Since the 49ers 2020 season ended on January 3, it seems as though every quarterback in the NFL has been named as a potential replacement for Jimmy Garoppolo. Is that an overstatement? Sure, but nearly every day there is a new name thrown into the mix.
The team brought this speculation upon themselves during their end of year press conference. When asked about the Garoppolo’s future in San Francisco, neither John Lynch or Kyle Shanahan would definitively state that he would be returning for 2021. This is why every national outlet mentions San Francisco about being a potential landing spot for quarterbacks through a trade, free agency or the draft.
While Deshaun Watson continues to be the hottest name among quarterbacks who may be on the move, Sam Darnold hasn’t been too far behind.
Darnold has started 38 games since being taken with the third selection of the 2018 NFL Draft, posting a record of only 13-25 during that time. Not very good at all. What is not told by the record is the lack of talent and coaching that has surrounded Darnold since his arrival in New York.
As a rookie Darnold found himself stuck with a defensive minded head coach, Todd Bowles, and Jeremy Bates as his offensive coordinator. Bates had been an offensive coordinator only one time prior to 2018, spending 2010 as the offensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks. Bates wasn’t successful in his first chance and was about as bad the second time around.
With bad coaching and not much talent around him, Darnold struggled as a rookie, throwing nearly as many interceptions as touchdowns and finishing with a quarterback rating of 77.6. One area of positivity for Darnold in 2018 was that he led the Jets to all four of their victories during a 4-12 season.
2019 would be a solid year for Darnold. Bowles and Bates had been fired at the end of the previous season and replaced by Adam Gase. While not much of an upgrade, at least Gase brought in some additional talent for the offense. With Le’Veon bell starting 15 games at running back, and a receiving corps comprised of Jamison Crowder, Robby Anderson and Demaryius Thomas, Darnold had the best supporting cast of his career and it showed.
Darnold was able to increase his touchdown percentage while lowering his interception percentage and would finish the season with a career best quarterback rating of 84.3. The improvement didn’t just show up in the stat sheet, it was evident on the scoreboard as well. The Jets would finish 2019 with a 7-6 record with Darnold as their starter.
Unfortunately for Darnold, all of the positivity from 2019 was wiped away this past season. With all of his top weapons gone, it was back to the dark days of his rookie season for Darnold. The now third year quarterback found himself stuck with Gase and only Crowder still on the team. The results were once again miserable, and Darnold has become the next quarterback taken high in the draft to not reach the potential.
This brings us to the question, should the 49ers make a run for Darnold?
While Darnold has definitely been hampered by poor coaching and a poor supporting cast throughout his first three years in the NFL, it goes deeper than that. There’s no doubt that Darnold has all of the physical traits you would want in a quarterback. He has good size, is very athletic and has a terrific arm. The problem is what actually happens during the games.
When watching Darnold play in 2019, his best season, you see a quarterback that shows many of the same strengths and weaknesses as Jimmy Garoppolo. Without the help of clearly defined reads, Darnold struggles to find the open receiver, often checking it down or throwing to a receiver that he had decided on before receiving the snap.
Also, like Garoppolo, Darnold doesn’t operate very well from inside the pocket. Often, he will take off at the slightest sign of pressure.
Yes, there may be some issues related to the play calls, offensive line, and so on, but there are about as many times that Darnold’s inability to read the defense or sit in the pocket creates the problems.
Given how similar the two are, making a trade to bring in Darnold would just be repeating the same mistake the 49ers made in 2017 when they traded for Garoppolo.
For starters, the 49ers would need to give up draft capital to obtain Darnold, likely a second or third round draft pick at best. With the team in need of filling a number of holes due to free agents likely leaving, this would take away at least one cheap depth player or possible starter.
Another reason to steer clear of this trade is while the 49ers will be able to take advantage of Darnold’s low salary in 2021, they will be looking at needing to give franchise type money in a new contract to retain his services, just as they were with Garoppolo heading into 2018.
San Francisco would be much better off going with a veteran such as Andy Dalton or Ryan Fitzpatrick on a cheaper one-year deal in the range of $7 million. Both are capable of running the Shanahan offense better than what the 49ers received with Garoppolo out of the lineup in 2020.
After signing the veteran in free agency, San Francisco should turn to the draft to get their quarterback for the future. Mac Jones would be the best option in round one, but they could also find good value in Kyle Trask, Kellen Mond, or Davis Mills in Rounds 2 through 4.
If the 49ers go this route, they will be able to create salary cap savings for the next four years by having a starting quarterback take up fewer than $8-10 million in cap space. This will allow for additional money to be spent to retain top players such as Fred Warner, and build a team that can compete for conference championships for multiple years to come.