You’d forgive the San Francisco 49ers for thinking 2020 just wasn’t meant to be their year. After losing to the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV in February, the 4-4 Niners have dealt with a catastrophic flurry of injuries that have served to compromise their chances of competing in the NFC this season. They were preseason favorites to retain their division title, but they currently sit in last place in the NFC West. Reality even set in further on Wednesday when the team was forced to shut down its facility after a positive COVID-19 test.
The biggest reason the 49ers are vulnerable is their terrifying run of injuries. This all started over the summer, when wide receiver Deebo Samuel suffered a Jones fracture in his foot. It might have peaked in Sunday’s loss to the Seahawks, when they lost starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to his second high-ankle sprain of the season and star tight end George Kittle to a broken foot. Both players are expected to miss about eight weeks, and if the 49ers aren’t in contention by the time they’re ready to return, they could miss the rest of the season.
This is already the second time Garoppolo and Kittle have each been forced to miss time after suffering an injury in the same game, which should tell you how disastrously this season has gone for the 49ers. At one time or another, going position by position, they have lost or been without …
Their starting quarterback. (They’ve played all three quarterbacks this season, but that was because Nick Mullens was benched during the Eagles game.)
Their top four running backs.
Five of their top six wide receivers. The sixth receiver is Kendrick Bourne, who just tested positive for COVID-19 and is out for Thursday night’s game against the Packers.
Their top two tight ends.
Their top two centers. (Star center Weston Richburg hasn’t played all year after tearing his patellar tendon last year.)
Five members of their eight-man rotation at defensive line, including both of their star edge rushers.
Their top four cornerbacks and both of their starting safeties.
Teams such as the Chargers, Cowboys and Eagles also have a right to complain about how injuries have hurt their rosters, but the 49ers are on a different level. Injuries have totally reshaped what they look like on a week-to-week basis. It’s not just their starters who have gotten hurt; the guys they’ve signed to replace their starters — wide receivers Tavon Austin and J.J. Nelson and edge rusher Ezekiel Ansah — have also gone down injured after arriving in town. The Niners aren’t just banged up; they’re unrecognizable.
In thinking about this team, a few questions come to mind, both for what’s happened in 2020 and what might happen in 2021. There might be lessons to be learned, and there’s a developing situation at quarterback that could end up creating a domino effect around the league next offseason. Let’s start, though, by asking a few questions about this roster.
Jump to a section:
The 49ers’ history of injury-hit fliers
Is there a Super Bowl losers’ curse?
Can they fix it for this season — or next?
Is Jimmy G the answer at quarterback?
Ranking options to replace Jimmy G in 2021
Could the 49ers have seen this coming?
While they couldn’t have anticipated anything this extreme, it’s fair to say that the 49ers have been comfortable pursuing players with injury histories, some of whom have gone down injured this year. Several of their free agents were signed immediately after season-ending injuries. Alexander missed 18 games over four seasons in Tampa and tore his ACL in his final season with the Bucs. Cornerback Richard Sherman was coming off of a torn Achilles in Seattle, and Richburg missed 12 games with a concussion in his final season with the Giants. Pass-rusher Dee Ford played 16 games in his final season with the Chiefs, but he missed 10 games in 2017 with a back issue. Tight end Jordan Reed had been waylaid by injuries during his time in Washington. Garoppolo had injury concerns I’ll get to later.
The organization has also been comfortable drafting players who have fallen in the draft due to injuries. One guy who comes to mind is Kittle, who missed seven games over his final two seasons at Iowa with injuries. The 49ers obviously don’t regret drafting him in the fifth round given what he can do on the field, but he missed time in 2019 and will miss most of the 2020 season. Samuel missed significant time at South Carolina with a broken leg. Defensive end Nick Bosa didn’t drop in the draft, but he tore his ACL in high school and sat out most of his final year at Ohio State with a core muscle injury. Running back Jerick McKinnon and defensive backs Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt have also struggled to stay on the field throughout their Niners careers despite having solid health histories before arriving in town.
Jeff Saturday and Ryan Clark react to George Kittle (broken bone in his foot) and Jimmy Garoppolo (high ankle sprain) being ruled out for multiple weeks — and what this means for the 49ers.
A couple of these players have actually stayed healthy this season. McKinnon has been able to stay on the field after missing the past two seasons with a torn ACL, although his role has been reduced in recent weeks because of tired legs. And while cornerback Jason Verrett missed 58 games from 2016 to 2019 with injuries and looked to be on his way out of football, the former Chargers standout stepped on the field in Week 3 and has been one of the league’s best corners, allowing a passer rating of 52.6 in coverage.
We could do an exercise like this for the vast majority of football teams. No general manager can build a roster full of players who haven’t been injured before. Some of the players have suffered injuries unrelated to their prior problems; Richburg didn’t tear his patella because he was dealing with concussions in 2017. At the same time, though, the 49ers have been more aggressive than most teams in going after players with significant recent injuries or long track records of struggling to stay healthy. They were able to outrun those injuries last season, but they’ve been hit especially hard in 2020.
Are they suffering from the Super Bowl loser’s curse?
Whenever a team loses the Super Bowl and proceeds to struggle the following season, the chatter about a possible curse pops up. The idea of a loser’s curse came up more frequently a decade ago, when it seemed as though every Super Bowl loser would crater the following season. And after the Rams fell from 13-3 to 9-7 between 2018 and 2019, the 49ers are 4-4 and projected to finish with nine wins by ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI).
Is there really a curse? I’m not sure. The reality is that teams that make it to the Super Bowl win a lot of games, and teams that win a lot of games have a lot of things go right, and there’s no guarantee those things will happen again the following year. We can make a simple comparison by looking at each team’s record during its Super Bowl year and in the following year and comparing them to how teams with identical records who didn’t make it to the Super Bowl have fared. As an example, the 2019 Rams dropped from 13-3 to 9-7. Since 1990, teams that have won 13 games in a season have won an average of 9.5 games the following season. The Rams going 9-7 might seem like a curse, but it’s only a half-game worse than what we would expect for a typical 13-3 team.
Do that for every Super Bowl loser since 1990 (besides this year’s 49ers) and you’ll find that they perform roughly as expected. Given their records in their Super Bowl season, we would expect those runners-up to have won a combined 277.6 games the following season. Those teams have won … 275.3 games, for a difference of less than 0.1 wins per team. For every team such as the 1998 Falcons, who fell from 14-2 to 5-11, there’s typically one such as the 1999 Titans, who went 13-3. Despite the track record of 13-win teams being projected to fall to 9.5 wins the following year, the Titans kept up their record and went 13-3 the following season.
Obviously, this includes only regular-season performance, but I don’t think we would consider a Super Bowl loser “cursed” if it made a deep playoff run and then fell short in the conference championship game. I don’t see meaningful evidence of a Super Bowl loser’s curse, so I don’t think the 49ers are dealing with one.
What can they do to fix things?
What happens in 2020 could be a lost cause. The 49ers could sustain a solid record and sneak into the postseason with a 14-team or even 16-team tournament coming, but they might have lost too much ground to have much of an impact come January. General manager John Lynch was a seller at the trade deadline, shipping Alexander to the Saints for Kiko Alonso and a conditional sixth-round pick. The team also cut former second-round pick Dante Pettis after he fumbled on a kick return and left injured against Seattle.
The moves the 49ers would make to avoid being as injured in the future, then, will have to come in the future. When we look toward 2021, they are projected to have $23.1 million in cap space, but that is before they address a meaningful class of free agents. The Niners could lose Tartt, Sherman, Bourne, Verrett, offensive tackle Trent Williams, defensive end Solomon Thomas, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, running back Tevin Coleman and defensive backs Ahkello Witherspoon and K’Waun Williams to free agency, among others.
Just to pick one player, Williams would be looking for a deal at the top of the left tackle market, which is around $20 million per season. To try to keep some of its core around, San Francisco might have to make some tough choices about Sherman and Tartt and move on from a few prominent players.
One candidate is Ford, who really hasn’t been healthy for most of his tenure with the team. The former Chiefs standout has played more than 50% of the defensive snaps in only three games since joining the 49ers in 2019. While he contributed 6.5 sacks in 11 games last season before adding one more in the playoffs, he hasn’t played since Week 1 because of a neck injury.
The 49ers restructured Ford’s deal before the season to create short-term cap space, a move that will hurt them in the long run. They could have gotten out of his deal after two years without owing any dead money, but after the restructure, they will pay a penalty. Ford has the second-largest cap hit on the roster in 2021 at $20.8 million. If they designate him as a post-June 1 release, they would free up $16 million in cap space but would owe $4.8 million in dead money on their 2021 cap and $9.6 million more in 2022.
Richburg could be cut under similar circumstances. The 49ers restructured his deal at the end of 2019, but cutting the center would reduce his $11.4 million cap hit to $8.4 million in dead money. They already owe nearly $7 million in dead money on their 2021 cap for Alexander, who played 13 games over two seasons after signing a four-year, $54 million deal last offseason.
The most prominent player on their roster, though, is the one the 49ers will have to spend the most time debating. After what happened this season, there’s a serious question about what they should do with their quarterback situation.
Will Jimmy Garoppolo be the 49ers’ starter in 2021?
Given what has happened, the biggest issue facing the 49ers next offseason is what they decide to do about their quarterback situation. A year ago, I floated an idea about them possibly replacing Garoppolo with Tom Brady after the Super Bowl, but that was more of a pipe dream than something the team would realistically have considered. After 2020, things are a little different.
The ideal starting NFL quarterback means a lot of things to a lot of people, but broadly, every team wants three things. They want a passer who is cheap, reliably healthy and capable of a Pro Bowl-caliber ceiling when things are right around him. There aren’t many quarterbacks who are ever all three things at the same time for long. Right now, the only one who might fit all three categories is Lamar Jackson.
Most teams are happy if they can find a quarterback who fits two of those three criteria; most commonly, they’ll go for healthy and extremely productive (Patrick Mahomes) or cheap and healthy (Joe Burrow). In other cases, like late-career Eli Manning or Gardner Minshew, teams are willing to settle for one of the three. This is a relatively simplistic way to look at things, but it’s a good place to start.
Can you say with any confidence that Garoppolo fits any of those three criteria? Start with the issue of health, since it’s the most obvious problem for him. Past injuries aren’t always indicative of future health, but his track record with regard to staying on the field is a serious, serious red flag.
In 2016, when Garoppolo took over for the suspended Brady in New England, he started two games before separating his shoulder, ending his brief reign as the starter. In 2017, he spent the season on the bench before being traded to San Francisco, where he took over the starting job for the final five games of the year. In 2018, he tore his ACL after three games. While he was healthy for all 16 starts in 2019, he suffered a high ankle sprain in Week 2 this season and then suffered the same injury again four starts after returning.
In three of his five seasons, Garoppolo has suffered a serious injury within three games. There has been just one season in his career in which he has started even six games in a row without suffering an injury. Some quarterbacks just struggle to play for extended periods of time without getting hurt — Chad Pennington, Andrew Luck and more recently Carson Wentz coming to mind. At this point, the preponderance of evidence suggests Garoppolo might have his issues staying healthy.
The production is also a question, although less so than his health. Since joining the 49ers in 2017, he ranks 12th in the league in Total QBR, just ahead of Matthew Stafford and Aaron Rodgers. That’s promising, but we can also poke holes in his performance. Garoppolo has thrown deep on only 7.2% of his throws over that time frame, the lowest mark in the league for any quarterback with at least 700 attempts since the start of 2017.
He has thrown deep less frequently than avowed underneath throwers like Drew Brees, Joe Flacco and Marcus Mariota over that same time frame. Quarterbacks don’t necessarily need to throw deep to succeed, but it’s pretty clear that coach Kyle Shanahan wants his quarterbacks to take and hit their shots downfield; Matt Ryan threw passes 20 or more yards in the air 11.2% of the time during his MVP season in 2016 — when Shanahan was the offensive coordinator in Atlanta — which was the 11th-highest rate in the league.
Does Garoppolo have a top-tier ceiling? We likely can’t say anything with total confidence, but I’m skeptical. To try to get a sense of what each quarterback’s ceiling looks like, I went through the last decade and found their top eight performances by adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A), then calculated the AY/A for those eight combined appearances. Garoppolo’s eight best performances produced an average of 11.5 adjusted yards per attempt. That’s 30th over the last decade, around Case Keenum, Joe Flacco and Jay Cutler. His numbers could rise with more appearances and opportunities to excel, but his best doesn’t look to be extraordinary.
Is there something not accounted for in the numbers? Garoppolo was tied for the league lead with four fourth-quarter comebacks during the 2019 season, but even that number is generous. One of those drives started on the Pittsburgh 25-yard line after a fumble. The win over the Saints saw him complete one 8-yard pass before converting fourth-and-2 with that 39-yard pass to George Kittle, who (charitably) did the vast majority of the work. Other guys have drives like this, too, but I’m not sure we can point toward Jimmy G’s fourth-quarter comebacks as proof that he’s doing more than it seems.
Furthermore, he doesn’t actually throw all that frequently. Even if we throw out the seasons in which he got hurt and just focus on 2019, he threw just under 30 passes per game. Twenty-six teams had starters with more pass attempts per game than Garoppolo. He then threw 19 passes in the wild-card round win over the Vikings and just eight in the NFC title game blowout of the Packers before throwing 31 times against the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV. On his final 10 throws of the game, Garoppolo went 2-of-10 for 24 yards with an interception.
OK, so Garoppolo struggles to stay healthy and is a low-volume, low-ceiling passer. What about his contract? Well, funny you should ask. The 49ers structured his five-year, $137.5 million extension with a huge roster bonus in its first year (2018) to create more flexibility in the later years of the deal. There’s no guaranteed money left on his deal, although he has $7.5 million in injury guarantees next year. Those injury guarantees shouldn’t trigger if he misses the rest of the season, since his ankle sprain should heal with extended rest.
Next year, Garoppolo has an unguaranteed base salary of $24.1 million. His cap hit would be $26.9 million, and the 49ers would free up all of that $24.1 million if they chose to cut or trade him before June 1. At the moment, he would have the 11th-largest cap hit among NFL quarterbacks next season. If the team could guarantee he would be healthy for all 16 games, that would probably represent fair value. If there’s a significant chance that he plays only five or six games, though, it’s hard to see how his deal makes sense for the 49ers.
If they agree, the 49ers could try to get him to take a pay cut or release him outright. They could try to get a trade done, although I’m not sure there would be a huge market. Garoppolo has two years and $51 million in unguaranteed money left on his deal, which is more than the Panthers needed to sign Teddy Bridgewater in free agency last March. Bridgewater got $42 million over the first two years of his deal, $33 million of which was fully guaranteed at signing.
There would be one team that looms as an obvious fit for Garoppolo, of course. The Patriots will have more cap space than the 49ers and don’t have a solution under contract for 2021. Cam Newton and Brian Hoyer are both free agents after the season, leaving Jarrett Stidham as the only quarterback under contract. They have publicly suggested that they think Stidham can be their quarterback of the future, but he has thrown four interceptions in 27 career pass attempts.
If the 49ers wanted to move on from Garoppolo, the Patriots would be the most logical suitors and the best landing spot for the veteran. The return would not be as exciting as Niners fans might hope; it’s difficult to imagine New England sending much more than a mid-to-late-round pick in return for him. How could San Francisco replace him?
Ranking the options to replace Garoppolo in San Francisco
The difficult part of giving up on Garoppolo is that the 49ers would need to have a better solution. Again, going back to those three quarterback characteristics, their replacement for him might not actually be a more talented passer. Landing on a similarly talented quarterback who doesn’t cost as much or an adequate passer who is more reliable could make sense for San Francisco. In relative order of likelihood, here’s who that quarterback could be:
The new starter in San Francisco with Jimmy G out, Mullens will be replacing an injured Garoppolo for the third time in the last three seasons. Mullens moved ahead of C.J. Beathard after impressing in his debut victory over the Raiders in 2018 and was solid over the second half of the season. The former undrafted free agent was the first guy off the bench in 2020, and his results were mixed. He was a mess in the second half of the Jets game, looked great in a blowout victory over the Giants and then cost his team a win over the Eagles with three giveaways.
Mullens was benched for Beathard in the fourth quarter of the Eagles game, but after one game, Mullens was restored to the backup role and was active on game days behind Garoppolo. The Southern Miss product came in during the second half of the Seahawks game and went 18-of-25 passing for 238 yards and two touchdowns in garbage time against one of the league’s friendliest pass defenses. He’ll have first crack at the starting opportunity against the Packers on Thursday night.
If Mullens plays well, the 49ers could find themselves with the opportunity to find their quarterback on the cheap. He is making only $750,000 this year and is a restricted free agent in 2021. They would presumably give Mullens a first-round tender, which is projected to come in at $4.9 million. Dropping down from Garoppolo to Mullens would therefore save about $20 million, which San Francisco could use for help at receiver or with its defense. It could alternately try to use that last remaining season to negotiate a team-friendly extension with the 25-year-old.
Shanahan used a third-round pick to draft Beathard in 2017, so it’s clear that he and/or Lynch saw some potential in the Iowa product. Beathard started five games in 2017 and five more in 2018, but while he improved between his rookie and sophomore campaigns, his QBR only jumped from 35.4 to 41.5. He stepped in against the Eagles and led a touchdown drive, but when he went 9-of-18 passing for 84 yards filling in for Garoppolo against the Dolphins in Week 5, Shanahan made Beathard an inactive in favor of Mullens for each of the subsequent three games.
Beathard is in the final year of his rookie deal, so the 49ers would need to re-sign him after the season if he were to get the starting job and succeed. Over 430 pass attempts so far, though, he has been an ordinary quarterback. It would be a surprise if he emerged as a viable starter.
Before the 49ers traded for Garoppolo, there were plenty of rumors suggesting that Shanahan would reunite with Cousins when the Michigan State product was finally able to extricate himself from Washington. Cousins eventually left for the Vikings in free agency, and after beating the Saints in the playoffs last season, the 32-year-old signed a two-year, $66 million extension, all of which is practically guaranteed. (Minnesota could cut Cousins before the 2021 league year starts, but it would pay $41 million in dead money to do so, a non-starter on a $175 million cap.)
Mike Zimmer’s team has had a frustrating season, and while Sunday’s win over the Packers might turn around the Vikings’ campaign, a disappointing year could lead the organization to think that it’s better off without Cousins. If the Vikings traded him next spring, they would eat $20 million in dead money, but they would simultaneously free up $11 million of cap space in 2021 and a whopping $45 million in 2022. The team acquiring him would basically pick up his two-year, $66 million extension.
If that seems like a lot of money for Cousins, well, I agree. His 5.3% interception rate will probably regress toward the mean as the season goes on, but the biggest benefit he offers versus Garoppolo is availability. Cousins hasn’t been on the injury report since Week 1 of the 2013 campaign. You can probably project him to play something close to 16 games, but is the likelihood of a full season from Cousins really worth paying $15 million more over the next two years than what the 49ers are set to pay Garoppolo? The idea of a challenge trade here fascinates me, but the 49ers would go from making a questionable bet on a quarterback who might just be average to an even bigger bet on a quarterback who might not be much better.
49ers fans might be more excited about the idea of adding the quarterback who won his MVP award under Shanahan. Ryan is owed just under $75 million over the final three seasons of his deal, so the money would be something close to a straight swap for what is owed to Garoppolo over the next two seasons.
For the Falcons, though, a Ryan trade is a non-starter. We don’t even know who will be running the Atlanta front office next offseason, so unless owner Arthur Blank suddenly starts feuding with his franchise quarterback, there’s no evidence that the Falcons actually want to trade him. (That would be the first feud conducted solely through classy full-page ads in local newspapers.) Atlanta’s backup is Matt Schaub, so there’s no quarterback of the future ready to replace Ryan on the roster. The Falcons would probably need a premium pick to even consider dealing their starter.
Financially, a Ryan trade makes no sense for Atlanta. His cap hit in 2021 is a staggering $40.9 million, the second largest of any player in football and a key reason the Falcons are $25.6 million over the projected cap next season. They can restructure his deal if he remains on their roster, but if they trade him before June 1, it would result in $44.4 million in dead money accelerating onto their 2021 cap. They would save money in 2022 and beyond, but trading him would compromise their 2021 team in the process. They could theoretically wait to deal Ryan until after June 1, but I don’t think the 49ers are going to wait until after June 1 to acquire a quarterback.
If the 49ers wanted to assume some risk and take a shot on a cheaper option at quarterback, Darnold could be one way to go. The Jets’ former third overall pick is owed $4.8 million for the final year of his rookie deal in 2021, so the 49ers would have no trouble affording him. The problem is that the Niners would have to decide whether they want to guarantee his fifth-year option for 2022 next March, which would lock in a far more significant sum for 2022. Lynch might be able to negotiate some kind of extension that pays Darnold more in 2021 while giving the 49ers an out if he disappoints.
Obviously, Darnold’s availability could depend on whether the Jets end up with the first overall pick and whether top-ranked quarterback Trevor Lawrence enters the draft. If the Jets decide to move on from Darnold, it would probably cost something close to the second-round pick the 49ers sent to the Patriots for Garoppolo. The problem is that the Niners are already down their third-round pick after trading for Trent Williams.
If San Francisco wants to move on from Garoppolo and Shanahan thinks he can unlock something out of a guy he said in September was going to have a very good career, Darnold could make sense.
Speculation is fun! Rodgers has been an MVP candidate this season, so the idea of dealing him seems wild. At the same time, we still have half a season to go, and the Packers are still the same organization that drafted Jordan Love in the first round in April. They didn’t draft Love to sit him for the entirety of his rookie contract. I don’t think Rodgers is likely to leave until after the 2021 season, but if things end poorly in 2020, could Green Bay send Rodgers to the organization that passed on him in 2005?
I could see Rodgers as a possible 49ers quarterback in 2022, but 2021 doesn’t seem likely. If the Packers traded him before June 1, they would eat $31.6 million in dead money on their 2021 cap and only save a little under $5 million in cap space. It would likely take a total collapse from Green Bay or some disastrous turn in the relationship between Rodgers and coach Matt LaFleur for a trade in 2021 to make any sense at all. While the Packers are doing a bit of soul-searching after losing to the Vikings on Sunday, neither of those scenarios seems particularly likely.
Trading Rodgers while he’s declining is one thing, but the Packers can’t credibly trade him when he’s playing like one of the three or four best quarterbacks in football. This one seems downright implausible.
A rookie draft pick
The ESPN Football Power Index gives the 49ers only a 2.5% chance of finishing with a top-10 pick in the 2021 NFL draft, but it might also be underestimating just how banged up this team is after its 4-4 start. The Niners aren’t likely to end up in the hunt for Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence or Ohio State’s Justin Fields — the quarterbacks who could go Nos. 1-2 in the draft — but if they do fall to the bottom of the top 10, they could find themselves in the running for North Dakota State product Trey Lance, whose one-game college season is over. Shanahan and Lynch haven’t been shy about paying premiums when they’ve fallen in love with players in the past, so it’s also possible they would consider putting together a significant package to move up if they love one of the quarterbacks in this year’s class.
Of all the options, Garoppolo is still the most likely person to be under center for the Niners in Week 1 next season. Teams aren’t often rational about their quarterbacks, and this regime has publicly scoffed at any suggestion that he won’t be the long-term starter. After a wildly frustrating 2020, though, the Niners might have to reconsider their plans if they want to make a trip back to the Super Bowl.