Kawakami: Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance again in ’23? Brock Purdy or Kirk Cousins in ’24? A 49ers QB reality check

Kawakami: Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance again in ’23? Brock Purdy or Kirk Cousins in ’24? A 49ers QB reality check

There’s no harsher reality check in sports than the sight of a talented young player getting carted off the field. You just can’t properly balance that feeling of loss against everything that comes next, but decisions still have to be made. Plans reworked. Everybody has to move forward. This is my weekly 49ers Reality Check column in what has become an extreme reality-check season.

What were the odds just a few weeks or even days ago that the 49ers and Jimmy Garoppolo would both consider a contract extension in the next few months to keep him around as the starting quarterback into 2023 and possibly beyond? Zero. Z-E-R-O chance.

What are the odds now, just hours after Trey Lance underwent surgery on his broken right ankle, that Garoppolo and the 49ers eventually decide to extend this relationship into the relatively distant future? Hmm. Well, definitely a bit greater than zero, I’d say. There’s still a ways to go, but it’s not off the table. It can’t be, if you’re looking into the future.

NFL franchises are always susceptible to hairpin turns and surprise events, particularly at QB, but the possibility that Garoppolo might be the 49ers’ best long-term candidate, pending Lance’s recovery timetable, is a stunner by any standard.

But with Lance’s already somewhat wavering claim on this position now in extreme doubt for 2023, can anybody make the argument that Garoppolo definitely won’t be the 49ers’ strongest option to start next season? No, Garoppolo, still only 30, has to be a candidate.

If this last offseason taught us anything, it’s that no team values Garoppolo more than the 49ers, and that was even after they’d publicly turned the offense over to Lance and granted Garoppolo permission to find a trade elsewhere. They’re not going to think this less now that Garoppolo’s gone through that whole thing, returned to the team and eased right back into the QB1 spot as if he and his teammates knew it was going to happen all along.

And what if the 49ers do what they usually do when Garoppolo is healthy and playing QB — win a lot of regular-season games, get into the postseason and win games there, too? I’m not talking about the “Super Bowl or bust” thing that some insist on spouting. I’m just talking about the best depth chart the 49ers can put together, feasibly. If a Franchise QB is not available, you should try to line up the best available alternative. Somebody who fits with the team. Somebody who wins games. As the 49ers are peering into 2023, how can anybody say that wouldn’t include Garoppolo as a possible option?

Judging by the energy on the field when he came in for Lance on Sunday and the way Garoppolo’s presence calms the 49ers’ huddle, sidelines and locker room, you just can’t rule him out of anything with this team. Last spring, he was all but gone then in limbo and now he’s back under center with 15 games left to go. Flat out: If he stays healthy and plays well, Garoppolo will have earned incumbent status going into 2023, if he wants it.

And if that’s the case, wouldn’t the 49ers think about trying to sign him relatively soon to avoid letting Garoppolo hit the open market next March? (They agreed not to franchise-tag him when they restructured his deal last month.) They should. If you’re Garoppolo, you only consider it if the 49ers are talking about some large money — probably more money than any other team would pay him, again, which isn’t out of the question given what we saw last offseason.

I’m not saying there aren’t other ways this could go. Some other team could be waiting to hand him a huge long-term deal. Garoppolo could be determined to leave the 49ers (again). The 49ers could love other options. But all of that was in the air last offseason and look at where Garoppolo and the 49ers are now.

With all that in mind, I can envision an upcoming offseason that includes 1) re-signing Garoppolo for one or two years; 2) re-emphasizing that Lance is still a big part of the future but other options must be pursued with his health in question; and 3) lots of bubbly talk about the future of Brock Purdy, who already is a developing Kyle Shanahan favorite these days. Purdy as QB1 in 2024? It’s a possibility.

And since we’re now deep down the rabbit hole, here’s another possibility:

If the QB plans founder again in 2023, the 49ers can check back in on Kirk Cousins, who, if he doesn’t sign another extension with the Vikings, will be 35 years old and an unrestricted free agent after the 2023 season. Heck, given Shanahan’s known respect for Cousins, that might be part of the plan already.

OK, yes, I realize I’m pushing this all pretty far. Sorry! Sure, a lot of shocking things can happen with the 49ers’ QB situation between now and next March, and we’ve already experienced a bunch of them in the last few weeks. So maybe plotting this out into the future is too hazardous at this point.

The 49ers were wise and fortunate enough to keep Garoppolo around this season, and he was smart enough to understand that this was his best available situation (and already has made $350,000 incentives on Sunday and could be headed toward at least $4 million more, if he stays healthy, to tack onto his $6.5 million guaranteed salary).

But the 49ers’ current long-range QB plan just got delayed and potentially derailed, so they really do need another one.

The idea Shanahan and John Lynch hatched back in spring 2021 was to settle all the churning QB questions once and for all: Acquire Lance and move him in position to run this offense for a decade or so.

Remember, they came here in 2017 ready to chase Cousins in 2018, but Bill Belichick dropped Garoppolo into their laps in October 2017 and that changed the course of everything. Along the way, Garoppolo got hurt a bunch of times, helped the 49ers to the Super Bowl in February 2020, almost got replaced by Tom Brady right after that Super Bowl (but Shanahan and Lynch decided to stick with Garoppolo after much consideration), and then the 49ers made the move to get Lance in 2021 (and also tried to trade for Aaron Rodgers).

The Lance acquisition was supposed to settle all this down. It never really did, though. Things were a little bumpy last year with Garoppolo still hanging on (and winning games) as the temp starter. The 49ers handed it over to Lance this season. He wasn’t hitting on all cylinders — or else Shanahan and Lynch never would’ve considered bringing back Garoppolo as the backup — but if Lance kept improving in 2022, he would’ve gotten there.

Now he’s out for the season. And nobody knows what he’ll be like physically or mentally in 2023, when he’ll be fully healthy, if he can ever stay healthy or even if he’s cut out to be a winning NFL starter when he’s healthy.

Just one example: Lance wasn’t fast enough to run outside option plays this season, so Shanahan kept him as the inside runner, which took greater advantage of Lance’s power. But it also exposed him to the hit that broke his ankle, which, to be fair, also could’ve happened in any kind of play. It’s just more likely to occur when Lance is trying to power through the line.

The 49ers are built to win now. They can’t tug along a QB-in-training while they aim for the NFC Championship Game and more. If Lance is in the game, they have to do what works. If that’s not throwing, Lance has to run it. If he’s running, it has to be up the middle because he’s too slow to get around the edge against NFL defenses.

Note: He will definitely not be any faster when he comes back from this injury and probably will be slower.

The 49ers made their draft play for a QB, and the cost of last year’s trade is still being tabulated. Their 2023 first-round pick is headed to the Dolphins, the last one owed for the move to acquire Lance.

By the way, here’s how the other two first-rounders were used:

• With the 12th pick in the 2021 draft (via the Dolphins and the Eagles), the Cowboys selected star edge Micah Parsons. (Among other options: Rashawn Slater went the next pick to the Chargers and Mac Jones went three picks later to New England.)

• With the 29th pick of the 2022 draft (via the Dolphins and Chiefs), the Patriots selected guard Cole Strange. (Among other options: edge George Karlaftis went one pick later to the Chiefs.)

We shall see what pick it turns out to be in the first round of 2023 and what players are available.

The 49ers felt they had to take the big swing, both in the trade and in the eventual choice of Lance (instead of sitting at 12 and hoping a QB they liked got to them or taking Jones at 3). I agreed with them. They believed they weren’t likely to get a chance like this any time soon, they felt they had the kind of roster that could protect a young QB, and they hoped that Lance would improve every game and turn into a dangerous weapon by the postseason. Maybe not all of that was accurate, but it was worth the shot.

Also, Lance’s rookie contract gave the 49ers several years of extra cap space to use at other positions … before Lance was due for his own monster extension. Well, Lance will start just four games in his first two NFL seasons. You can point out that this means the 49ers likely won’t have to pay him huge money any time soon, but that’s also a problem: You want your QB to be so valuable that you have to pay him huge money when he’s eligible for it.

But the trade happened. The picks are gone. The Lance trade isn’t a sunk cost to be written off quite yet. Lance’s NFL career should definitely not be written off. But as Shanahan said Monday, “There’s not just a store where you go and get quarterbacks any time.” You have to work and try to win with the ones you’ve got.

If the 49ers make a great playoff run this season, it’ll be with Jimmy Garoppolo at QB. They’ve done it before. It’s sort of weird that they could do it again and that it’d be considered a mini miracle if they did.

(Photo: Robin Alam / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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