Happy Friday once again! Hope you enjoy this week’s column as we dive deep into some of the pressing questions for the second half of the season:
- What does the future hold for the 49ers and Jimmy Garoppolo?
- Has the NFL figured out Lamar Jackson?
- What’s wrong with Carson Wentz?
The Big Picture: Jimmy Garoppolo’s Future
2020 has been a year the 49ers would like to forget, from the heartbreaking Super Bowl loss back in February to the rash of injuries that likely will derail their attempt to return to the big game. Circumstances beyond the team’s control have taken out stars like TE George Kittle and DE Nick Bosa and nearly wiped out multiple position groups like running back and receiver. It’s gotten so bad that San Francisco’s long-term outlook, one of the brightest in the NFL just a few months ago, has now grown murky.
The situation with QB Jimmy Garoppolo perfectly represents that dynamic. Garoppolo has also had a forgettable 2020. The questions about him started during the playoffs despite San Francisco’s status as the No. 1 seed, as it looked like they were trying to hide him with their gameplan at times. Garoppolo’s performance in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl didn’t do anything to silence those doubts. Neither did the 49ers’ flirtation with going after Tom Brady, even though they ultimately elected to stick with Garoppolo.
What Garoppolo has put on tape in 2020 also makes it hard to feel secure with him as the quarterback going forward. In his first game of the season, he completed just 57.6 percent of his passes in a loss to the 49ers. He sprained his ankle the next week against the Jets and that affected his play even further. 49ers HC Kyle Shanahan cited the ankle as the reason he benched Garoppolo after just a half in a blowout loss to the Dolphins three weeks later.
By the time Garoppolo suffered his second high ankle sprain last week, which will sideline him most — if not all — of the remainder of the season, he had just seven touchdown passes to five interceptions.
The injuries, both to Garoppolo and his supporting cast, are valid reasons why he’s struggled in 2020. But at this point, the injuries are part of what Garoppolo brings to the table as a quarterback. Three out of the five seasons he’s been relied on as a starter, he’s been hurt. If there are questions about how high Garoppolo’s ceiling really is, the injuries show how low the floor could be.
Any decision on Garoppolo is months away, and the San Francisco front office probably doesn’t even know how exactly they’ll handle the situation. And it’s worth mentioning that given the chance to add the greatest quarterback of all time, the 49ers picked Garoppolo. But what’s clear from the bread crumbs that are dropping right now is that the team might not make the same decision twice.
There’s not much tangibly tying the 49ers to Garoppolo. Cutting or trading him in 2021 would free up $24.1 million in cap space with just $2.8 million in dead money. The biggest obstacle is finding a replacement. While there’s still some time left in the season, nothing Nick Mullens has shown so far should inspire any sort of confidence in him. C.J. Beathard has had his shot and came up wanting as well. If Garoppolo isn’t the answer, no one else currently on the roster is.
So who would reasonably be available as an alternative? Falcons QB Matt Ryan and Vikings QB Kirk Cousins are names that will likely surface again if this situation heats up. Shanahan has worked closely with both quarterbacks. He was the offensive coordinator for Ryan when he won the MVP in 2016 and for Cousins’ first two years in the league with Washington. Shanahan’s affinity for Cousins is no secret and had things worked out a little differently the veteran probably would have signed with the 49ers instead of the Vikings in 2018.
In a vacuum, either would make a ton of sense. However, Ryan’s salary makes a trade nearly impossible. Cousins’ salary is also an obstacle, though not to the same degree as Ryan. Minnesota would also need to figure out their own replacement plan if they elected to move on from Cousins. File those two away as pipe dreams, for now.
Other options potentially available in free agency aren’t inspiring. If Cam Newton isn’t retained by the Patriots, there are probably health or performance reasons that will scare San Francisco off. The Colts could move on from Philip Rivers, but there’s a good chance he takes his exit plan and retires in that scenario. His backup, Jacoby Brissett, has some starting experience and will be looking for another shot, but he was just replaced by Rivers this year. There’s the Jameis Winston experience hitting the market again after a session in New Orleans, but is that really better than what Garoppolo provides?
Outside of that bunch, the pool of options shrinks to veterans looking for one last chance to start like Tyrod Taylor, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco or even Robert Griffin — another player with experience working under Shanahan. But at that point, the only improvement they’d offer over Garoppolo is price point.
It seems like spending a pick is the way to go, and there are reports the 49ers are allocating significant scouting resources on quarterbacks outside of consensus top preseason trio who could be available. Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields are likely out of reach. North Dakota State’s Trey Lance and BYU’s Zach Wilson might be, too. But there’s a number of other intriguing quarterbacks, like Florida’s Kyle Trask, Alabama’s Mac Jones and even Georgia’s Jamie Newman who could be options if they fall to a pick where San Francisco can’t pass them up.
Finally, there’s Jets QB Sam Darnold, who will likely be out of a job if the Jets end up with the No. 1 pick and the rights to select Lawrence. Darnold has struggled since being drafted No. 3 overall out of USC in 2018. But he’s dealt with injuries, a poor supporting cast and an offense run by Adam Gase. NFL decision-makers remain high on his potential and Shanahan himself is a self-described “big fan of Sam’s.” If you’re looking to spend a second or third-round pick on a quarterback, spending one on Darnold who already has three seasons of experience might make more sense than going after an unproven rookie.
Overall, the 49ers probably can’t get anyone in who’s clearly an upgrade over Garoppolo right away. Garoppolo probably also deserves a little more time to prove himself, one way or the other. But it’s clear there’s a strong chance he will have more serious competition and another player looking over his shoulder in 2021.
This Week In Football
- Very few NFL players get to finish their career where they start it, even Hall of Famers. Texans DE J.J. Watt holds the title of best player in franchise history until Deshaun Watson catches up but it looks like his time in Houston could be coming to a close. The Texans face a major rebuilding and the buzz from behind the scenes is the 31-year-old Watt doesn’t want to waste any of his precious remaining seasons on a non-contending roster. The word in league circles is a trade is only a matter of time.
- The Packers also reportedly dangled a possible fourth-round pick to try and get DT Dalvin Tomlinson from the Giants as Green Bay looked for ways to solidify its contending status at the trade deadline. Their pursuit of Texans WR Will Fuller got more run in the news cycle as a flashier addition, but Tomlinson arguably would have been a smarter move given Green Bay’s massive deficiencies in run defense.
- Seahawks HC Pete Carroll signed a five-year extension that presumably puts him among the highest-paid at his position in the league and locks him up through the 2025 season when he’ll be 74. Carroll is already the oldest coach in the NFL at 69 and probably could keep the job in Seattle as long as he wants to. For reference, Marv Levy and George Halas were each 72 in their final years coaching the Bills and Bears respectively, and Romeo Crennel set the record for oldest head coach when the Texans named him the interim guy this year at the age of 73.
- The remarkable comeback for Alex Smith continues, as after a catastrophic ankle injury knocked Kyle Allen from the game, Smith took over as Washington’s starter. He’ll presumably remain the starter going forward until and unless 2019 first-round QB Dwayne Haskins can convince the coaching staff to give him another shot.
- After taking the unusual tack of calling himself a bust and airing all the offers the Falcons should have traded him for, DE Takkarist McKinley presumably got his wish when Atlanta elected to waive him and rid themselves of the headache. The Bengals scooped him up off waivers, adding another disgruntled but talented pass rusher to take the place of DE Carlos Dunlap. Atlanta realistically should have traded McKinley for what they could at the deadline, but now there’s greater onus on McKinley to prove he’s worth any potential headache. It helps his case that the NFL is always starved for pass rushers. Look no further than the Cowboys bringing back Aldon Smith five years from his last game.
- The Saints’ unique cap situation for 2021 got some run this week, as a report from CBS Sports talked to cap experts in and out of the league to get a sense for how the Saints will manage an almost $100 million hole next year. They were flummoxed, but honestly, it’s nothing new, as the Saints’ unique strategy of pushing cap hits to future years and relying on rising revenue to bail them out has been controversial in league circles for the past decade. It’s worked until this year when a global pandemic could shrink the cap to as low as $175 million. But there are ways out, as articulated by beat reporters, independent cap experts and by us here at NFL Trade Rumors.
- Depending on Drew Brees’ retirement decision, the final revenue number which could add a few million league-wide to the cap and how the Saints prioritize various possible moves, the bulk of New Orleans’ core should remain intact. Quarterback would obviously be the big question mark if Brees retires, leaving behind Taysom Hill and possibly Winston. Apart from that, the Saints would be looking at holes at No. 2 corner, linebacker and perhaps at receiver or tight end, plus gambling injuries don’t expose paper-thin depth in the secondary and offensive line. New Orleans projects to have a pick in each round.
Has the NFL Figured Out Lamar Jackson?
So far, 2020 has far less of a magical feeling for the Ravens and QB Lamar Jackson than 2019. Baltimore romped to the AFC’s No. 1 seed last year before a stunning upset in the playoffs and Jackson was the league’s MVP. This year, the Ravens are second in their own division and Jackson is starting to come under fire. Certain hot take artists have resurrected the critique that Jackson can’t win games when the pressure is on.
But even smart analysts have questions about Jackson. USA Today’s Doug Farrar looked at Jackson’s passing chart from the 24-10 win against the Colts this past weekend and came to the conclusion Baltimore was trying to hide Jackson as a passer. Not exactly the type of strategy you expect for the reigning MVP. And any fantasy football player who drafted Jackson will tell you it’s been different in 2020.
Repeating last year was always an unrealistic expectation for Jackson and the Ravens. Those types of charmed seasons are rare for a reason (in the long, illustrious history of the Pittsburgh Steelers, this is the first time they’ve ever started 8-0). The personnel is different; the Ravens lost Hall of Fame-level G Marshal Yanda and their interior offensive line hasn’t played as well this year.
Injuries are a factor. Jackson dinged up his knee and has lost multiple linemen up front, including star LT Ronnie Stanley two weeks ago against the Steelers. And the innovative, option-style offense Baltimore installed last year wasn’t going to catch anyone by surprise in 2020. Defenses have studied up and are calling out plays before they happen. Everyone has a plan to play the Ravens now.
“A little bit of everything,” Jackson told Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer. “They had guys spying on me. One player was a linebacker, Darius Leonard, or it’ll be a nickel or a safety or something like that. That’s one thing that’s been going on. Defenses like to change up their coverages against us. Like I said, beating us to the punch, but on occasion stuff like that [mixing it up]. So Coach is going to do his thing, dial them up, just out-scheme them.”
However, consider some of Jackson’s stats at the same point last season:
Through eight games, Jackson’s efficiency is behind where it was a year ago, particularly his yards per attempts and completion percentage. But he’s scored a similar number of touchdowns and actually is on pace for fewer interceptions. Baltimore was 6-2 at this same point last year as well, with losses to the Chiefs and a division rival on the ledger each time.
Folks with smarter football minds than me have isolated much of the drop in Jackson’s performance to the difference in empty sets between 2019 and 2020. The Draft Network’s Benjamin Solak highlights how the Ravens are actually more productive using play-action this year than they were last year. But when Baltimore goes to empty sets, they’ve gone from first to worst in the league in that area.
Part of the drop has been how defenses are attacking Jackson when the Ravens turn to a straight dropback passing game. He is still only in his third year as a starter, so teams have thrown a lot of different zone looks to try and confuse him. His inexperience has been exposed as he works to figure out what he’s seeing.
— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 1, 2020
On this play, Jackson should have either pulled the trigger on Snead despite the crashing safety or pulled the ball down to scramble when the linebacker didn’t bite on the lookoff. The defense rotated late as well, giving him less time to process. But this is a correctable mistake that comes with more time in the league.
Solak notes on this same play that Greg Roman, the Ravens offensive coordinator, isn’t doing Jackson any favors with his play design as well, and it’s an over-arching problem. Personnel is still an issue, as the Ravens are relying on a young group of receivers. But so far, Roman’s adjustment to the league’s adjustment has been lacking.
Jackson’s strengths are still there. He’s an elite ball carrier even if there are fewer highlights this year. And he still does excellent work as a passer in the middle and intermediate portions of the field. He’s still not great attacking outside the numbers, which is a weak spot for a Baltimore offense that has struggled at times to counter horizontally when defenses pack the middle of the field.
But that’s not a fatal flaw that’s impossible to work around. To me, Farrar’s passing chart for Jackson shows less of a coaching staff trying to hide a limited passer and more one trying to work to their guy’s strengths.
Even if the results don’t look as easy they did last year, it appears Jackson is still largely the same player who tore up the NFL last year. He didn’t really hit his MVP stride until the second half of the season last year, and while expecting that pace again is unrealistic, it’s not a stretch to think there are better days ahead for the Ravens and Jackson in 2020.
Nickels & Dimes
Quick hit thoughts and observations from around the league…
Colts' offensive woes are aren't solely on Rivers — he's been very good in spots this year. Run game is bad. O-line isn't nearly as dominant. WRs didn't do anything Sunday.
But weigh Rivers 4 games vs. teams w/ losing record (MIN, NYJ, CIN, DET) against 3 gms vs. winning teams pic.twitter.com/ZEG7mbrRDJ
— Zak Keefer (@zkeefer) November 9, 2020
The Colts brought Rivers in to be part of the solution with revitalizing their passing attack. But so far, more often than not he’s been part of the problem for Indianapolis, last night’s Titans’ game notwithstanding.
One of the big talk show debates the past several years centered around who deserved more credit for New England’s unprecedented dynasty: Brady or Belichick? Truth is you can look at both right now and neither are exactly thriving. Brady looks like he misses the Patriot Way, as Tampa Bay looks like Super Bowl contenders one week before laying an egg the next. Brady’s not immune; his past three prime-time performances have included a fourth-down gaffe, a near loss to a one-win Giants team and the worst performance of his career against the Saints…
Meanwhile, Belichick is taking his lumps as the Patriots are 3-5 and needed a last-second field goal to beat the Jets — the Jets — on Monday. There are gaping holes at wide receiver, tight end, linebacker and defensive line right now. Those are steep enough obstacles to overcome each week, but it seems like other positions of supposed strength are taking turns underperforming. One week it’s the offensive line, the next week it’s QB Cam Newton, then it’s an all-world secondary getting lit up by, once again, the Jets. The harsh truth is the Patriots aren’t anything better than a mediocre team right now and Belichick’s usual magic doesn’t seem to be working…
If Titans OLB Jadeveon Clowney was disappointed in the state of his market this year when no one ponied up the $20 million per year he thought he deserved, 2021 is going to be brutal for him. Teams had doubts about Clowney’s limited production despite the flashes of jaw-dropping talent and concerns about his durability, specifically his knee. Well so far, Clowney has zero sacks for Tennessee and is again dealing with a knee issue. At this rate, he’ll be lucky to crack $10 million on his next prove-it deal…
Lions QB Matthew Stafford offered a little window into what the players have to deal with in the COVID-19 protocols. Not only did Stafford have to work virtually but he also had to isolate from his family until it was determined he was no longer at risk for contracting or spreading the virus. That nearly broke him, particularly after a family emergency. Like it is for many during these times, Stafford’s family is his rock and something he doesn’t take for granted after a scary time earlier this year when his wife was diagnosed with a brain tumor. So give him some grace for his performance Sunday and try and extend that to the other people you may be interacting with. We all need it these days…
One common reaction I saw to the NFL’s new plan to award compensatory picks to teams for developing minority hires to head coach and general manager positions is it would actually disincentivize those hires. For instance, teams would shy away from hiring Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy so as not to award two comp thirds to Kansas City. I don’t think this will be the case, as this isn’t part of teams’ decision-making process during free agency. The value of adding a free agent to your roster trumps the value of the pick the other team is getting, especially because you’re not giving it up yourself…
It was another busy week for the virus in the NFL, and the league’s chief medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills, acknowledged it’s going to get harder and harder during the back half of the schedule…
“We’ve said consistently we expect it to get harder, for a couple of reasons,” Sills said via the MMQB. “One, I think disease levels are spiking, so we’ve got more cases, which means people are more exposed away from the facility. As you mentioned, cold and flu season will get ramped up in earnest. And that will obviously create symptoms that are impossible to distinguish from COVID. We’ve said that during this season, it’s always COVID until proven otherwise…
“So I think you will see some players who will miss games because they had symptoms that we simply couldn’t distinguish, whether it was COVID or other viral illnesses. And in some cases, it may turn out not to be COVID, and yet they miss games anyway, just because you have to be so cautious…”
Check This Out
- The Dolphins are one of the hottest defenses in football and Derrik Klassen of Football Outsiders was ahead of the curve. Klassen broke down how Miami dismantled the 49ers in Week 5 with both actual and simulated pressure. The Dolphins have used similar concepts to blank the Jets, obliterate the Rams and contain the Cardinals their past three games. Dolphins HC Brian Flores’ defense is a huge reason Miami is contending for a playoff spot just a year after one of the most complete teardowns in NFL history.
- The Athletic’s Michael-Shawn Dugar sits down with veterans from the Legion of Boom to watch a game and hear them explain what’s wrong with the current Seahawks defense, which is on pace to shatter multiple NFL records for defensive futility.
- Bengals No. 1 overall QB Joe Burrow has been sensational so far in his short career, playing far beyond his years. While the wins have lagged behind, the Athletic’s Paul Dehner Jr. talks to the Cincinnati coaching staff to get the intricate details outlining just how impressive Burrow’s start to his career has been.
- Third piece in a row from the Athletic, which should indicate just how great of a value a subscription is. In this one, Sheil Kapadia digs deep, with stats and film, into the mysterious case of Eagles QB Carson Wentz: What’s wrong with Wentz and can it be fixed?
- Stars are born earlier and earlier these days. Lawrence cemented his status as the No. 1 overall pick in 2021 with his performance as a true freshman when he led Clemson to a championship. His successor, true freshman QB D.J. Uiagalalei, might have staked his claim for the top spot in 2023 even earlier than Lawrence did after the first-year’s performance the past two weeks in relief. He stepped in to lead a massive comeback against Boston College. The State’s Michael Lananna dives deeper into how Uiagalelei’s star was born earlier than expected the past couple weeks.
- I personally find Texans interim GM Jack Easterby one of the most fascinating people in the NFL. Easterby rose from anonymous chaplain to character coach for the Patriots dynasty to now one of the most powerful people in the Texans organization — and he wasn’t shy about grabbing power judging by how NFL media members report on him. Easterby’s been credited as being behind the firing of at least half a dozen front office employees in Houston, the most recent being beloved NFL PR VP Amy Palcic. NBC Sports’ Tom Curran covered Easterby with the Patriots and he offers some interesting perspective, including going back through a revealing profile from ESPN’s Seth Wickersham from 2015. I’m eagerly awaiting an update from Wickersham. Easterby has been busy since then.