Long before the 49ers decided to use four draft picks to select his heir apparent, Jimmy Garoppolo’s contract was drawing the ire of fans and pundits. Although Garoppolo is set to take up 13.5 percent of the salary cap in 2021, the contract made complete sense when it was signed in 2018 and still does.
From the moment that the 49ers made the trade with the New England Patriots to obtain the quarterback, the future contract for Garoppolo was a topic of discussion. That’s what happens when you trade for a potential franchise quarterback with a contract that is set to expire.
Once Garoppolo touched the field and led San Francisco to five straight victories to finish out what had been an otherwise dismal 2017 season, the parameters of the impending contract became clear: they could choose to use the franchise tag on Garoppolo to prove his value, or give him a multi-year deal.
San Francisco ultimately decided to give Garoppolo a multi-year contract at about the same annual value as what they would have paid had they chosen to use the franchise tag. By choosing to do this, the 49ers gave themselves flexibility to move cap hits around. For example, in the first year of the new deal, the 49ers were set to have a large amount of available cap space so the 49ers filled the gap by creating a $37 million cap hit for Garoppolo.
The high cap hit of 2018 led to a lower cap total of only $20 million in 2019. This low cap total allowed the 49ers to be active in free agency, leading to the trade for Dee Ford and Kwon Alexander among others. Both veterans would play a large role in the improvement of the 49ers defense which led to a trip to the Super Bowl.
In addition to providing San Francisco the flexibility to move cap hits around, the structure of the contract for Garoppolo provided the 49ers the ability to move on from the quarterback following Year 3 with minimal financial impact. That is where things stand currently. While Garoppolo’s cap total for this season is $26.5 million, it would only cost the franchise $2.4 million to move on.
One of the common arguments against the benefits outlined above is that San Francisco should have just given Garoppolo the franchise tag for 2018. The thought behind this argument is that the knee injury suffered by Garoppolo that season would have led to a low cost “prove it” type contract for 2019.
This line of thinking makes sense, but misses the bigger picture. If Garoppolo had been playing for his next big payday in 2019, he would have almost certainly struck gold considering he led the 49ers to the best record in the NFC and a trip to the Super Bowl.
Under this scenario, it is very likely that San Francisco would find themselves at the early stages of a multi-year agreement with Garoppolo that would have made it nearly impossible to move on as they currently are following another season lost due to injury.
The real issue surrounding Garoppolo and the 49ers isn’t the contract, but the quarterback’s inability to stay healthy and show improvement from one season to the next. The San Francisco front office continues to try and sell that they still believe in the quarterback, but this is a case of watch what they do, not what they say. If the 49ers truly believed in Garoppolo they wouldn’t have spent four draft picks to select his replacement, and his cap hit for 2021 would have been lowered through a restructure and an extension.