Locking Up Jimmy Garoppolo Cements 49ers as Legit NFC Contenders

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistFebruary 8, 2018

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo against the Los Angeles Rams during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

After trading a second-round pick to the New England Patriots in October to acquire him, there was little doubt the San Francisco 49ers would keep Jimmy Garoppolo beyond the 2017 season. The only question was just how filthy rich they'd make him.

We found out Thursday, when the 49ers reportedly came to terms with Garoppolo on a record-setting five-year, $137.5 million deal, according to NFL Network's Mike Garafolo. Matt Maiocco of NBC Sports Bay Area reported the contract, which is the largest in league history on an average-per-year basis, contains $74 million in guarantees.

With Garoppolo's future secure, the 49ers are now in position to become legitimate contenders in 2018.

Unlike so many NFL decision-makers, San Francisco general manager John Lynch didn't overthink this. He gave New England a second-rounder to test-drive Garoppolo down the stretch in 2017. Garoppolo delivered with five wins in as many starts, so Lynch rewarded him with a megadeal. 

The franchise tag was an option, but it's also a half-measure. This extension tells Garoppolo and his teammates that the front office is all-in on him as a franchise quarterback. 

Had the 49ers let Garoppolo walk, it would have been tough for them to maintain the momentum they gained at the conclusion of the 2017 campaign. If the 26-year-old had thrown enough passes to qualify, his completion percentage (67.4) would have ranked in the top five leaguewide, while his passer rating (96.2) would have put him in the top 10 in that category. He also posted the league's fifth-highest passer rating on third down and its highest rating in the fourth quarter (minimum 30 attempts in both cases).

Had the 49ers hit him with the franchise tag, they'd look the same on paper, but Garoppolo's lack of long-term security could have become a distraction. Look no further than the arduous tag-related experience for Kirk Cousins and the Redskins to see how quickly such a situation can spiral. 

San Francisco avoided all of that. Regardless of how the contract is structured, the five-year deal gives the Niners even more financial flexibility than they would have had with a rigid 2018 tender of $23.5 million. 

Now, they can instead focus on supporting Garoppolo. Prior to this deal, Spotrac projected them to enter the new league year with an NFL-high $117.1 million in salary-cap space. Even if that drops by $30 million, they'll still have more money to spend than every team in football other than the Cleveland Browns

They can also focus on the draft, where they'll once again have a top-10 pick, along with the Saints' second-rounder (they traded their own for Garoppolo) and two third-rounders. 

Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch did well.
Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch did well.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

That's not bad for a team that went 5-0 with Garoppolo under center in December, with three of those wins coming by double-digit margins and three coming against 2017 playoff teams. 

Did you see what the Niners did to the Jaguars in Week 16? They scored 44 points against one of the NFL's fiercest defensive squads, and they forced three turnovers against an offense that had been rolling.

And while it might not matter if 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan can do with Garoppolo what he did with Matt Ryan in 2016, San Francisco's defense is also no slouch. Front-seven defenders DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster—all of whom were first-round picks in the last two years, and all of whom are below the age of 24—have All-Pro potential. Each has already made a major impact, and they could soon become one of the best trios in football. 

Lost in the Garoppolo hoopla is that the San Francisco defense recorded seven takeaways in the last four games of the regular season, five of which came in Weeks 16 and 17. That unit surrendered more than 24 points just once after Halloween, and it should become even deeper in free agency and/or the draft. 

The 49ers were already in a position to make a statement this offseason and make a run in 2018. Now that they've taken care of business with their blossoming franchise quarterback, there's no reason to doubt them. 

A punch line only a year ago, the 49ers appear destined to become the latest worst-to-first team in a league that seems to feature at least one breakout contender per season. 

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