Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
But first, a look at one downtrodden team's opportunity to shore up the most important position in the game ...
* * * **
Now, I know the former New England Patriot has only played a couple of games for his new squad. And typically, I'm one of the biggest proponents of making guys -- and especially quarterback -- earn their money. But Garoppolo has shown the football world that he is the real deal at the position and the 49ers would be wise to pay him now, before his price tag skyrockets.
Two weeks ago, the 49ers were a 1-10 team without a true identity. Then they inserted Jimmy G into the starting lineup. Two road wins later, San Francisco suddenly provides intrigue for the remainder of this season -- and beyond. During wins at Chicagoand Houston, the fourth-year signal caller posted a 65.7 percent completion rate and an 87.0 passer rating while averaging 313.5 passing yards in two starts. Although his 1:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio doesn't jump off the stat sheet, the fact that he has blown away the production of his predecessors (Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard combined to complete 56.7 percent of their passes with a 7:9 TD-to-INT ratio and a 71.5 passer rating for San Francisco this season) with the same lineup speaks volumes about Garoppolo's potential as a "truck" at the position.
You know what I mean by truck, right? No. 10 is capable of carrying the 49ers' offense without a stellar supporting cast, which is exactly what true franchise quarterbacks can do. Don't believe me? Ask 49ers general manager John Lynch, who believes he would've won multiple Super Bowl rings as a player with a QB1 like Jimmy G in the fold.
"I say, man, I could have had five rings if I had a guy like that, because in Tampa, we never had that," Lynch said last week on local radio station KNBR, per the San Francisco Chronicle. "To me, I think great leaders, great players ... I think the greatest quality that you can't measure: Do they make the people around them better?
"I don't think you can argue that he didn't do that for everybody on the field the other day (against Chicago)."
That statement alone is reason enough for the 49ers to whip out the checkbook for Garoppolo, despite his short resume as an NFL starter. He makes his teammates better and San Francisco is competitive simply due to his presence on the field. That's what every executive and scout wants in a QB1 -- the 49ers have seemingly found it in No. 10.
Granted, we've seen plenty of quarterbacks enjoy hot streaks exceeding their talents -- I'm still waiting for Case Keenum to come back to Earth in Minnesota -- but there's something different about how Garoppolo is going about his business in San Francisco. First, he is playing with a lineup of underwhelming playmakers on the perimeter. He doesn't have a single blue-chip player at a skill position, yet the 26-year-old has found a way to consistently move the ball down the field. In fact, you could say that he has transformed a career WR3, Marquise Goodwin, into a credible threat in the passing game. Over the past two weeks, Goodwin has posted the following lines: eight catches for 99 yards, six catches for 106 yards. Prior to this hot streak, the fifth-year wideout had only eclipsed five catches in a game once.
Secondly, Jimmy G is playing efficiently in an offense that he barely knows. He has only been in the 49ers' system for a little over a month and certainly doesn't fully grasp all of the options available to him in the team's playbook. Thus, he is limited to attacking the defense with only a handful of concepts that are masked and disguised with various motions, pre-snap shifts and different personnel groupings. He is essentially carving up opponents in a fashion that's reminiscent of the way Utah Jazz legend John Stockton riddled NBA defenses with the pick-and-roll.
Given Garoppolo's success with a scaled-down version of the 49ers' playbook, imagine how much production he'll be able to deliver with a full complement of plays at his disposal. He will not only be capable of controlling the game from the line with audibles, checks and hot reads, but he'll have the ability to "tag" a receiver (QB gives a select receiver a specific route to run that might be outside of the called concept) to exploit coverage. This is next-level quarterbacking, but it's stuff that No. 10 has done in the past and certainly will be able to handle with more playbook familiarity.
So, given all of the positivity surrounding Garoppolo's performance as a QB1 -- and the love that he's received in scouting circles as a potential QB1 for a couple years now -- why are the 49ers still discussing the possibility of a franchise tag this offseason?
"For me personally, it doesn't impact anything," Shanahan said this week of Garoppolo's promising play, via Matt Maiocco of NBC Bay Area. "I thought it was so neat about the situation that I didn't feel that, because of that [franchise] option, that we had to see something here or there, and we had to do all this stuff."
Asked if the availability of the franchise tag curbed the necessity of striking a long-term deal in the coming weeks, Shanahan said, "Yeah, I would not be anticipating that."
While I certainly understand that ploy -- as San Francisco has all the leverage in this situation to make the inexperienced QB prove his worth -- I would caution the 49ers about playing the year-to-year game with a promising QB1. While the franchise tag would secure Jimmy G's services for 2018, the leverage could flip in a quarterback-needy market if he sustains his strong play. We've seen Kirk Cousins' value rise dramatically as he has exceeded expectations in Washington while playing on the tag in consecutive seasons. Now, in the coming offseason, Cousins could become the NFL's first $30 million man (per season), and that could open the floodgates at the position.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
1) Could the Jaguars stick with Blake Bortles in 2018? It's been widely assumed that the Jacksonville Jaguars will be active players in the free-agent quarterback market in 2018, but the recent play of Bortles could change things. The Jaguars' young quarterback has played so well over the past two weeks that you could see the team moving forward with him installed as a long-term QB1. Bortles has completed 71 percent of his passes for 577 yards with four touchdowns and zero interceptions in back-to-back wins, exhibiting the kind of poise, athleticism and playmaking ability that the Jags clearly anticipated when they took him third overall in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Now, he still has a ways to go before we can anoint him as a franchise quarterback, but that decision to pick up his fifth-year option for 2018 at $19 million could make him a bargain going forward. That number puts him in the middle of the pack in the quarterback salary structure for next season, but as Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell so adroitly pointed out, the final year of the deal (this season) and the team option (for next season) essentially amounts to a two-year, $11 million contract. Given the amount of money teams lavish on quarterbacks, the Jaguars might be sitting on one of the league's best values at the position, which is something no one expected to say about Bortles a few months ago.
2) What's wrong with Marcus Mariota this season? Mariota appeared to be a superstar on the rise in 2017 after posting a 26:9 touchdown-to-interception ratio in Year 2. The Titans' QB1 looked like everything certain scouts envisioned when the former Heisman Trophy winner tore up college football as a dynamic dual-threat playmaker with an exceptional combination of speed, quickness, athleticism and arm talent. This season, however, Mariota has taken a step back -- see: 10:14 TD-to-INT ratio -- and the regression has led to some concerns about his ability to fully develop into an elite quarterback in the NFL.
The third-year pro has thrown 10 interceptions over the past six weeks and posted a passer rating in the triple digits only once during that span. Mariota's lack of efficiency is somewhat surprising, given the Titans' simplistic scheme that features isolation routes, quick throws and basic play-action passes. Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, Tennessee's offense just isn't dynamic or sophisticated, so the quarterback should be able to quickly identify the open receiver and deliver the ball on time. In recent weeks, though, Mariota has been hesitant. Some of that could be attributed to the Titans facing more man coverage, which forces the quarterback to make more tight-window throws. With Tennessee's receivers also failing to create significant separation and occasionally misleading their quarterback on their eventual whereabouts, Mariota is more indecisive than he's ever been as a pro. As a result, he has tossed a bunch of picks on tips and overthrows.
Mariota's injury history has also contributed to the third-year pro's woes. Knee and shoulder ailments have forced him to play primarily from the pocket in recent weeks. The removal of the running threat alters the way opponents defend No. 8 and that has certainly played a role in his struggles. Without the read-option plays or the designed QB runs at his disposal, Mariota has been forced to play like a traditional quarterback and that doesn't suit his game. Tennessee needs its quarterback to get healthy in order for him to regain his mojo -- inside and outside of the pocket.
3) Hats off to Frank Gore for reaching 1,000 scrimmage yards for the 12th consecutive season. In NFL history, only one other player has accomplished that feat: Emmitt Smith, who actually did the trick in 13 straight years. After Thursday night -- when the Colts lost to the Broncos, 25-13 -- Gore has 1,009 scrimmage yards (793 rushing, 216 receiving) in 14 games, serving as the Colts' RB1 behind a leaky offensive line and alongside a backup quarterback. Despite those challenges, the five-time Pro Bowler has continued to be the rock-solid contributor we've come to know since he entered the league as a third-round pick in the 2005 draft.
Now the fifth-ranked rusher of all-time with 13,858 yards, Gore appears destined for a gold jacket. Back in my college scouting days, this is exactly how his Miami teammates projected his potential when I quizzed them about Gore's pro prospects. Kellen Winslow II, Roscoe Parrish and others repeatedly told me that Gore was "the best player at the 'U' " when he was in Coral Gables. That was certainly high praise, given how frequently those Miami teams churned out first-round picks. Based on his remarkable run as a workhorse running back, Gore is every bit as good as advertised and worthy of all the praise heaped in his direction for a stellar NFL career.