BEN VOLIN | SUNDAY FOOTBALL NOTES
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John Lynch said he felt liberated at the 2017 NFL Combine. He wasn’t tied into any one quarterback and was searching far and wide for his answer, both in free agency and the draft.
“We didn’t have a quarterback on our roster at one point,” the 49ers general manager said Thursday. “I’m always an optimist, and I was trying to be one there.”
Exactly one year later, Lynch has discovered another liberating feeling.
“What’s even more liberating is having Jimmy under contract,” Lynch said with a smile.
That would be Jimmy Garoppolo, the franchise quarterback who fell into the 49ers’ lap last October. Lynch and 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan reiterated last week at the Combine that they were rebuffed quickly and succinctly by Bill Belichick when they tried to trade for Garoppolo last year. But Belichick reversed course right before the trade deadline and gave the 49ers the best gift they could hope for.
“I don’t know if [Belichick] chose [Garoppolo’s] destination, but he gave us a chance to get him,” Shanahan said Thursday. “We strongly appreciated that. And that was a heck of an opportunity for us. We didn’t want to pass at that.”
And what a difference a year — and a quarterback — makes for the 49ers. At last year’s Combine, the 49ers were a 2-14 team with no quarterback and no hope. This year, the 49ers are the hottest team entering free agency and are ready to strike gold.
They have a compelling, young franchise quarterback, a young roster that played more than a dozen rookies last year, an exciting, young head coach, and about $70 million in salary cap space to attract free agents. They may have finished 6-10 and last in the NFC West, but they closed the season on a 6-1 stretch, with Garoppolo winning all five of his starts.
“I learned the way to get people to feel good about 6-10 is you start 0-9,” Shanahan quipped. “Glad we didn’t do it the other way around.”
Finding a franchise quarterback is arguably the hardest task in professional sports. The Buffalo Bills are still searching for one, more than 20 years after Jim Kelly retired. The Cleveland Browns have had 28 starting quarterbacks since reentering the league in 1999.
But the Quarterback Fairy smiled upon the 49ers, dropping Garoppolo right in their lap for the low, low price of a second-round pick.
“I think everybody knew there was a trade possibility, especially with the starting quarterback they have there,” Shanahan said of the Patriots. “We looked into that just like every other situation. They weren’t interested at all early on at this time last year.
“I think they became a lot more realistic right before the trade deadline. I think that pushes a lot of teams to make certain decisions, and I think they tried to hold onto it as long as possible. A few days before the trade deadline it came up, and I think they had to make a move to help their team and their future. Fortunately, it helped us also.”
The 49ers had to also pay Garoppolo, signing him to a five-year, $137.5 million contract last month. But they still have more than $70 million in cap space after accounting for Garoppolo’s big number. And, more importantly, they don’t have to worry about the quarterback position for at least three more years, and possibly much longer.
“He went in and, as we like to say, he balled out,” Lynch said. “He played really well, and he made our team better, then it became a focus of, let’s get him locked up. I think that’s a huge bonus for us that we have him locked up going into free agency. I think it makes it a place where a lot of people want to be, and we’re excited about that.”
Garoppolo isn’t just the 49ers’ quarterback moving forward. Lynch is going to use him as his top recruiter in free agency.
“Wouldn’t you?” Lynch said.
Garoppolo developed a nice rapport with speedy receiver Marquise Goodwin last year, while young receiver Trent Taylor and tight end George Kittle showed promise. But now the 49ers can be a prime destination for top free agents, whether it’s Le’Veon Bell or Dion Lewis or Jarvis Landry, a trade candidate after Miami gave him the franchise tag.
“It will be nice in free agency when anybody we’re going for doesn’t ask me who our quarterback’s going to be,” Shanahan said. “I don’t have to always say, ‘We’ll have one, I promise.’ ”
Garoppolo started five meaningless games last year, and only has seven NFL starts on his résumé.
The NFL has seen many flash-in-the-pan quarterbacks, but the 49ers believe Garoppolo is built to last with his physical tools and maturity. In his five starts last year, Garoppolo defeated three playoff teams (Titans, Jaguars, and Rams).
“He can really quickly process and get rid of the football in a fashion that I would say is elite,” Lynch said. “But then you go to study the makeup of the guy, and the only way to do that is see him around his teammates. There’s no mistaking that when he came in and started playing it lifted our team, it lifted everyone around him.
“And then his work ethic — he never left the facility. The way his teammates just kind of liked being around him, he’s one of the guys, even though he’s not just one of the guys. We watched it, and it became clear in our minds that this is a guy that we want to move forward with.”
Some news and notes from the coach and GM press conferences at the Combine:
■ The Colts are trying to be optimistic about Andrew Luck and the shoulder injury that kept him out for the 2017 season. GM Chris Ballard said they expect Luck to be with the team when offseason workouts begin in early April, and coach Frank Reich said “everything is going according to plan.”
But being present at the start of workouts doesn’t mean much, as the first two weeks are strictly strength and conditioning. Luck still hasn’t thrown a football since October, and the Colts may not have much clarity on his shoulder before the draft in late April.
“Every step that he’s taking right now has a purpose behind it, and we feel good about where he’s at right now,” Reich said. “Even though he hasn’t picked up a football right now, he’s doing some things that’s showing us that he is where he is and he’s going in the right direction.”
■ Giants receiver Odell Beckham is under contract for one more year at $8.459 million, and he badly wants a new contract, stating on Twitter last month that he has “0” (zero) interest in playing in the preseason.
“Social media is evil,” new Giants GM Dave Gettleman said.
Gettleman said he has had one long conversation and traded several texts with Beckham, who has been rehabbing his ankle injury in Los Angeles. Gettleman seems open to doing a long-term deal with Beckham, who has earned his share of negative headlines in his first four seasons because of his immaturity.
“It’s a new day. It’s a clean slate,” Gettleman said.
But will Gettleman make Beckham happy with a massive contract? Gettleman is the same guy who dumped Josh Norman and was a tough negotiator for four years in Carolina.
Beckham’s contract is tradeable, with $0 in dead cap or cash. Beckham was seen at the NBA All-Star Game chatting with Kyrie Irving about something related to the Patriots.
■ Eagles executive vice president Howie Roseman is sitting on one of the most valuable commodities in the NFL in quarterback Nick Foles, and he knows it. At just a $7 million salary, Foles gives the Eagles a great backup in case Carson Wentz isn’t ready for the start of the season coming off his torn ACL, or if Wentz gets banged and bruised next season.
Of course, Foles could also potentially net the Eagles a nice return in players or draft picks in a trade, and provide some much-needed salary cap relief. Roseman was asked whether he plans to keep or trade Foles this offseason:
“Our intention is to keep all our good players,” he said. “That room is exactly what we’re looking for. We have a franchise quarterback, we have a Super Bowl MVP, and we have a young quarterback that we’re excited about as well [Nate Sudfeld].”
Translation for the rest of the NFL: If you want Foles, you better pay up.
■ I asked Jacksonville coach Doug Marrone about the AFC Championship game loss to the Patriots, and whether he had any regrets over the Jaguars’ play-calling in the fourth quarter. Marrone took the blame for the Jaguars turning conservative by running the ball up the middle unsuccessfully for most of the quarter, and the Patriots erased a 10-point deficit to win, 24-20.
“We thought we would be able to run the football at an efficient level, and we weren’t able to do that,” Marrone said. “I think that you have to give New England credit there, they did a better job of executing, a better job of coaching. And I put that more on me than anything else, where I have to do a better job for our coaches and our players to give them an opportunity to execute at a better level.”
■ Matt Patricia has been the Lions’ coach for less than a month and he’s already sick of being asked whether he will run a 4-3 or 3-4 defense.
“I always laugh at that every single time,” he said. “If you guys study film and watch the trends in football, 90 percent of it isn’t even regular defense anymore. It’s all sub.”
■ Don’t be so sure the Seahawks will trade Richard Sherman. Pete Carroll said on Thursday that Sherman recently had a “cleanup” surgery on his left Achilles’, in addition to the surgery he had in November to repair his torn right Achilles’.
Sherman’s injuries should crash his trade market — he turns 30 in March, he has an $11 million salary, and he’ll be rehabbing all offseason from multiple surgeries.
Carroll said he expects Sherman to be ready for training camp, and even with Sherman’s high salary, the Seahawks might be better off with Sherman in their lineup this year instead of dumping him for peanuts.
■ Agent Drew Rosenhaus wasn’t commenting last week on Rob Gronkowski’s status for 2018 and told Pro Football Talk that there is no timetable for a return/retire decision.
But a resolution has to come soon. Free agency starts March 14, and the Patriots need to know whether they need a new No. 1 tight end. There’s obviously still a part of Gronk that wants to play football, because there hasn’t been anything to this point stopping him from retiring and walking away.
■ Multiple league sources predicted that Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones could see a significant uptick in snaps next season in place of Malcolm Butler. Jones’s season ended with an ankle injury in the divisional-round win over the Titans, but a league source said he should participate in the offseason workout program that begins April 16. Jones played 447 defensive snaps in 16 games last season.
■ Linebacker Harvey Langi miraculously avoided serious injury in that frightening rear-end car accident that hospitalized both he and his wife last October and ended his rookie season. Langi did suffer a torn MCL, but he is on the mend and should be ready for offseason workouts, per a league source. The accident seems to have further sharpened Langi’s determination and focus on football.
■ Defensive end Trey Flowers and guard Shaq Mason will receive nice raises in 2018 thanks to the “proven performance escalator,” which rewards players drafted in the third round or later who have played at least 35 percent of their team’s snaps in two of their first three years. Both were scheduled to make $705,000 next year and instead will make approximately $1.9 million. Both will be free agents after the season.
■ Some interesting numbers concerning Tom Brady and the blitz, from Stats Inc. Defenses backed off Brady this past season, as his 113 pass attempts against the blitz (7.1 per game) were the fewest of any 16-game season in his career. By contrast, his career high came in 2007, with 219 pass attempts against the blitz.
But Brady was surprisingly mediocre when the defense came after him with five or more defenders. Brady ranked 22nd in the league in passer rating (85.0), 27th in completion percentage (54 percent), and 28th in yards per attempt (6.64). Brady’s six touchdowns, two interceptions, and nine sacks against the blitz all ranked middle of the pack, as did his seven passes of 25-plus yards.
Only in 2003 (79.0) and 2004 (79.5) did Brady have a lower passer rating against the blitz. In 2016 (12 games), it was 126.7.
Hall of Famer Bill Parcells has enjoyed mentoring young players such as Jacoby Brissett and Tommylee Lewis in retirement, and plans to meet with two of the draft’s top players this coming week. A league source said that star quarterbacks Sam Darnold and Josh Allen, both represented by CAA, are scheduled to fly to Jupiter, Fla., on Monday to meet with Parcells and tap into his brain for pre-draft advice . . . Lions GM Bob Quinn and coach Matt Patricia are borrowing at least one lesson from the Patriots. On Thursday the Lions hired former South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson as their character coach/team development, per the Detroit Free Press. Only one other team in the NFL has a “character coach” — the Patriots, who rely on Jack Easterby to help mentor the players and weed out draft prospects with poor personality traits. Easterby used to work at South Carolina and recommended Thompson for a previous job at Charleston Southern . . . Don’t let anyone tell you that college quarterbacks need to learn how to take a snap from under center. In 2017, Ben Roethlisberger threw 89.7 percent of his passes out of the shotgun (503 of 561). Brady was at 73.1 percent (425 of 581) . . . Jets quarterback Christian Hackenberg has been working hard with private quarterback coach Jeff Christensen over the last month-plus, and to be honest, looks pretty darn good in a few videos the coach let me watch. Hackenberg’s motion is quick and compact, and he throws a beautiful ball. Christensen, who helped develop Jimmy Garoppolo and Kirk Cousins, among others, said Hackenberg is going to be a star. Hackenberg hasn’t thrown a pass in two NFL seasons, but let’s see what he can do this year. He just turned 23 in February and has two years left on his rookie deal.
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