Jimmy Garoppolo looks like a model, but his backup Nick Mullens still looks better under the bright lights. On Monday Night Football against the Denver Broncos this week, Garoppolo saw his first game action since he tore his ACL in Week 3 last year. It was brief, rusty, and clumsy. He went 1-for-6 with no yards, one interception, and one dropped would-be pick-six. Six passes in the preseason don’t usually create headlines, but it came a week after Garoppolo threw five straight interceptions during his worst practice since coming to the team in 2017. (Mullens, the best rookie quarterback of 2018, went 2-for-3 for 27 yards and one touchdown on his only drive on Monday.)
Here are Garoppolo’s six throws from Monday:
Jimmy Garoppolo’s no good very bad day in 30 seconds. pic.twitter.com/8m0JqckPMr— Dieter Kurtenbach (@dieter) August 20, 2019
“Obviously [I’m] a little frustrated,” Garoppolo told reporters after the game. “But it’s the NFL—unfortunately we don’t get to play the whole game. … You wish you could be out there for more so you could bounce back. … It is what it is. It’s the preseason right now, so you just gotta take it in stride.”
Six plays are not enough to judge anyone, and based on how often Garoppolo was pressured on those throws, including the pick and near pick, the bigger problem appears to be the 49ers’ offensive line. The team went into the game without guard Mike Person (foot injury), guard Joshua Garnett (finger injury), and center Weston Richburg (knee injury), forcing undrafted free-agent third-stringer Najee Toran to start at guard. Richburg and Person may not be ready in time for Week 1, which is a theme for the 49ers.
NBC Sports’ Peter King reported on his podcast earlier this month that Kyle Shanahan’s decision to have a more hard-hitting training camp may have backfired and could result in a banged-up team entering the season. Defensive end Nick Bosa, the no. 2 pick out of Ohio State, sprained his ankle in early August, still has no timetable for a return, and may not play in Week 1. Defensive end Dee Ford, for whom the team traded a second-round pick and then signed to a deal that pays $35.5 million over the first two years, has missed two weeks with knee tendinitis, though he is expected to return to practice this week.
Bosa and Ford were the centerpiece additions for a team that fancies itself a contender despite finishing 4-12 in 2018, and if either misses time or are seriously hampered by their injuries, it would be a downer. Even before this offseason, San Francisco had invested a massive amount of draft capital into their defensive line with first-round picks Solomon Thomas (no. 3 in 2017), DeForest Buckner (no. 7 in 2016), and Arik Armstead (no. 17 in 2015), but has so far gotten minimal return on it. Using their no. 2 overall pick this year on Bosa and then trading for Ford, Kansas City’s no. 23 pick in 2014, gives them a ludicrous amount of pedigree in the trenches, but it’s time to see some production.
San Francisco needs its defensive line to perform. The 49ers intercepted just two passes in 2018, the fewest for a defense since at least World War II, but the only addition the 49ers made to their secondary this offseason was talented but often-injured cornerback Jason Verrett, who is already out with an ankle injury. Making things worse, free safety Jimmie Ward broke his collarbone in May and only recently returned to contact activities. General manager John Lynch is gambling that improving the pass rush, not the secondary, will lead to more turnovers. But the 49ers defense, which ranked 23rd in defensive efficiency last year, will need a healthy team to do so.
Rather than investing in defensive backs in what was considered a deep draft class at that position, the 49ers decided to make life harder for opposing defensive backs and drafted receivers Deebo Samuel in the second round (no. 36) and Baylor’s Jalen Hurd in the third round (no. 67). They add to one of the youngest pass-catching groups in football. San Francisco’s presumed no. 1 wide receiver is second-year wideout Dante Pettis, their no. 2 wide receiver and grizzled veteran is 28-year-old Marquise Goodwin, and behind them is Samuel, Hurd, and 24-year-old undrafted receiver Kendrick Bourne. San Francisco tied with the Bengals for the fourth-youngest team by Football Outsiders’ snap-adjusted age last year, but nowhere are they younger than wide receiver, where it’s notoriously difficult to contribute as a young player. Earlier this month 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan mentioned that Pettis was not a lock for the no. 1 job, though whether he meant it or was simply trying to light a fire under his young receiver is unknown.
“I want to see him improve a lot,” Shanahan told reporters earlier this month. “I’ve got a lot of belief in Dante, but I don’t think he’s there yet. I think there’s a whole other level that he can reach. He needs to do it with size, with mentality and just getting after it every single day.”
Garoppolo is obviously key to San Francisco’s season. He has been in San Francisco for 659 days but started just eight games for the 49ers (the same as Mullens) and made 10 starts overall—fewer than Buffalo’s Josh Allen, Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield, or Miami’s Josh Rosen—so every time he does anything on the field for them it carries outsize importance. But hand-in-hand with Garoppolo’s inexperience is the inexperience of his receivers and the backup offensive linemen protecting him and his surgically repaired knee. The 49ers had sky-high expectations entering 2018, and could easily compete for the NFC West crown in 2019. But if the team sinks it may be from collective inexperience. That includes general manager John Lynch, a former NFL safety who came out of the broadcast booth for his first front office job and signed a matching six-year contract with Kyle Shanahan when the two came to San Francisco as a package deal in 2017.
We won’t know what to make of anything until the regular season begins. If Garoppolo still has a 0.0 passer rating when the real games start, 49ers fans can sound the alarms and stare longingly at the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option of cutting Garoppolo after this year, two years and $60 million into a five-year, $137.5 million deal—with just a $4.2 million salary cap penalty. Until then, let’s see how the kids do. Worst case the 49ers can always go back to Nick Mullens.