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What Can the 49ers’ Brock Purdy Paradox Teach Us About Quarterback Value?

The San Francisco 49ers are in the NFC championship game with a seventh-round rookie quarterback. Is Brock Purdy merely a product of Kyle Shanahan’s system and a placeholder for Trey Lance, or is he the 49ers’ future?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Brocktober has dawned, and thus the prophecy has been fulfilled. It was foretold that one day another backup quarterback with a penis-related nickname would rise to guide his team deep into the NFL postseason, and lo, just as the streets of Philadelphia celebrated Big Dick Nick five years ago, the Bay Area now rejoices for Big Cock Brock. (Poor Dolphins; if only some euphemism for genitalia rhymed with “Skylar,” they’d be in the AFC championship game right now.)

Yes, Brock Purdy is 7-0 as the San Francisco 49ers’ starter and is two wins away from a Super Bowl title. Purdy has won two playoff games, and even the epic story of Tom Brady was more probable: Brady was drafted in the sixth round, while Purdy was the final pick in the seven-round NFL draft; Brady sat on the bench for a full season in his rookie campaign and then had 14 weeks as New England’s starter before he won his first Super Bowl, while Purdy is a rookie who started the season as QB3 and didn’t get off the bench until December. Now Purdy just needs to win eight Super Bowls, which seems like it will be pretty easy for him.

As we watch Purdy thrive as an undefeated starter for the hottest team in the NFL, it’s easy to wonder: How did Purdy fall to the 262nd and final pick in the 2022 draft? What sort of NFL franchise would overlook Purdy to draft a player like Tariq Castro-Fields, a cornerback who got cut after allowing catches on eight of nine targets in the preseason? What team would draft Nick Zakelj, an offensive guard out of Fordham who barely saw the field this year, over a potentially quality starter at the sport’s most important position? The answer to that question? The San Francisco 49ers, who drafted Zakelj (187th overall), Castro-Fields (221st overall), and six other players before finally turning to Purdy at 262. It’s the Purdy Paradox: Even the team that drafted him can’t really act like it saw this coming.

The rookie’s rise seems to be the Niners’ latest middle finger to the premise that an NFL team needs a superstar quarterback to succeed in the postseason. They went to the Super Bowl three years ago and to last season’s NFC championship game with Subway spokesperson and interception enthusiast Jimmy Garoppolo under center. Purdy is yet another Niners QB playing the game on easy mode, throwing to a bunch of 99-rated players in a Kyle Shanahan offense that makes defenders look like Madden bots whose AI has broken. While the recent trend in the NFL is going all in with huge contracts and future-crippling trades to get a quarterback, the Niners are proving that with an all-star offense, the league’s top-rated defense by DVOA, and a brilliant head coach, the quarterback position barely matters. You can even win with the least valuable asset imaginable at QB, a player selected with the final pick in the draft.

It’s a fun narrative—but like Garoppolo, it isn’t totally accurate. The Niners are actually part of that trend of going all in for elite quarterbacks. Ahead of the 2021 draft, they gave up three first-round picks for the no. 3 pick, which they used on Trey Lance. That move seemed to be an admission that even for an offense as plug-and-play as Shanahan’s, an average quarterback wasn’t enough. The Niners believed they needed a better-than-replacement-level passer. Unfortunately, Lance broke his ankle in Week 2 of this season—less than six quarters into his first campaign as San Francisco’s starter—so the Niners have defaulted to their usual strategy of trying to win the Super Bowl with a rando at QB.

Except Purdy may not be just another Throw Schmo. Compared to Garoppolo’s six years in San Francisco, Purdy throws touchdowns more often while taking sacks and throwing interceptions less frequently. Purdy seems to have a stronger arm and better mobility. And he’s just a rookie, while Garoppolo came to San Francisco after years as Tom Brady’s backup in New England. And Purdy’s stats are clearly better than those of all the other backups the Niners have played over the years—the Brian Hoyers and CJ Beathards—as well as Lance’s. Now, there’s talk that the Niners will go with Purdy over Lance in 2023.

So what the hell is Brock Purdy? Is he evidence that in the right scenario, a team can thrive despite investing minimal resources into the sport’s most prominent position? Is he proof that stars are available after all the five-stars have gone off the draft board? Or is he just one kid who happens to be balling out beyond any reasonable expectations at the perfect time, rather than the answer to some of football’s biggest and most persistent questions?

The legend of Brock Purdy began with a red-and-gold-wearing team turning to an unheralded first-year, third-string QB and immediately going on a surprising win streak. I’m talking, of course, about Iowa State throwing Purdy, a true freshman mid-tier recruit, into a starting job in 2018 and turning around a seemingly dismal season. His first game could’ve been humbling: It was on the road against a ranked Oklahoma State squad, and ISU’s star player, future NFL running back David Montgomery, was injured. But Purdy threw for 300 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 84 yards and a touchdown, and the Cyclones won a 48-42 shoot-out.

The Cyclones won Purdy’s first five games as a starter. After a 1-3 start, they finished the season 8-5. Iowa State had found its long-term quarterback—although it’d probably lose him to the NFL after just three seasons if you believed way-too-early mock drafts at the time that projected young Brock as a future first-rounder.

But Purdy peaked at Iowa State as a freshman, seemingly regressing in skill, success, and general common sense in the seasons that followed. After averaging more than 10 yards per pass attempt as a freshman, he averaged 7.8 as a senior; Pro Football Focus graded Purdy as making a “big-time throw” on 8.3 percent of his passes as a freshman and just 2.6 percent as a senior. In Purdy’s final two years in Ames, he had fewer passing touchdowns than Iowa State’s All-American running back Breece Hall had rushing touchdowns. Purdy began his college career with poise and playmaking; he finished it by batting a tipped pass directly into the hands of an opposing defender for a pick-six in the Cheez-It Bowl:

So it’s easy to see why Purdy wasn’t a top draft prospect. He was older and smaller—Purdy literally has the third-shortest arms of any quarterback measured at the NFL combine since 1999, making it tough for him to generate velocity on his passes or give quality hugs. (I like picturing an NFL GM being like, “What if he has an itch in a spot on his back he can’t reach and it bothers him all game?”) A low-upside prospect like that could still find a spot in the league if they really wowed teams with on-field performance and intelligence, but Purdy had the lowest “decision-making” grade of the nine quarterbacks in the PFF Draft Guide, and’s Lance Zierlien wrote that his “confidence and consistency have been issues.” Purdy steadily got worse over the course of his college career, and his closing statement to NFL teams was a game in which he literally slapped the ball to an opponent for a touchdown. Would you draft that guy?

Getting picked last in the draft has its positives and negatives. On the one hand, there is a surprising amount of “Mr. Irrelevant” fanfare, including a charity banquet in Newport Beach. On the other hand, priority undrafted free agents aren’t bound to one team, so they can make a handful of NFL teams compete and choose the one with the best coaches, easiest path to starting, or biggest signing bonus. Purdy was stuck with the 49ers, which was kind of a bleak situation for a rookie. In addition to Lance and Garoppolo, the Niners had given $2 million in fully guaranteed money to Nate Sudfeld, the presumptive backup if the team was able to find a trade partner for Garoppolo. The Purdy-Sudfeld camp battle to be QB3 was a snoozer—in the preseason finale, they split snaps in a 17-0 loss to the Texans. For whatever reason, the Niners decided to eat Sudfeld’s salary and go with Purdy behind Lance and Garoppolo, and he quickly bumped up to backup after Lance’s injury. And Purdy didn’t look great in reserve action earlier in the season. When he relieved Garoppolo in a blowout loss to the Chiefs, he threw a terrible interception.

But everybody can agree on one thing: When Garoppolo went down, Purdy was ready. He is not just the most successful Mr. Irrelevant ever, or the most successful seventh-round draft pick ever to play as a rookie, although both of those things are clearly true. (No Mr. Irrelevant had ever completed a pass in a regular-season game; Purdy is 7-0 as a starter, while all other seventh-round rookies are a combined 14-35-2.) Purdy is one of the most successful rookie QBs ever, with no exceptions or caveats. Purdy has the highest passer rating of any rookie QB in the Super Bowl era, and the second-highest rookie passer rating ever, behind just Hall of Famer Otto Graham.

Of course, part of Purdy’s success is situational. He’s playing behind one of the best offensive lines in the league, led by left tackle Trent Williams, who may be the best player in the NFL regardless of position. He’s throwing to George Kittle, an All-Pro tight end who seemingly willed the Niners to victory in their playoff game against the Cowboys. He’s handing the ball off to Christian McCaffrey, a versatile running back with seemingly no weaknesses in his game. And nobody is quite sure how to describe Deebo Samuel, the All-Pro, do-everything wide receiver who also takes snaps out of the backfield. Thanks to Samuel, Purdy gets to count this as a 74-yard touchdown pass:

With Shanahan’s scheming, Niners QBs don’t have to do a ton. If we just look at passing plays that gained 20 yards or more, Garoppolo and Purdy ranked last and second to last in air yards per attempt this season—most quarterbacks actually have to throw the ball 20 yards to gain 20 yards; the Niners QBs have to throw it only about 13.

But even within the framework of that easy-button offense, the Niners have clearly been more successful with Purdy than with Garoppolo. The Niners averaged 22.4 points per game and 5.8 yards per play with Garoppolo; that’s improved to 32.6 points and 6.5 yards per play with Purdy. Although short, easy passes are a big part of San Francisco’s success, Purdy seems to have unlocked a deeper element to the offense: He’s already thrown three touchdown passes with at least 25 air yards, while Garoppolo had thrown just two in the last three seasons combined.

Purdy can also scramble; he’s had two runs of at least 10 yards since he took over, including this high-stepper for a gain of 13 in the playoffs against Seattle. Garoppolo hadn’t managed a run of 10 yards since Week 7 of the 2019 season.

Purdy can also make throws from unusual arm angles (MAHOMES 2.0?????) and is responsible for the greatest incompletion of the playoffs so far, running around for 11 seconds before delivering a 30-yard strike that was sadly dropped by Brandon Aiyuk in the corner of the end zone:

Even accounting for the ease of quarterbacking this super-team, there is a level of talent and swagger here that is far beyond what Day 3 draftees are usually capable of. The Brock Purdy of 2018 has reemerged—it’s fair to wonder where he went for four years, but this is stuff that we knew he could do. The lesson might be to judge players on their peak capabilities rather than their most recent performance, although it feels strange to tell NFL teams to seek out players who stagnated in the way Purdy did. At the very least, Purdy shouldn’t have been the last pick last year, especially in a QB-weak draft.

We know that these Niners can win the Super Bowl, even with Purdy: They are perma-contenders with this motherlode of talent and Shanahan’s system. I actually think they have a better chance of winning it all with Brock than they did with Jimmy.

We are at the part of the NFL season everybody dreams about, but it almost feels like the biggest question about Purdy will come in the offseason. Right now the Niners need to ride with Purdy, but next year they’ll have more options. But will they pick Purdy over Lance, the bigger, faster, stronger player they invested so heavily in? Will they seek out another QB through free agency (maybe a 45-year-old who grew up in the Bay Area rooting for the 49ers?), the draft, or the trade market? Or will they keep trying to win the Super Bowl with the last pick in the draft, now voluntarily, rather than simply turning to Purdy to cope with quarterback catastrophes?

If the Niners go forward with Purdy, it will show that the Brock Purdy story is a drafting error about a star who fell through the cracks. With each passing Super Bowl victory for Tom Brady, the story of the 2001 Patriots became less “wow, they won the Super Bowl with a sixth-round pick” and more “that was Tom Brady’s first Super Bowl.” But if the Niners try to upgrade, or even turn the team back to Lance, it will show that even though they can win with a guy like Purdy, they’d rather have a better, more pedigreed QB. The Niners winning the Super Bowl with the last pick in the draft would be an all-time football fairy tale, but we’ll really learn about the magic of the moment from the Niners’ next move.