Earlier this week, I broke down the realistic landing spots for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Some teams, like the Raiders and Chargers, had been frequently linked to Brady since the saga over his impending free agency began in the fall. Others, like the Titans and Buccaneers, are dark-horse candidates that could offer him a lot from the football perspective.
One team I left off the list was the San Francisco 49ers—yes, there had been rumors connecting the three-time MVP and the team he grew up rooting for, but the key word here was realistic. The 49ers just came a quarter away from winning the Super Bowl, and they have an incumbent starter in Jimmy Garoppolo who, for all his warts, has been a leader in the locker room and has shown he can thrive in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Why would they want to cut bait on Garoppolo just two years after inking him to one of the richest contracts in NFL history to get maybe a season or two from 42-year-old Brady?
We now have to consider this scenario, as there’s been a growing sense in the media that Brady-to–San Francisco is a real possibility. Former Niner Deion Sanders fueled the fire over the weekend, Peter King broached the subject in his post-combine column, ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio discussed it with Phil Simms this week, and NBC Sports Boston reporter Tom E. Curran, among the most plugged-in people in Foxborough, thinks it’s possible. With reports that the quarterback’s first contract discussion with Bill Belichick did not go well—as well as the fact that Niners GM John Lynch tried to trade for him once already, back in 2018—it’s time to put some more options on the table and reconsider what realistic means in this context. No player has ever had a career like Brady, so perhaps he’ll have a free agency like no one else before him. And that could lead him to San Francisco. But would that make sense for either side?
For the 49ers, it depends on how much of an upgrade they believe Brady would be over Garoppolo. The San Francisco QB was marginally better than Brady throughout his up-and-down 2019—he finished 10th in adjusted net yards per attempt and 12th in ESPN Total QBR, while Brady finished 17th in both categories—but Garoppolo was a liability in Super Bowl LIV, as he repeatedly missed receivers, threw several back-breaking picks, and generally looked lost when facing pressure from Frank Clark and the Chiefs’ defensive front. The 49ers held a lead going into the fourth quarter, but gave up 21 unanswered in the frame while never making it past the Chiefs’ 49-yard line. San Francisco had limited Garoppolo’s role leading up to the Super Bowl—he threw just 19 passes in the divisional round and eight in the NFC championship game—and when the team needed him to deliver, he couldn’t.
There’s no telling whether 2019 Tom Brady would’ve been better in that situation. He had his lowest completion percentage since 2013, threw for his fewest touchdowns in a full season since 2006, and finished 18th in passer rating, below both Gardner Minshew II and Philip Rivers. But Brady was working with perhaps the worst offensive personnel he ever has. Rob Gronkowski retired last spring, and New England was left starting the likes of Matt LaCosse and 39-year-old Ben Watson at tight end. The Patriots gambled on both Antonio Brown and Josh Gordon, but neither made it through the season due to off-field issues. Both first-round draft pick N’Keal Harry and midseason trade acquisition Mohamed Sanu were seriously hampered by injuries, as was left tackle Isaiah Wynn, who spent much of the year on IR. Center David Andrews sat out 2019 with blood clots in his lungs, and fullback James Develin, quietly an important cog in the team’s offense, saw his season end in September after he suffered a neck injury. It’s impossible to tell how much Brady declined in 2019—if he did at all. And if age did play a role in his mediocre campaign, the Patriots didn’t hide him: He had 613 pass attempts in 2019, nearly 140 more than Garoppolo.
While San Francisco’s offensive line fared worse than New England’s in Football Outsiders’ pass-protection grades, the team would provide Brady several things he lacked last year: namely, a reliable young receiving option in Deebo Samuel and an all-world tight end in George Kittle, who even Gronkowski thinks is Gronk-like. Kyle Shanahan’s offense likely isn’t a perfect fit for Brady—the six-time Super Bowl champion never had much pocket mobility even when he was young, and forget about running RPO concepts with him under center—but the Niners may value his decision-making (just eight picks at a 1.3 percent interception rate last year vs. 13 at 2.7 percent for Jimmy). If they want to make this happen, they can adjust their offense to make it work.
The 49ers can also make this move without incurring much of a financial hit: Cutting Garoppolo before April 1 or trading him before June 1 would push just $4.2 million in dead cap onto their books for 2020. With the salary cap expected to rise to $200 million, that’s a relative pittance. Moving on from Garoppolo would free up an additional $22.4 million, bringing their total cap space to about $40 million. Brady, who’s expected to fetch around $30 million annually, would eat up a big chunk of that, but San Francisco would still have room to try to re-sign receiver Emmanuel Sanders and fullback Kyle Juszczyk.
For Brady, the move is more of a no-brainer: He’d join the reigning NFC champs, who boast one of the league’s best defenses and rushing attacks, and get to work with an offensive wizard in Shanahan. But there’s also an emotional element for Brady, a San Mateo native who grew up idolizing Joe Montana. After watching his boyhood hero spend his last NFL seasons on a team other than the one he crafted his legend with, Brady seems to be willing to do the same. And now he may have the chance to do it in red and gold, while getting to ship Garoppolo out of town one more time.
Of course, the rumors are just that for now, and we won’t know anything for certain until free agency begins in mid-March. On the surface, this feels like easy-to-dismiss speculation, and the safe bet is the Niners will keep the well-liked Garoppolo in town for at least 2020, lest they sow division in the locker room. But eventually, one of the Brady smoke screens will reveal fire. That could be in Las Vegas, Tennessee, Indianapolis, or even San Francisco. At the very least, we may have to rethink what’s realistic.