MAQB: The 49ers' Injury Issues Should Have Them Thinking About Their Future

The Niners have had so many injuries, and soon it may be decision time on Jimmy Garoppolo. Plus, notes on the players who have been traded the last few days and others who could be on the move soon.
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The trade deadline is less than 24 hours away. Obviously that’ll be America’s focus on Tuesday. Let’s dive into the news …

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• The Niners’ injury situation has reached critical mass, and it’s fair now to start looking at their future. And that starts at the most important position on the field. Jimmy Garoppolo’s going to miss the next month or so, and that will inevitably raise questions on where the team goes at the position going forward. Garoppolo is on the books for a non-guaranteed $25.5 million in 2021 and $25.6 million in 2022, meaning San Francisco can easily bail from his deal in the spring.

Here’s my read on the situation: The Niners like Garoppolo, and maybe even more so now that they got a look at what they looked like with Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard under center. And I think they’d be fine going forward with him in 2021. But are their eyes going to be open to a potential upgrade? I think they will be. Maybe they’ll wind up with a high pick, and a shot at someone like North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, regarded by scouts as a strong fit for the Shanahan offense. Maybe a Shanahan-connected QB like Matt Ryan or Kirk Cousins will be available. Or maybe their best option will be to stick with Garoppolo.

The upshot here is that because of how Garoppolo’s contract is set up, and how it’s aged (he’s paid like a high-end pass-rusher at this point), the team has a ton of flexibility. They, of course, don’t have to make a decision on this for a while. And based on the people they have making these decisions, I think it make sense to trust the Niners will get this one right, even if it takes a little time to get there.

• One thing that I’ll take from a conversation I had with Garoppolo eight days ago into this situation is how he felt like the culture in San Francisco mirrored what he saw in New England in his formative years as an NFL player, in regard to how they deal with injuries. And really, as the quarterback explained it, it’s about not moving the bar when circumstances change on the team.

“I think the standard when I first came here wasn't set or anything like that,” he said. “We had a really young team. But as guys got older, we kind of have that. It's hard to put your finger on that. But like I said, the leaders and captains are setting the example. This is how we play, this is what we do. It just puts your team in a good spot. It allows the coaches to coach and it allows the players to play."

And it’ll be imperative now that Garoppolo is among those the Niners have to replace for a while.

• At risk of making this a Niners column, the Kwon Alexander trade was exactly what it looks like—a chance for San Francisco to dump salary at a spot where it likes its depth (Dre Greenlaw will play a bigger role, and another second-year player, Azeez Al-Shaair, will see more on-field opportunity too). The team can also start to look at extending other guys (Richard Sherman, Trent Williams, Jason Verrett and Kyle Juszczyk are among the vets who are up after this year).

And the Saints added another piece in an all-in year, with Alexander a nice athletic fit with Demario Davis and Alex Anzalone in the Saints’ linebacker room.

But what was really interesting to me here was the pick that the Saints sent the Niners to do the deal—and more specifically, the condition on it. It’s a 2022 fifth-round pick that becomes a 2021 fifth-rounder if Alexander hits play-time markers as a Saint. Conditions like that to move a pick up a round are common. But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a deal where a condition moves a pick up a year.

• I’ll be honest: Getting the Avery Williamson deal into the morning column slipped my mind at 3 a.m. last night, so I figured we’d get to it here. Williamson is going with a 2022 seventh-round pick from the Jets to the Steelers for a 2022 fifth-round pick. The Jets have been looking at moving Williamson for a while, and getting the pick and his money off their books makes this move plenty worthwhile. He was going to be gone after this year anyway.

As for the Steelers, this one’s similarly simple. They lost a rising star, in Devin Bush, in the middle of their defense (to a torn ACL). Vince Williams is still there, and Robert Spillane has been very solid stepping into a more prominent role. But that doesn’t mean Bush hasn’t been missed, and adding a solid, experienced, run-stuffing, two-down linebacker like Williamson gives the team a layer of insurance and the flexibility to lighten the load on the other two.

It’s a good move for a team that’s very much in the running for a championship right now, and the cost, really, was a pick was swap two Aprils from now and $3.44 million.

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• Desmond King went from First-Team All-Pro in 2018 to expendable this year with the Chargers’ addition of Chris Harris. Harris got hurt, so King wound up playing as the team’s nickel corner. But his availability was made clear in the process of all this, and via Tuesday’s trade to Tennessee (for a 2021 sixth-round pick), he’s found a good home.

King’s strength as a player is in his versatility—he can play safety and corner; blitz, cover and tackle—which makes him Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel’s kind of player from the jump.

• So what’s next? Things were quiet Monday afternoon after the Alexander and King trades. We’ve been over the available names ad nauseam by now, and there are a lot of them. My understanding is the asking prices are still too high, especially with teams looking ahead toward a 2021 season with a salary cap that could fall nearly $25 million year over year. For two reasons, it’s a problem.

One, teams are valuing draft picks a little differently with the 2020 revenue shortfall set to impact the 2021 cap. Simply put, draft picks become the cheap talent on your roster, and cheaper talent will be at a premium over the next two or three years because of the expected falling cap numbers.

Two, teams are specifically looking to move big-salaried veterans. So if you’re planning to keep a guy in 2021—which you’d like to do, if you’re trading draft capital for him—you have to consider how he fits into your cap not just for this year, but next year too. Since it’ll be, by definition, more difficult to make that work, you can imagine how teams would be less eager to fork over picks (again, cheap talent) to do that.

• The Texans will be interesting at the deadline, again, having made clear that they’ll listen on all but four players (Deshaun Watson. J.J. Watt, Laremy Tunsil and Tytus Howard). I’m told that fourth-year receiver Will Fuller has drawn the most interest from other teams, with 24-year-old linebacker Jacob Martin standing as another who’s elicited phone calls.

Fuller’s in a contract year, and has his injury issues, but is a big play waiting to happen when he’s healthy.

• Since I had him on the phone after Sunday’s win, I did want to ask Bills coach Sean McDermott about defending Cam Newton—he, of course, was with Newton in Carolina for six years, so he has intimate knowledge of who Cam was in his prime, and now has coached against this version of the 2015 NFL MVP. How he sees Cam now?

"Well, honestly, I expected the best version of Cam, and I think we got that today,” McDermott said Sunday. “We expected him to run the ball or have the opportunity to run the ball. They did that. I thought he threw the ball on target today. This is why he's a former MVP in the league. We've got a lot of respect for the Patriots and Cam Newton as well."

One key in there, in having talked to coaches and evaluators who’ve worked with Cam in the past over the last week or so: “We expected him to run the ball.” To a man, everyone I talked to about Newton’s struggles against the Broncos and Niners explained how he’s not quite the same player when the run game isn’t really rolling. Against the Niners, the Patriots called just two runs for Newton, and the scoreboard made it more difficult for New England to stick with its ground game.

On Sunday, Newton looked better, and the Patriots getting the run game going (34 carries, 188 yards) was no small part of that.

• People have compared the sanctions against Bears WR Javon Wims (a two-game suspension) to what Washington LB Jon Bostic got (a fine), and I have one thing to say to those people: Stop. I didn’t like Bostic’s hit on Andy Dalton either, but Dalton did slide a little late, and the play itself was within the context of the game. What Wims did was totally extracurricular and had to be dealt with separately.

I’m sick, in general, of the, “Welllllllll, what about?” stuff in these sorts of cases to begin with. But comparing these two strikes me as particularly dumb.

• As a reminder, NFL players and employees (both of the teams and the league) have a day off Tuesday to go vote. It’s a day off a lot of guys won’t take, of course, because of the trade deadline. But it’s a good gesture by the league, and a worthwhile one if you look at how the number of players around the league who are registered to vote has risen. So here’s hoping all of them, and all of you, have a safe and easy process exercising your constitutional rights on Tuesday.