as sunk costs and evaluate what the Patriots could have done with Garoppolo from this point forward, this is a reasonable return. The best-case scenario would have seen the Patriots come away with a compensatory pick at the bottom of the third round of the 2019 draft, somewhere between picks 97 and 100, and that would only come if New England didn’t make another foray into high-level free agency this offseason.
Instead, the Patriots guarantee themselves a high second-round pick in the 2018 draft, a much better selection and one that comes a year earlier. The 49ers are the second-worst team in football and have a 98.6 percent chance, per the Football Power Index, of finishing among the league’s five worst teams. The Pats should come away with a pick between 33 and 37 and get that selection next April, which is helpful for a team that lost its first-round pick in 2016 because of the Deflategate scandal and traded its 2017 first-rounder for Brandin Cooks.
Belichick loves high second-round picks, which have proven to be the most valuable selections of the draft in terms of surplus value. He has drafted players like Eugene Wilson and Patrick Chung at the top of the second round in years past, but Belichick also loves trading down and around the draft, and a high second-round pick gives him plenty of options. If it’s the 33rd selection, Belichick will likely try to flip it for a future first-round pick from some overzealous team.
Belichick might also try to trade the pick for talent to win now. One report suggests that Belichick will look to trade the pick for defensive line help, a logical target given the wildly frustrating play of the Patriots this season. The problem is that the Patriots only have about $5.4 million in cap room, which will limit their options. They can’t fit someone like Ziggy Ansah into their remaining cap space without making another deal.
There also just aren’t many useful defensive linemen available from teams looking to give away talent, especially after the Bills dealt away the Marcell Dareus contract last week. The widespread parity around the NFL means that the vast majority of teams are still in contention and inclined to hold onto their pass rushers and interior linemen. The 49ers, coincidentally, would have been a plausible trade candidate with guys like Elvis Dumervil and Aaron Lynch struggling to get regular snaps. Belichick could send a late-round pick to acquire a player like Hau’oli Kikaha, but there’s not a defensive disruptor who would be both available and worth a high second-round pick via trade.
Trading Garoppolo suggests that the Patriots didn’t believe he was their quarterback of the future. It might also say something about Brady, who continues to play at a high level, even with inconsistent offensive line play and Edelman out of the lineup. It’s possible the Patriots were waiting to see if Brady slipped this season before making a decision on Garoppolo, but that seems far less decisive than Belichick typically is with talent evaluation. The Garoppolo trade suggests that the Pats expect to keep Brady around through the end of his current deal, which expires in 2019. If they draft a replacement for Garoppolo this offseason, if all goes right, the new guy will get three years to study under Brady before presumably taking over in 2020.
It might also say something about Belichick, who has been making moves designed to win now. The Patriots traded for players and went after free agents in the past, but those moves were made sparingly. Think about what the Pats did this offseason. They traded a first-round pick for Cooks, who is two years from unrestricted free agency. They signed Stephon Gilmore to a top-dollar deal at cornerback. The Pats didn’t deal Butler to the Saints, even if it means getting a lesser pick as free-agent compensation next year. They signed two veteran running backs in Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee.
The only move that didn’t jibe with the win-now philosophy was holding onto Garoppolo when the Pats could have gotten a player or draft picks which would have netted them players for the 2017 roster. Now, that’s changed, although (barring a trade this week) the player won’t join the Patriots until 2018. It’s difficult to imagine him doing anything else, but you have to wonder whether Belichick plans to be coaching the Patriots after Brady decides to retire.
We won’t know for years whether the Patriots were right to trade away Garoppolo for a second-round pick. In terms of 2017, though, the Garoppolo trade is unlikely to hurt the Patriots. The idea that the Patriots needed Garoppolo as a backup in case Brady got injured was always too concerned with the worst-case scenario, given that Brady has suffered two injuries which caused him to miss meaningful time since taking over as the starter in 2001, neither of which have come in the last decade. It’s still unclear whether Garoppolo is really that much better than a typical backup quarterback in McDaniels’ system, and trading Garoppolo wouldn’t have precluded the Patriots from targeting a viable backup to sit behind Brady. The choice wasn’t between Garoppolo and an emergency quarterback like Edelman; it was between Garoppolo and a veteran like Hoyer, who the Patriots might have looked at in the event of a Garoppolo deal.
Now, it’s likely Hoyer will be returning to his former team, as the 49ers released Hoyer after making the trade Monday night. Reports suggested that Hoyer was initially part of the trade, with the Patriots instead asking for Hoyer to be released for compensatory pick purposes. Given that the Pats have no other passers on the roster besides Brady after trading Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett this season, it seems exceedingly likely Hoyer will be backing up Brady when the Patriots return from bye.
49ers now have options
The 49ers might have chosen to wait until the offseason before attempting to sign Garoppolo, but their desire to make a move now is telling. As mentioned earlier, they likely wanted to evaluate Garoppolo before committing to him financially as their quarterback of the future, information they’ll get over the second half of this season. Outside of Cousins or someone out of the box like Drew Brees, they won’t have better information on any of the quarterbacks they might be considering over the next decade than the knowledge they’re about to gain on Garoppolo.
The trade also implies that the 49ers believe Garoppolo was probably their best option. It likely insinuates that their chances of coming away with Cousins may not have been great all along; if the Niners felt confident they would be in line to sign Cousins in March, even given the scenario I mentioned earlier, they probably wouldn’t have bothered to make this trade. Garoppolo serves no purpose as a short-term rental.
In addition, the deal might also suggest that the 49ers aren’t particularly impressed with this year’s crop of draft-eligible quarterbacks. While the college season isn’t close to finishing and the pre-draft scouting process hasn’t yet started, the Niners might have seen enough to sense that they didn’t want to make a bet on someone like Josh Rosen or Josh Allen. With the Browns heavy favorites to finish with the first overall pick and draft a quarterback, San Francisco might have preferred Garoppolo to a shot at the second-best passer in this year’s class.
Other teams will disagree, of course, which opens up an exciting opportunity for the Niners if they do finish with the second overall pick, as is currently projected. In writing about the Colts last week, I mentioned that Indianapolis found itself in the relatively enviable situation of having a top-three pick in a class full of quarterbacks without needing a quarterback themselves. The Colts could then swap their pick to a team which desperately wanted one of the passers for a bevy of selections, allowing Indy to rebuild their defense and offensive line in the process.
If the 49ers are going to go with Garoppolo, they can beat the Colts to the punch and do the same thing with the second overall pick. Trading a second-round pick for Garoppolo now won’t matter much if the 49ers can deal their top pick for multiple first-rounders. As we saw when they traded with the Bears this year, the Niners don’t need to believe in a franchise quarterback to pick up extra selections. They just need one other team to believe.
Browns could go QB at No. 1 in draft
Things haven’t changed much, if only because the Browns are still comfortable favorites to finish ahead of the 49ers and end up with the first overall pick. They might have pursued Garoppolo this offseason, and might have come away with him had Cousins signed with the 49ers, but there are too many teams with far more appealing situations who would have likely pipped the Browns to their longtime crush.