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What Should the 49ers Do If Kyler Murray Is There at No. 2?

The prevailing wisdom is that the Cardinals will either take the Oklahoma quarterback first overall or trade the pick to a QB-needy team. What if they do neither of those things?

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The prevailing wisdom this time last year was that the Browns were going to draft either Josh Allen or Sam Darnold. It turns out the prevailing wisdom isn’t always wise. The prevailing wisdom right now is that the Arizona Cardinals will draft Kyler Murray no. 1 overall and trade Josh Rosen. There’s more than enough smoke around the Cardinals’ interest in Murray to believe there’s a fire, but sometimes smoke is part of a smokescreen. And a more interesting scenario than the Cardinals’ drafting Murray could arise if they don’t.

If Murray is on the board when the 49ers pick at no. 2 overall, they’ll inherit the same dilemma Arizona has but with even bigger stakes and more outlandish scenarios. For the purpose of this exercise, let’s say the Cardinals draft Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa, whom they are hosting for two days this week, no. 1 overall. That would put the 49ers on the clock, and they’ll likely have three options. Let’s explore each.

Option No. 1: Draft the Best (Non-Kyler) Player Available

The 49ers have had top-10 picks in each of the past four years. That streak was supposed to end in 2018, but Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL. The 49ers have tanked for too long to miss the playoffs again in 2019, and drafting a player who can contribute right away is the move most in line with that plan. Assuming Bosa is off the board, the next best player would be Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams. The second-best defensive player in a defense-heavy draft makes sense for a team that was in the bottom quarter of the league in combined sacks through the past two seasons. The 49ers traded for pass rusher Dee Ford last month, and Ford and Williams along with defensive linemen Solomon Thomas and DeForest Buckner could be enough to turn that weakness into a strength. Taking Williams would be the safest move.

Option No. 2: Trade Down

Trading down for more picks is usually a wise move for teams at the top of the draft, especially when other teams have their eyes on a quarterback. Last year, the Colts got three second-rounders from the Jets to move down three spots so New York could take Sam Darnold. Two years ago, the 49ers had the second pick in the draft and moved down one spot in a trade with the Bears in exchange for two third-rounders and a fourth-rounder. The Bears surprised the league and took Mitchell Trubisky, while the 49ers still got the player they wanted in Stanford defensive end Thomas. If the 49ers are smitten with Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver, Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat, or another defender they could still get a little later in the first round, then parlaying one top pick into multiple high picks could be a wise move.

But there’s also a chance the trade market for Kyler may not be great. NFL teams were generally higher on Baker Mayfield than the pundits last year, but there’s a chance teams are lower on Murray than that same group is projecting this year. Whether or not it is fair, teams may question Murray’s complete commitment to football. The teams that could move up for Murray—the Giants, Dolphins, and Washington, plus sleeper teams like Cincinnati and Oakland—all could put together trade packages, but none are locks to be interested, never mind blow the 49ers away.

If there is a strong trade market for Murray, the Cardinals would presumably want to make the trade themselves. If Arizona stands pat and takes Bosa, it might be a sign that teams weren’t as interested in Murray as Arizona expected. There’s a good chance San Francisco would be similarly disappointed with what teams are willing to offer. That would leave the 49ers with one last choice to consider.

Option No. 3: Draft Kyler Murray, Trade Jimmy Garoppolo

There are two things to unpack here: whether the 49ers could do this, and whether they should. There is no question that they can. Despite the 49ers signing Garoppolo to a big extension just a year ago, the team front-loaded so much of the deal that most of Garoppolo’s guaranteed money has already been paid. According to the salary-tracking website Spotrac, the 49ers would have a smaller dead-money hit for trading Garoppolo before June ($5.6 million) than the Cardinals would for trading Rosen ($8.2 million). Considering the Giants just ate $16 million in dead money to trade Odell Beckham Jr. and the 49ers have the fifth-most cap space in the NFL (roughly $35 million), it would be fairly easy for the 49ers to trade Garoppolo if they wanted to.

As to whether they should: Garoppolo has played well in his limited NFL career, but he hasn’t proved he can be consistent (or even stay on the field) for long stretches. He’s also coming off a torn ACL. Whether a team would prefer Kyler Murray or Jimmy Garoppolo over the next half-decade is an open question, and that’s before factoring in their cap hits over the next four years.

Jimmy Garoppolo vs. Kyler Murray Cap Hits, 2019-22

Year Jimmy Garoppolo Kyler Murray
Year Jimmy Garoppolo Kyler Murray
2019 $19,350,000 $6,000,000
2020 $26,600,000 $7,500,000
2021 $26,900,000 $9,000,000
2022 $27,000,000 $10,500,000

Garoppolo’s contract is not exorbitant, but Murray would be a bargain if he became a capable NFL starter. Rookie quarterbacks outperforming their contract has been the easiest way to build a contender for this decade, and 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan might be the single most qualified coach to maximize Kyler Murray’s unique skill set as a runner and a thrower. The cap savings matter a little less on a team like San Francisco, which doesn’t have many cap problems, but the team could view Murray as the better quarterback in a vacuum and the savings as a bonus. If teams like Miami or Washington prefer Garoppolo to the quarterbacks available after Murray—Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, West Virginia’s Will Grier, Missouri’s Drew Lock, and Duke’s Daniel Jones—the 49ers could get a decent pick for Garoppolo, who they got for the no. 43 overall pick in October 2017.

If that pick is a good one, and the team likes Murray’s future more than Garoppolo’s, it might be enough for San Francisco to think about making a massive gamble. It may seem far-fetched now, but the NFL status quo changes quickly in April.