What’s valuable in the NFL? A great quarterback? Always—unless you’re the Eagles and can win with a backup. A great running back? Not usually—unless you’re the Rams and have Todd Gurley. A treasure chest of future second-round picks? Now you’re speaking Bill Belichick’s language. Welcome to Value Week, when we’ll be looking at what moves the needle for NFL teams—and what doesn’t.
When Jimmy Garoppolo, John Lynch, and Kyle Shanahan gathered at the 49ers’ facility on February 9 for a press conference announcing the richest contract extension in NFL history, the festivities felt like a football wedding reception. The quarterback, general manager, and head coach—all dressed in dark suits and white shirts with no ties—sat side by side at a dais toward the front of the room. Lynch spoke first, thanking Garoppolo’s parents, brothers, and virtually everyone else who made this moment possible. As with any marriage, the parties involved understood that they were tying their futures together. “From Day 1, when Kyle and I started having conversations, we all know it, this position is key,” Lynch said. “If you don’t have [a quarterback], you’re looking for one. We feel like we’ve got our guy now and we’re thrilled about that.”
With Garoppolo having just seven starts to his name and coming off merely three months in the Niners’ organization, Lynch felt comfortable handing the 26-year-old a five-year, $137.5 million deal—the biggest contract the sport had ever seen. This fall, the 49ers’ starter will carry a salary-cap hit of $37 million; that’s $15 million more than the quarterback with five Super Bowl rings who Jimmy G famously backed up in New England will make. Given Garoppolo’s limited playing experience, it’s not a stretch to say that this deal is the biggest bet in NFL history.
Much of the national discussion surrounding Garoppolo to this point has focused on the Patriots’ side of the trade that sent him to San Francisco last October. As the Niners closed the 2017 regular season with five consecutive wins, averaging 28.8 points per game over Garoppolo’s five starts, it seemed that the Pats had let go of a budding superstar and successor to Tom Brady for the small price of a 2018 second-round pick. The Garoppolo deal will be put on trial in New England for years to come, but to the Pats the significance of the trade remains theoretical. For the 49ers, it’s already very real.
Garoppolo’s performance down the stretch last season altered the fiber of the Niners’ entire organization. San Francisco went from a rebuilding club buried at the bottom of the NFC West standings to 2018’s trendiest playoff dark horse. A year ago, the Niners were a blank slate of a roster that seemed miles away from relevance. Now, the challenge for Lynch and Shanahan is pulling back on expectations. As of Wednesday, Vegas sportsbooks listed only Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Carson Wentz, and Deshaun Watson with better MVP odds than Garoppolo. “People say, ‘What do you mean you don’t want to crown him?’” Lynch says. “‘You paid him $27.5 million a year.’”
Patience has been central to the Niners’ resurgence over these past 18 months. The team showed restraint in passing on a quarterback with the second pick in the 2017 draft, instead dealing for a haul of future assets. It was reluctant to spend big money in free agency, and had the wherewithal to stand pat for long enough that the Patriots came around after initially shutting down Jimmy G trade talks. When the right opportunity emerged, the front office pounced … twice. Suddenly, the Niners are being anointed as NFL royalty in waiting.
With Garoppolo in the fold, patience has become tough to come by. Lynch knows his massive gamble is the biggest reason. “Was it leap of faith?” Lynch asks of giving Jimmy G a record-setting deal. “Absolutely.”
Among all the pieces of advice that Lynch received before taking the 49ers’ general manager job in early 2017, a pointer from Tony Dungy sticks out. Dungy told Lynch that watching film with GM Bill Polian was crucial during his tenure as Colts head coach in the mid-2000s. The better the two men understood each other’s likes and dislikes, Dungy said, the more aligned the coaching and personnel sides of the organization would be in building the roster. So Lynch made a point of spending plenty of time with Shanahan, learning about the qualities the coach covets at every spot on the field. “He’s got great teach tapes on each position, profile traits that we like,” Lynch says. “[He has] a pretty extensive one at quarterback. Even though he hadn’t played much, Jimmy popped up on there a few times.”
For Shanahan, Garoppolo’s appeal was rooted in his mechanics. Most quarterbacks’ throwing motion involves an exaggerated follow-through that ends with the body leaning forward and the right foot lifting off the ground. Garoppolo’s release, meanwhile, features a stationary back foot; rather than forcefully stepping into throws, he creates torque with his upper body and hips. “All the great dropback quarterbacks, that, to me, is an absolute,” Shanahan says. “You’ve got to be able to play like that and throw like that.” As Shanahan explains the difference, he gets out of the chair in his office and mimics a violent twist involving his torso. He notes that by throwing from a stationary position, QBs are able to elude interior linemen who wreak havoc in a crumbling pocket. “Anyone who doesn’t throw like that, they’re going to blame the O-line all year,” Shanahan says. “I’m not going to name 100 quarterbacks who are like that, but their O-lines are always not good. The guys who can throw like this, when the O-line’s bad, as long as you have good people out on routes, you can get rid of it.”
This type of motion is more than just a preference for Shanahan. It’s integral to how he’d engineer a passer from scratch. For the past three summers, he’s volunteered as a coach at the QB Collective, a camp for elite high school prospects. Former NFL quarterback Sage Rosenfels also works at the camp and has seen firsthand how important those mechanics are to Shanahan. “The actual fundamentals of trying to create torque,” Rosenfels says, “with your hips first and your arm second, is different than what’s been taught for a long time with quarterbacks at all levels.”
According to Rosenfels, only a handful of NFL quarterbacks employ that motion naturally. He lists Russell Wilson and Baker Mayfield as two other prominent examples. Shanahan echoes that such sought-after tendencies are rare. “That’s just how you’re born, to me,” Shanahan says. “Very few people have it.”
When Shanahan and his staff arrived in San Francisco in February 2017, every conceivable quarterback solution was on the table. The 49ers had no QBs under contract, a top-two draft pick, and an ocean of free-agent money at their disposal. As the front office surveyed the landscape last spring, quarterbacks coach Rich Scangarello was asked to evaluate about 10 players. Without much regular-season Garoppolo film to go on, Scangarello watched every snap of Jimmy’s career at Eastern Illinois and his preseason work from four seasons in New England. The draw was immediately clear. “He hadn’t played a ton,” Scangarello says, “but what he had done, you could see his skill set fit a lot of things we were going to ask him to do.”
The game and a half of starting experience Garoppolo got during Brady’s Deflategate suspension in 2016 may not seem like much, but for Shanahan, those snaps were crucial. Even 59 passes went a long way in extrapolating his projection from college to the NFL. “It makes you want to trade for him,” Shanahan says. “Because you saw exactly the ability that you saw in college that made him a  second-round pick. But then, when you see it in an NFL game, nothing changed. He didn’t get in there and panic. He still showed his ability and played at a high level.”
There were contingency options, but Niners brass whittled their list of potential franchise-quarterback targets down to two: Kirk Cousins, whom Washington had given the franchise tag for the second straight season, and Garoppolo. With that in mind, the Niners reached out to New England to discuss a deal early in the 2017 offseason. At that point, Garoppolo was a dead end. “We made a call, and it was, ‘He’s not available, don’t waste your time,’” Lynch says. The dismissal resigned Lynch to the idea that Garoppolo wouldn’t be in the Niners’ plans. That made the phone call Lynch took on October 29 all the more surprising.
New England reached out to let Lynch and Shanahan know that Garoppolo might be available at the deadline, and the pair rushed to meet with Niners executive vice president of football operations Paraag Marathe. The trio hastily went over all the possible avenues that could follow if they were able to complete a trade. Shanahan voiced his concerns about committing to such an unproven player long term. Lynch understood the trepidation, and eventually the group decided that the ability to give Garoppolo a glorified tryout—and possibly a franchise tag to get an extended look the following season—was worth the price of a second-round pick.
“We made that commitment to each other,” Lynch says. “We [weren’t] saying, ‘Come hell or high water, this is our guy.’ We think it’s a worth a second-round pick to have a great look at a guy that we think is really talented. And then we learned everything else about him.”
As much as Shanahan was enamored of Garoppolo’s mechanics, he still had plenty of questions about his new quarterback when the Niners made the trade. He wondered which throws Garoppolo could make with that motion. He wanted to find out if Garoppolo was fearless enough to hang in the pocket and take advantage of that quick release. He was curious about the mental aspect of Garoppolo’s game, whether he could consistently get the ball to receivers in a meticulously tailored scheme. If Shanahan would have reunited with Cousins, whom he mentored as Washington’s offensive coordinator from 2012 to 2013, he’d have known exactly what he was getting. In Garoppolo’s case, there was an air of mystery. “That’s stuff you never truly know about a guy until you get him,” Shanahan says. After Jimmy G set foot in San Francisco, the confirmation for some came fast. “When he’s a part of your team, [his motion] looks even better,” Lynch says. “One of the first throws, it was like, ‘Holy … this guy. Wow. We’ve got a chance.’”
Garoppolo provided the 49ers with a much-needed shot in the arm. Two days before the trade was finalized, the Niners lost 33-10 in Philadelphia to fall to 0-8. “That was a bloodbath,” Lynch says. “We almost had to finish that game with a tight end [at tackle].” Given the team’s myriad problems, it was tempting to consider Garoppolo a cure-all, and with only half a season until he’d hit free agency, there was an argument for throwing him into the fire.
Yet the Niners’ brain trust concluded that waiting was more beneficial. As eager as Lynch was to see his shiny new toy in action, Shanahan maintained that tossing Garoppolo into a no-win scenario was shortsighted. It would leave the 49ers at risk of developing a skewed opinion of whether to invest in Jimmy G long term. “In my role, it lends a little bit more to, ‘Let’s put him in there, man,’” Lynch says. “And Kyle said no. We had to put him in a position to succeed. And once we talked through that, it’s not my decision anyway, but I said, ‘You’re absolutely right. We’ve got to be patient.’”
Garoppolo didn’t get any meaningful game reps last November, but won over people in the building nonetheless. He blossomed into someone his new teammates could count on, despite a lack of familiarity with the system. “It was crazy how he was able to come in here and be a leader so quickly,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk says. “He has a special capability of just rallying the guys and creating respect.” Juszczyk says that Garoppolo possesses a rare combination of empathy and authority, and proved that he’s at once approachable and in control of the huddle. “I tell people all the time, ‘The guy is Jimmy G, and everyone’s talking about him, and it’s become kind of this character, but there’s another side of him,’” Lynch says. “He’s got crazy good looks and a cannon for an arm. But he’s just a normal guy. He hangs out with practice-squad linemen.”
For all of the Niners’ plans of keeping Garoppolo on the sideline, their hand was eventually forced. When interim starter C.J. Beathard went down with a knee injury late in San Francisco’s Week 12 loss to Seattle, Jimmy G came on in relief and was given the reins the subsequent week in Chicago. In his first full game for San Francisco, he passed for 293 yards in a 15-14 win. “We didn’t get in the end zone,” Shanahan says. “But we got confidence.”
The victory over the Bears was the first of five straight wins. Shanahan knows that Garoppolo was the driving force behind that push, but feels that Jimmy stepped into a completely different environment than he would have a few weeks earlier. Wide receiver Marquise Goodwin had broken out in the Niners’ Week 10 win over the Giants. Rookie tight end George Kittle had returned from an ankle injury and showcased the skill set he’d displayed in training camp. Undrafted rookie receiver Kendrick Bourne had settled into a more robust role with Pierre Garcon lost for the season. “The guys around him played like they did in the Giants game,” Shanahan says. “Jimmy brought an excitement, but our guys were finally ready for that excitement.”
Shanahan’s offense has long been predicated on quarterbacks accurately delivering passes into spaces vacated by linebackers on play-action throws. Garoppolo has a propensity for ripping on-target and on-time throws in precisely those situations. That was on display during a 25-23 win over Tennessee in Week 15, a game in which he threw for 381 yards and a touchdown. He connected with Bourne six times for 85 yards, with most of that coming on quick, in-breaking routes. “What’s neat about Jimmy is that because of his release, some of those throws don’t have to be wide open,” Shanahan says. “It’s just got to be a little [window]. And when you’re like that, when you do have that quick of a release, it makes it very tough on the defense.”
Looking back on Garoppolo’s late-season tear, it’d be easy to assume his colossal extension was a foregone conclusion. After the Niners acquired Garoppolo, though, Shanahan still required convincing. His history with Cousins was one of the main barriers that had to fall. Even with Garoppolo in town, Cousins didn’t consider the door to a possible future in San Francisco to be closed. “[That seat] wasn’t necessarily filled because there was a lot of football left,” Cousins says. “I’ve just learned to play the next play, the next week. You try to not look that far ahead or that far behind.”
The more daunting hurdle was Shanahan’s high bar for quarterbacks. Lynch appreciated his coach’s hesitance because when Shanahan did acknowledge that Garoppolo was the answer under center, it made the message all the more striking. On the morning after the Niners’ win over the Titans, Shanahan walked into Lynch’s office with a directive: We need to do this. “Did Kyle know sooner than he let me know, and he just wanted to be extra sure? That kinda deal? I don’t know,” Lynch says. “But I remember when he came in and said, ‘All right, go.’ That made me happy because, yes, he does have such a high standard. When he said go, it was like. ‘All right, it’s on.’”
Lynch adds: “He’s been coaching that position for a long time. I was a little more giddy. Let’s do this thing!”
San Francisco’s massive reserves of cap space afforded the organization flexibility in constructing Garoppolo’s deal. When Lynch and Marathe flew to Los Angeles to meet agent Don Yee following the season, they made clear the Niners had no interest in using the franchise tag as a bargaining chip. “We wanted to lock him up,” Lynch says. “That set the tone, and then Paraag and Don went about negotiating. I thought it was important to tell him, ‘We believe this is our guy. We don’t want to posture. We come low, you come high.’ We went pretty aggressive with an offer, not only to tell them, but to show them through our actions, that we were serious about getting something done.”
By the time the deal was finished, Garoppolo was the highest-paid QB in league history, with an average annual value of $27.5 million and $74.1 million in guarantees. A disproportionately large chunk of that money is packed into the first year of the contract: While Jimmy’s $37 million cap hit in 2018 is $10.5 million more than any other player in football, in 2019 that figure will drop to $20 million. “Paraag is brilliant on that kind of stuff,” Lynch says. “Let’s put a lot of [the money] up here so we can surround him with some talent in the [later years].”
The structure is odd for a big-money quarterback deal, and speaks to the Niners’ unique trajectory at the position. Most teams commit to a young QB after he’s established himself on his rookie contract, with a stretch of competence that often lasts several years. Yet one season into what appeared to be a daunting rebuild, the 49ers have pushed in all of their chips on a guy with seven starts and 272 passes under his belt. Lynch doesn’t see that as a risk. To him, the ability to bet big on Garoppolo is the reason he came to San Francisco in the first place.
“I wasn’t looking for this job,” Lynch says of leaving his broadcasting job with Fox for the Niners in 2017. “I wasn’t looking for any job other than the one I had. I had a pretty damn good job. … [I’d leave] only if the perfect situation came up. To me, I thought this was the perfect situation.”
A year and a half ago, on the heels of a 2-14 season and a third coach firing in as many years, most around San Francisco would have scoffed at that remark. But such is the aura of Jimmy GQ. It took only five games for him to charm the 49ers’ brass and Bay Area faithful. Now we’ll see if the romance is built to last.