Breaking news: Why the 49ers should offer Jimmy Garoppolo the largest contract in franchise history right now
The 49ers’ season — once a dull affair that couldn’t end soon enough — has found late life.
The Niners have won two consecutive road games — who saw that coming? — and enter the final three games of their season with the realistic expectation of not only competing, but winning.
Yes, the 49ers are fun to watch again, and it’s no secret why that’s the case: they found a franchise-caliber quarterback.
Now the 49ers have to find a way to get Jimmy Garoppolo to sign a long-term deal.
49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said Monday that he isn’t thinking about a new contract for Garoppolo, who is a free agent at the end of the season, and he can get away with that because the 49ers can franchise tag the quarterback for the 2018 season.
But if I was in the position of 49ers general manager John Lynch and Shanahan — who work in concert on decisions and negotiations like this — I would offer Jimmy G the largest contract in 49ers’ history after only two starts.
Yes, I’d put a deal of six years, $145 million with $60 million guaranteed in front of Garoppolo today.
And if I was Garoppolo, I would think long and hard about signing that deal — and then I’d turn it down.
A 2018 first-time franchise tag for a quarterback will be worth around $23.5 million, and barring injury or a new deal, the 49ers are going to slap that tag on Garoppolo for next season.
And that’s making a not-so-straightforward situation even more difficult, because any negotiation between the two parties has the threat of a year (or two, or three) of franchise tags looming over it, and both parties can view the franchise tag as a positive.
San Francisco’s brass might not be interested in a long-term deal for Garoppolo before the 2018 season — they might view next year as an opportunity to see what the quarterback can do with more help around him. If he performs, the Niners will try to sign him to a massive long-term deal or slap another franchise tag on him for 2019. Otherwise, well, I suppose they could get rid of him. (How would that look?)
Shanahan has been clear — he views the franchise tag as a blessing for the 49ers. And while it certainly made it possible for the 49ers to acquire Garoppolo, it might make it tougher to lock him up long-term.
And while I can understand Shanahan’s logic — there’s no such thing as a bad one-year deal, right? — the 49ers should avoid using the franchise tag at almost any cost.
For most players, the franchise tag is a negative — an unfair restriction of their market — but for franchise-caliber quarterbacks, who already hold incredible leverage in contract negotiations (take note of their steadily increasing salaries) the franchise tag can be used to create a bit more leverage.
At some point, the quarterback has so much leverage that there’s no clear option for the team placing the tag on the player. There are only two ways to get out of franchise-tag limbo, and neither is good: teams can either overpay or let the quarterback walk.
Look at Kirk Cousins in Washington — he’s on the verge of a third franchise tag. If he doesn’t sign a new deal with Washington (there’s no traction to a deal right now) and is tagged again for next year, he’ll have played three years and made more than $77 million, and there would still be no resolution between him and Washington.
In theory, Cousins could be franchise tagged into perpetuity, but since he’s already been tagged twice, each year the tag is used from here on out, Washington has to give him a 44 percent raise.
There’s no long-term security, but it’s hard to beat annual 44 percent raises and a fully guaranteed contract every year, right? I think Cousins would be ok with another year or two (or three) under the tag.
Cousins will still be asking for more than $60 million in guaranteed money in a long-term deal, and Washington won’t get credit for the guaranteed money already paid. That’s a lot of cash to hand out to one player over a three-or-four-year span.
If the 49ers had sense, they’d be working overtime to avoid even the faint possibility of a situation like that. And make no mistake, the Garoppolo situation could turn into that.
In fact, Garoppolo’s scenario is eerily similar to Cousins’.
Cousins took over as Washington’s starting quarterback in 2015, the last year of his rookie deal, played well, restored optimism around the team, and left Washington in a tough spot: Do they sign Cousins to the big-money, long-term deal he wanted or put the franchise tag on him and see if it was for real?
They chose the latter option, and he made the Pro Bowl last year. Now Cousins was asking for even more money and even longer terms. Washington, not ready to go to that level, tagged him again.
This year, he hasn’t been as good, but with Derek Carr and Matthew Stafford getting new, record-setting deals, starting quarterback contracts have a new price point, so Cousins is still looking to be one of the best paid quarterbacks (if not the best-paid quarterback) in the NFL.
Will Washington tag him again or give in and make him one of the richest men in NFL history?
Three years in, and there’s no resolution in sight. Meanwhile, Cousins’ contract limbo has clearly affected Washington’s ability to recruit and sign free agents — both because no one knows how long Cousins is going to be around and because his salary is a unfriendly chunk of cash that has to come off the salary cap first (long-term deals are more creative in how they affect the salary cap).
Washington didn’t believe that Cousins was a franchise-caliber quarterback after he led them to a first-place finish in the division in 2015, and that indecision — nay, that bet — might force them to pay $150 million in guaranteed money to Cousins in the span of four years.
A simple rule of thumb: if you’re willing to pay a quarterback $20-plus million for one year, you should be willing to give him $20-plus million over multiple years.
The 49ers should apply that logic to the Garoppolo situation.
Because for Garoppolo, the Niners’ eagerness to put a franchise tag on him is not a threat — it’s a bar-setting move. He now knows that he’s worth at least $23.5 million (the projected cost of a franchise tag next year) per season to the 49ers, and at age 26, he can reasonably expect to play at least another 10 years. By being willing to use the franchise tag, the Niners are negotiating, in essence, against themselves, when it comes to a long-term deal with Garoppolo.
Garoppolo might not be getting the security of a long-term deal, but if he were to be franchise tagged three consecutive years, it’d net him $92.3 million before his 30th birthday.
That’s as much guaranteed money as Stafford landed in the largest deal in NFL history this past offseason, when he was 29 years old, and again, there wouldn’t be any resolution between Garoppolo and the Niners when it comes to a long-term deal.
Unless the 49ers come with a deal better than Derek Carr’s five-year, $125 million contract with $70 million guaranteed this winter — and there’s no indication they’re ready to do something like that — Garoppolo benefits from waiting to sign anything and seeing if Washington and Cousins can come to a terms on a long-term deal and set the market.
The 49ers might not like having to pay record-setting money to a quarterback who started only five games, but it’s clear that Garoppolo is a franchise-caliber quarterback — he’s going to get paid.
And the longer San Francisco waits to sign him to a new deal, the more it’s likely to cost them.