The best quarterback option for the Patriots won’t be available as a free agent on March 17. It’s not Cam Newton, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston, or Mitchell Trubisky.
The Patriots’ best option is under contract with another team. But it’s painfully obvious he’s the one they should target.
Of all the quarterbacks potentially available, Garoppolo is the best combination of age (29), success (24-9 as a starter, with a Super Bowl appearance), and experience (four years as the Patriots’ backup). A healthy Garoppolo puts the Patriots squarely in AFC playoff contention.
“He’s a very productive player,” said former Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum, now with ESPN and The 33rd Team. “Based on their options, I think he’s the best football player available. I think he makes a ton of sense to go back there.”
It certainly would complete the Circle of Life as the Patriots search for consistency in a post-Tom Brady world. Garoppolo, of course, was Brady’s heir apparent until Bill Belichick held his nose and traded him to the 49ers at the 2017 deadline for a second-round pick.
Four years after parting ways, the Patriots badly need a quarterback, and Garoppolo just might be available via trade, as the Niners may not be totally enamored with him and his $25.5 million salary.
San Francisco GM John Lynch said he has “no doubt” that Garoppolo will be his starter next year, but the Niners aren’t financially committed. Garoppolo has no more guaranteed money on his contract, and the Niners would take just a $2.8 million dead cap hit with a trade or release.
It’s not that Garoppolo has been bad in San Francisco. Since Week 1 of 2018, Garoppolo is ninth in the NFL in passer rating (98.6), third in yards per attempt (8.2), and top 10 in completion percentage and touchdown percentage.
But it’s easy to see why the Niners aren’t totally sold on him at the second-highest 2021 salary in the NFL. Garoppolo has started 33 games (including playoffs) and missed 23 — 13 with a torn ACL in 2018, 10 in 2020 with a high ankle sprain — since coming to the 49ers. That after his four-game audition with the Patriots in 2016 turned into 1½ after he injured his throwing shoulder.
From everything Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan have said, it seems the Niners believe Garoppolo is a good-not-great quarterback. They won’t just give him away without having a solid replacement, but they probably wouldn’t mind an upgrade, or at least a lateral move that is cheaper.
The 49ers are rumored to like Jets quarterback Sam Darnold, who will cost only $4.6 million next year and $18.749 million in 2022 if his fifth-year option is triggered. Or they could trade up from the 12th pick and draft their next quarterback.
For quarterback-starved New England, though, a good-not-great Garoppolo would be a significant upgrade. They finished 30th or lower in yards, attempts, and touchdown passes last year with Newton.
We already know how Belichick feels about Garoppolo.
“Jimmy can go out there and run everything that Tom can run,” Belichick said on Nov. 18, 2016. “Unless you were actually looking at the position, if you just could block out that position and say which guy was in there at quarterback, I don’t know if you would know a lot of times.”
And in October 2020: “I think we all know Jimmy’s a quality player and can do all the things that a good quarterback needs to do. … I don’t think there’s any question about his skill level and what he’s been able to accomplish and what their team’s been able to accomplish.”
Since trading Garoppolo would amount to a salary dump, it may cost only a mid-round pick to get him. Salary-cap expert Jason Fitzgerald thinks Garoppolo could be had for a third-round pick. Tannenbaum thinks it would be a fourth, which is what the Bears paid for Nick Foles last year.
The Patriots don’t have a third-round pick thanks to Spygate 2, but they will likely get one or two compensatory picks at the end of the third round (in the 97-104 range). They also have pick No. 111 in the fourth.
A trade would probably come with a contract renegotiation. Fitzgerald predicts the acquiring team would ask Garoppolo to take a pay cut to around $14 million, similar to what Ben Roethlisberger will make with the Steelers this year. Garoppolo, in turn, would likely ask that the second year of his contract be deleted, making him a free agent in 2022.
Tannenbaum thinks the Patriots would try to reduce Garoppolo’s $25.5 million salary, but give him the chance to earn it back with play-time and per-game bonuses. Tannenbaum thinks Garoppolo’s deal is fair if he can stay healthy, and he would want two years of control as a GM.
“If I’m New England, if I have to give up a fourth-round pick, I don’t want it to be a one-year deal,” Tannenbaum said. “I want the second year, and I think play-time and per-game roster bonuses are a good way to solve the problem.”
Either way, trading for Garoppolo has to sound pretty enticing for the Patriots, especially when compared with another year of Newton, or one of Fitzpatrick, Mariota, Winston, or Trubisky. They have plenty of cap space (more than $60 million) to take on Garoppolo and several other free agents. Getting Garoppolo wouldn’t prevent the Patriots from drafting a QB, but also would give them flexibility in the draft to fill other positions of need.
As for Garoppolo, if the 49ers aren’t sold on him, there is no better landing spot than back in New England, where he already knows the system and would play for the NFL’s greatest coach. If he wants another big contract, Foxborough is the place to showcase his talent.
There are several obstacles standing in the way of a reunion; most notably, the 49ers have to want to give him up. But it’s definitely not a pipe dream, and the Patriots should see if they can pry Garoppolo loose.
He is, by far, their best option in 2021.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.