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What If Jimmy Garoppolo Is Not the Right 49ers Quarterback?

What If Jimmy Garoppolo Is Not the Right 49ers Quarterback?

It all started as quite a dream for Jimmy Garoppolo. He was a second-round draft pick out of Eastern Illinois in 2014, chosen 62nd by the New England Patriots. Handsome Jimmy G didn’t get to play that season behind Patriots legend Tom Brady, but he got a lot of fans anyway and held Brady’s clipboard all the way to a Super Bowl win as a rookie.

Two years later, Garoppolo got a chance to start after Brady was suspended for DeflateGate, and he went 2–0 for New England before getting injured. On Halloween 2017, Garoppolo was traded to the San Francisco 49ers. Less than a month later, he made his first start and led the 49ers to a 5–0 record to close the season. A month after the season ended, Garoppolo was rewarded for his play with a five-year $137.5 million contract, the richest in NFL history.

It’s hard to imagine more of a dream start to an NFL career. A Super Bowl win backing up perhaps the greatest quarterback of all time and a 7–0 record as a starter in spot duty. Hype was understandably high for Garoppolo as he looked forward to his first season as the full-time starter last fall in Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers offense.

But 2018 was a disaster for Garoppolo. He played only three games for San Francisco before tearing his ACL, prematurely ending his season. He went 1–2 in his starts and completed under 60% of his passes for the first time in his career. The 49ers fell apart without Garoppolo before catching their stride late under backup-backup quarterback Nick Mullens.

Still, Garoppolo is 8–2 lifetime and still owed a heap of money, so it was only a matter of time and knee rehabilitation until he got his job back this fall.

Garoppolo made his return to football on Monday night against the Broncos but struggled mightily

On Monday night, Garoppolo finally played a real live NFL game for the first time in almost a full calendar year in front of a national Monday Night Football audience in Denver. It… did not go well.

Garoppolo’s first pass was batted to the ground by a defensive lineman after staring down his receiver. His second pass came under pressure as he floated a pass all the way across the field, and the ball was picked off by Denver. The second drive didn’t get much better. Garoppolo had another telegraphed ball batted down at the line, and he nearly threw a second interception. It should have been a pick-six but was dropped by the defender.

San Francisco had reportedly planned to play Garoppolo only two drives, but with the drives so short, they gave him a third drive. It wasn’t much better, with a fifth straight incompletion to open the game before finally completing his only pass for 0 yards to RB Matt Breida.

Add it all up and Garoppolo ran 10 plays for 29 yards. The 49ers gained one first down with him on the field – a 12-yard run by Tevin Coleman to open the game. Garoppolo looked rusty and maybe a little nervous. His feet were constantly shuffling in the pocket, a bit of happy feet syndrome that meant his feet were rarely set on throws and sent the ball sailing in the wrong direction. He also seemed a bit slow on reads, locking in on a receiver and telegraphing his intentions to the defense.

And to Denver’s credit, their defense was certainly up for the challenge. The Broncos pass rush looked great, led by star-in-the-making Bradley Chubb, who had a strip-sack on the drive right after Garoppolo left the game. It’s never easy to come back after a year away from the game. To do so against a nasty defensive pass rush on the road in the Monday night spotlight is all the more difficult.

Garoppolo’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad preseason start doesn’t mean everything… but it does mean something

And let’s be clear: we aren’t rushing to judgment on 10 measly preseason plays. But Garoppolo’s 1-for-6 for 0 yards and an interception were a pretty rough start to the new year. ESPN reported it was the first time in Garoppolo’s career he had ever played the whole first quarter without a single yard. He finished with a 0.0 quarterback rating.

That doesn’t mean everything… but it does mean something.

It means something for a couple of reasons beyond a few preseason plays. Any quarterback can have a tough quarter, especially one in his first game time in almost a year. Nothing can simulate the speed of a real, live NFL game, and it showed, as things looked a split second slow for Garoppolo. That’s fine – it’s expected, really. That’s what preseason is for.

The problem is that even if this isn’t a red flag, it’s at least a yellow one, and it’s not the first one. Reports out of 49ers camp are that Garoppolo is struggling some there too. It was widely reported that Garoppolo threw interceptions on five straight passes at one point. If preseason games don’t mean much, practice stats mean even less – but five straight interceptions is horrible even if you’re playing in your backyard.

Garoppolo’s other big problem: he may have some serious QB competition on the roster in Nick Mullens

There’s one other problem that may grow if Garoppolo continues to struggle: Garoppolo might not be the only good quarterback on the roster. Undrafted and little known Nick Mullens made his debut last November and starred on Thursday Night Football, demolishing the Oakland Raiders from across the bay. He threw for 3 touchdowns in his debut, the first-ever 49er to do so at a franchise where that stat really means something.

Steve Young and Joe Montana aren’t the only legends Mullens has added his name in lights next to. He also played college ball for the Southern Miss Golden Eagles, and in 2015, he set school records for passing yardage with 4476 yards and for TDs with 38 passing scores. Not bad, but it’s just Southern Miss, right? Well, perhaps you forgot about one denim jeans wearing Brett Favre, the pride of Southern Miss. Nick Mullens is not exactly a nobody. He has a serious pedigree all of his own.

Mullens went on to start eight games for the 49ers last fall. He threw for 2277 yards and 13 TDs, completing 64.2% of his passes. That’s a pace of well over 4000 yards and almost 25 TDs a season! That’s not just good for an undrafted third-string quarterback – it’s flat out good for any QB.

Compare those eight-and-a-half Mullens games to the eight-and-a-half played by Garoppolo with the 49ers. Jimmy G has thrown for 2278 yards and 12 TDs, completing 64.8% of his passes. Whoa! Those numbers are almost identical, in nearly identical amounts of playing time. They even each stepped into a lost season in November and helped the team end on a good note.

Those numbers don’t mean Garoppolo is bad, and they don’t mean Mullens is good either. But they do make it look like these two quarterbacks should be considered pretty well equal based on production so far. Mullens’s numbers are slightly better. He’s a couple of completions and literally one yard short of Garoppolo but threw for an extra TD and two fewer interceptions (10 to 12). But really, it’s a draw. It’s absolutely even.

The 49ers have invested far more in Jimmy Garoppolo than in Nick Mullens. But how much does that really matter?

Of course, it’s not even, because the 49ers investment is uneven. Garoppolo still has four years left on that record-breaking $137.5 million contract. As for Mullens? He signed a two-year deal last fall worth $1.05 million. Slight difference there. The 49ers also traded a second-round pick for Garoppolo. They got Mullens for free. The optics here lean heavily toward Garoppolo.

But the 49ers are paying both of these guys this season either way. Optics will probably force them to let Garoppolo begin the year as a starter. But what if he doesn’t finish it?

Look, I’m just a third-party neutral, observing this from the outside. But if I notice Mullens looks good this easily, you can bet the fans do too, and they’ll let the team know about it. And you better believe the coaches already have at least one eye on Mullens, too.

Interestingly enough, Mullens wasn’t even the second quarterback to enter the game for San Francisco on Monday night. That was C.J. Beathard, the same man who backed up Garoppolo last fall and got the starts after Jimmy G’s injury. Beathard struggled and did not put up numbers to match his companions, and Mullens was his eventual replacement.

Beathard played five series without really doing anything particularly notable before giving way to Mullens in the fourth quarter. Mullens threw only three passes but completed two of them, both to Kendrick Bourne, including a nifty fade pass for a touchdown. It was the only 49ers passing touchdown of the night.

So is Beathard the 49ers backup quarterback then, since he came in second and played so much more? Maybe. San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan has been coy with the media so far, telling them the backup quarterback spot is up for grabs. But read between the lines a little bit, and you can see what might be happening here. Mullens was brilliant in the preseason opener, receiving the highest PFF grade of anyone on the 49ers roster.

Do you push a player like that further down your bench? Probably not. Most NFL teams keep only two quarterbacks on the roster for the regular season, so the 49ers probably weren’t planning to keep Garoppolo and Beathard and Mullens. So maybe they elevated him Monday night and gave him a lot of playing time in hopes of drawing a trade partner? Yes, that certainly seems plausible.

Could Garoppolo get off to a quick start this fall? He might have to.

The 49ers open the season with a dream schedule, drawing the Bucs and Bengals to start the year. Garoppolo will never have a better chance to hit the ground running. But the schedule stiffens in a hurry after that. Starting in Week 3, the 49ers face the Steelers, Browns, and Rams. That’s three tough, nasty defenses and three games where San Francisco will likely be the underdog in all three.

The 49ers can’t afford to have a shaky quarterback during that stretch, especially if the teammates or coaches start to wonder whether Garoppolo is the right man for the job, too. If Garoppolo struggles early in a game and the 49ers know they have one of the league’s most capable backups waiting on the sidelines, they’re going to have to give him a shot at some point.

Garoppolo is expensive, but that’s sunk cost this season, and the coach’s job is to win games. To do that, Shanahan has to play his best quarterback. And as even as these two look, once you add in Garoppolo’s injury recovery, it’s reasonable to think Mullens (or Beathard) could get some playing time this season. Maybe a lot.

Why does any of this matter? Who really cares if Garoppolo starts or sits?

So what does this all mean for you? You’re not a 49ers fan (or if you are, you certainly have a lot more thoughts on this situation than the average reader). You’re just a football fan and a gambler.

Well, we’re here to make money, and it’s beginning to look like Garoppolo might not necessarily be a winning bet. He might be a name to avoid early if you’re playing fantasy football, or if you’re in a two-QB league, you might think about spending a last-round pick on Nick Mullens, just in case.

Garoppolo is the favorite to win Comeback Player of the Year coming in at +325. If you don’t believe he’s in for a big season, that opens the door to another player with longer odds, perhaps someone like Carson Wentz (+1200), Cam Newton (+1400), or Earl Thomas (+1600).

Garoppolo is +3500 to lead the league in passing touchdowns, +4000 to lead it in yardage, and +3300 to win MVP. Those seem like fair enough odds if you believe Garoppolo will be healthy and play all year looking like he has in the past. But given what we’re seeing right now, it seems at the very least reasonable to expect a slower start out of the gates for Garoppolo as he gets back to game speed.

But the real intriguing numbers are 4000 and 25.5. Those are the lines has set for Garoppolo’s passing yard total and his passing touchdowns. Remember, both Garoppolo and Mullens have paced to almost exactly those numbers so far, around 4000 yards and just under 25 TDs. But pace means 16 games, and there are a growing number of reasons to wonder if Garoppolo gets all 16 games to get his numbers.

What if he’s not ready to start the first game or two of the season? Even if he’s great for 14 games after that, he’ll need to play at a 4500/29 pace in those games to hit his overs. Or what if Garoppolo has an injury setback and misses a game? What if he has a tough first half and a couple of interceptions, and what if he gets benched for a very competent backup? What if his backup even steals a start or two?

The fact is that both Garoppolo’s and Mullens’s numbers are probably a little inflated. Remember, the bulk of those stats were compiled in late-season games once the 49ers were already out of things, playing a lot of garbage time and playing from behind at times. That doesn’t invalidate the numbers totally but it does make you take them with a grain of salt.

But the 4000 and 25.5 lines are expecting Garoppolo to come back healthy Week 1, play a full 16-game slate, and continue producing as well as he ever has – against defenses who are ready for him and not napping against an overmatched opponent as they await the playoffs. That’s a big ask for anyone, a guy that hasn’t played in a year after injury and one who has started only 10 games in his entire career.

It’s never fun betting against someone’s health or success, but everything here points toward the under-4000 and under-25.5 lines looking like excellent, winning plays. All the better if you can find any overs for Nick Mullens to go along with them. Either way, one man’s loss is another man’s gain. It’s time to make some money.