Jimmy Garoppolo, elite QB? Plus, Minkah Fitzpatrick's rebirth

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:

-- The key to Minkah Fitzpatrick's resurgence in Pittsburgh.

*-- Don't dismiss Ryan Finley, who should be a better fit in Zac Taylor's offense than Andy Dalton. *

But first, a look at the highest-paid player on the NFL's last remaining undefeated team ...

* * * **

Is Jimmy Garoppolo an elite quarterback?

If quarterbacks are judged by wins, the San Francisco 49ers' QB1 should be near the top of the list, based on his 16-2 career record, including a 14-2 mark with the Niners. Garoppolo has consistently guided San Francisco to the winner's circle since 2017, while his predecessors and replacements (Brian Hoyer, C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens) led the 49ers to a 4-20 mark during this span.

While the team's success is undeniable with Garoppolo at quarterback, the 49ers have to determine whether their resurgence is actually driven by No. 10's play or a byproduct of a roster coming together with an effective game manager at the helm.

Now, I know some Niner Faithful will bristle at the notion of their QB1 being pegged as a potential game manager, given his resume, which also includes a 67.5 percent completion rate, 25:15 TD-to-INT ratio, 8.3 yards per pass attempt and a 97.1 passer rating during his 17-game run with the squad. However, he hasn't quite played like a $137.5 million quarterback when judged by the standard established by other highly compensated passers like Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan. Each of those guys has not only guided a team to the Super Bowl, but also played at an MVP level individually.

Despite Garoppolo's 70.8 percent completion rate and 100.6 passer rating this season, questions persist regarding his long-term potential. Now, he is fresh off his most productive game in a Niner uniform, having completed 28 of 37 (75.7 percent) passes for 317 yards and four touchdowns in San Francisco's 28-25 win over Arizona. While this outing boosted his TD-to-INT ratio to 13:7, Garoppolo's play has been uneven for much of this season. It will be fascinating to see how he performs on Monday Night Football in a marquee matchup against the rival Seahawks (7-2). Because the standout performance against the Cards doesn't mask the flaws that crop up when evaluators study all the tape.

Jimmy G is a pinpoint passer on quick-rhythm throws designed to get the ball out of his hands quickly. He is also an efficient and effective passer off run-action fakes with exotic misdirection routes included in the concepts. Garoppolo routinely drops dimes to open receivers scooting across the field on deep crossers or dig routes between the numbers.

From a critical standpoint, Garoppolo is a primary-read thrower with a tendency to wait on his No. 1 option to get open, instead of working through the entire route progression. The hesitation or reluctance to move on to his secondary reads leads to late throws, which sometimes results in interceptions on tipped or overthrown balls. Additionally, Garoppolo has a tendency to throw interceptions on misreads or poor decisions. Although even the best in the business get baited into interceptions at times, No. 10's errant throws lead to questions about his judgment.

"He is as talented as they come as a thrower," an NFC offensive consultant told me. "He doesn't have elite arm strength, but he spins it well and puts the ball on the mark when he knows where to go with the ball. The big thing for him is knowing where to go with the ball. ... He misses some big-play shots because he doesn't see the entire field or he is a little late finding his second or third read in the progression. Plus, he's prone to throw one or two to the other team each game because he gets fooled or tricked by coverage.

"Overall, he's a good player in that system, but I don't know if he's a transcendent player. ... I don't know how much is him and how much is (Kyle) Shanahan doing what he does."

That's why the football world and 49ers officials are viewing the stretch run of this season as a critical part of the Jimmy G evaluation. Despite the fact that Garoppolo signed a five-year megadeal in 2018 that seemingly locked up the talented quarterback as the team's franchise player, the 49ers can get out of the deal this offseason with minimal salary-cap damage. With that in mind, the Niners certainly want to see if No. 10 is really a special player or another quarterback propped up by their exceptional play-caller. Remember, Mullens, who started eight games in 2018 despite going undrafted in 2017, finished last season with a 64.2 percent completion rate, 13:10 TD-to-INT ratio and a 90.8 passer rating. Those numbers illustrate how well the system sets up the quarterback for success, while also leading to questions regarding Garoppolo's ability to elevate the offense from good to great on the strength of his right arm.

Sure, San Francisco's .875 winning percentage with Garoppolo under center matters to some, but the biggest paydays should go to the QB1s who play a critical role in their teams' success, right? That's the argument that we've made in the past when discussing big-money deals for guys like Jared Goff, and it is the main talking point for those who don't believe Dak Prescott should earn the big bucks.

Looking at the 49ers' resurgence as an elite team, it has been the combination of a dominant running game and a stifling defense that's really fueled their ascension to the top of the NFC. San Francisco is the only team in the NFL with three running backs boasting 300-plus rushing yards. The Niners have called run plays on 54.8 percent of their offensive snaps.

"I think the formula that we've been playing with, which is running the ball a lot and running it very effectively and sticking with it even when we haven't had those huge games, in terms of the effectiveness running the ball, is working for us," 49ers GM John Lynch said last week, via NBC Sports Bay Area. "And I think the best compliment I can pay to Jimmy is, he doesn't care. He wants to win football games."

Despite San Francisco's reliance on the running game instead of its franchise quarterback, I can understand why Lynch is smitten with Garoppolo at the moment, given his team's success with Jimmy G in the lineup. The 49ers are 7-0 in games where Garoppolo has 275-plus yards, and the quarterback sports a 4-0 record against NFC West teams (3-0 as a member of the 49ers, 1-0 with the Patriots).

"We saw it the first year," Lynch said. "He can put a team on his back, and he can go throw for a lot of passing yards."

To that point, the 49ers have certainly surrounded Garoppolo with enough weapons to thrive as a passer. Last month's acquisition of Emmanuel Sanders gives the 49ers a strong 1-2 punch in the passing game, with the veteran receiver teaming with Pro Bowl tight end George Kittle. Sanders is a natural No. 1 receiver with slick route-running skills and strong hands. He has already emerged as a dominant playmaking force in San Francisco, as evidenced by his individual production (11 receptions, 137 receiving yards and two touchdowns in two games) and the team's performance (39.5 points per game) with him in the lineup. Meanwhile, Kittle has unquestionably become Jimmy G's security blanket, as the quarterback owns a 110.6 passer rating this season when targeting his tight end -- the second-highest QB-TE figure among duos with 40-plus pass attempts (Dallas' Dak Prescott and Jason Witten top the board at 116.8).

With a full complement of weapons at his disposal and a dominant defense flanking him, Garoppolo should guide the 49ers on a deep postseason run while also looking like an MVP with the ball in his hands. Otherwise, what's the point of paying him big money? To be a glorified game manager for a team that's built to win?

With San Francisco set to face a slate of heavyweight contenders down the stretch -- SEE: the Seahawks (twice), Packers, Ravens, Saints and Rams -- we should soon get a better idea of what Jimmy G is really made of.

STEELERS' TRADE COUP: Unlocking potential of formerly misused stud

The most important part of the player-evaluation process for an NFL team is determining the best way to utilize a guy within the squad's system. While scouts are able to measure physical traits like size, speed, talent and technical skills, it is primarily on the coaching staff to figure out how to blend a player's talents into the team's offensive or defensive scheme.

For a case study in this process, look no further than Minkah Fitzpatrick. After examining Fitzpatrick's impact on the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense, I believe Mike Tomlin and his coaching staff deserve a standing ovation for finding the right role for the former Miami Dolphins first-round pick, who was acquired prior to Week 3 in a trade that had many observers questioning such a bold move by the Steelers with the season seemingly in peril following Ben Roethlisberger's season-ending injury.

While the football world focused on the Steelers' willingness to part with a 2020 first-round pick for Fitzpatrick, Tomlin and Co. concentrated on putting their newly acquired puzzle piece in the right spot. In Miami, Fitzpatrick was utilized like a Swiss Army Knife, playing a variety of roles on an amoeba-like defense that changed styles from week to week. The Dolphins deployed the former Alabama standout at deep safety on 22.4 percent of his snaps while also aligning him in the box (12.7 percent) and in the slot (37 percent) in certain defensive packages.

The constant movement was designed to take advantage of Fitzpatrick's versatility as a dynamic hybrid defender, but it essentially made him a jack of all trades and master of none, as he failed to settle into a designated role in Brian Flores' defense.

I can personally attest to the challenge of being a hybrid defender tasked with moving from outside to inside to the deep middle. As a role player with the Kansas City Chiefs in the 1990s, I bounced around from cornerback to dime defender to safety as the designated utility man. Although I loved the opportunity to be on the field and play a variety of roles, it's hard to settle in as a player when your job description constantly changes.

Now, I certainly understand why the Dolphins would want to move Fitzpatrick around like the queen on the chessboard to maximize his impact. The No. 11 overall selection in the 2018 draft was a dynamic playmaker for the Crimson Tide as a boundary corner/slot defender/safety in Nick Saban's defensive backfield.

Given his success in filling a number of roles within a scheme that demands constant communication and adjustments, it was easy to envision Fitzpatrick thriving in a similar role as a pro. As an All-Rookie Team selectee, it's hard to suggest that he struggled with the added responsibility based on his production (80 tackles, two tackles for loss, nine passes defensed and two interceptions) and performance in Year 1. Following that strong debut, it appeared Fitzpatrick would be destined for stardom on Flores' defense as a hybrid defender. The crafty defensive coach enjoyed success in New England with Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung playing hybrid roles in the Patriots' defense, so it was easy to envision Fitzpatrick blossoming into a stud in a similar role.

Despite the positive feelings, the multi-tasking didn't work for Fitzpatrick, particularly with him deployed as a box defender more than anticipated. Fitzpatrick concurred with the concerns voiced by his mother about his role prior to the season, and eventually he was granted permission to seek a trade.

The Steelers ponied up the draft capital with a plan in place to maximize Fitzpatrick's skills as a 6-foot-1, 207-pound ballhawk with excellent vision and movement skills. Given Tomlin's reputation and experience as a defensive backs coach, it's not a surprise the Steelers positioned the ex-Dolphin at free safety to take advantage of his range and high football IQ. By placing him at the top of the Christmas tree in single-high coverage, the Steelers have enabled Fitzpatrick to rely on his vision, anticipation and ball skills to torment quarterbacks looking to throw the ball between the hashes.

Most importantly, No. 39's presence in the middle has essentially eliminated deep-ball production against the Steelers. Since Fitzpatrick arrived in Week 3, opposing quarterbacks have a 20 percent completion rate, 5.6 yards-per-attempt average, 0:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 10.8 passer rating on deep passes. That's drastic improvement for a unit that allowed a 57.1 percent completion rate, 22.1 yards-per-attempt average, 3:0 TD-to-INT ratio and 141.4 passer rating on deep passes during the first two weeks of the season.

Considering the defense has snagged all 11 of its interceptions (third-most in the NFL), including four by Fitzpatrick (tied for second-most) since he was traded, it's not a stretch to tie the unit's success to his play, with the second-year pro spending 84.7 percent of his snaps as a deep defender.

Why has it worked so well in Pittsburgh when it appeared to be failing miserably in Miami? The Steelers knew what they were getting and they had a plan to use him in a way that played to his strengths. My NFL Network colleague Brian Baldinger broke it down this week in an excellent video segment, and Tomlin shed light on the subject recently, as well.

"We were so enamored with him in the draft process," Tomlin told reporters. "We really felt like we understood not only his talent level, but his approach, his football character."

In the scouting business, football character trumps everything. Fitzpatrick's football IQ and his relentless work ethic made him destined to succeed if cast in the right role.

"There were very little unknowns about him from that standpoint," Tomlin said. "So, we're not surprised by what we're getting, and hopefully it not only continues, but it improves as he gets his feet on the ground and gets a sense of not only what he's doing, but how it fits into the big picture of things."

In the big picture, the Steelers snagged a misused blue-chip player from an opponent and put him in position to not only succeed but thrive as a playmaker. Fitzpatrick could anchor the Steelers defense for the next decade as the team's young core of Fitzpatrick, Devin Bush, T.J. Watt and Terrell Edmunds grows into the devastating defensive unit Steelers fans are accustomed to seeing at Heinz Field. Oh, and as bleak as things looked for Pittsburgh when it was 0-2, the team is 4-2 since acquiring Fitzpatrick, placing the Steelers in the thick of the wild-card race.

BENGALS' NEW QB: Ryan Finley should fit nicely in Zac Taylor's offense

The scouting community didn't fully embrace Ryan Finley's game during the pre-draft process, but Cincinnati Bengals fans should be excited about their new QB1's potential in Zac Taylor's offense. And let's be honest: With Cincy being the NFL's last winless team at 0-8, the franchise had every reason to explore what it has in the fourth-round pick.

Finley is a "connect the dots" passer with superb distribution and management skills. He not only showcased these abilities at N.C. State -- amassing 10,501 passing yards with a 60:25 touchdown-to-interception ratio on the strength of a 64.5 percent completion rate -- but he continued to display those talents during a preseason in which he finished with a 73.4 percent completion rate, which was 9.5 percent higher than his expected completion percentage, according to Next Gen Stats (highest among 44 quarterbacks with 40-plus attempts in the preseason).

As a quick-rhythm passer at his best when working the underneath areas of the field on three-step drops or "catch, rock and throw" tosses out of shotgun, Finley plays the game from the pocket like a pass-first point guard on the hardwood. He gets the ball into the hands of his playmakers and lets them do damage on the perimeter. During the preseason, Finley completed 26 of 33 passes (78.8 percent) for 184 yards and three scores on throws within 9 yards of the line of scrimmage. By knocking down the layups, he enabled the offense to stay on schedule and operate efficiently under his direction.

Additionally, Finley displayed outstanding skills as a play-action passer, with the rookie routinely delivering strikes to open receivers at intermediate range after faking inside runs. Although this kind of ball-handling and play-faking forces the quarterback to hold onto the rock longer, Finley's effectiveness in this part of the game could make him a better fit in Taylor's offense than his predecessor, Andy Dalton. Here's why: The Bengals are running a version of Sean McVay's Rams offense that prominently features play-action passes with longer route concepts. Los Angeles had 65.4 percent of throws in 2017 and 74.6 percent in '18 take at least 2.5 seconds to deliver. While this extended pocket time seemingly leaves the quarterback vulnerable to big hits, the mix of ball-handling, deception and misdirection creates big-play opportunities down the field if the signal-caller is willing to hang in the pocket and throw with pass rushers in close proximity.

Dalton was unwilling to wait and allow plays to fully develop, with an average snap-to-throw time of 2.41 seconds, which is 0.13 seconds faster than any other player in 2019. Think about that: The veteran passer was getting rid of the ball well before Taylor's plays could fully develop. That's why the team had to pull the plug on Dalton and give the ball to Finley -- to see if the rookie can become a Jared Goff-like playmaker. After all, this offense swiftly elevated Goff from potential draft bust to Pro Bowler. Finley -- who, by the way, had a snap-to-throw average of 2.84 seconds in the preseason -- is a high-IQ field general with a wealth of collegian experience under his belt. After spending his first three years at Boise State (starting three games and appearing in eight total), Finley transferred to N.C. State and went on to start 39 games over three years. All of that should help the 24-year-old succeed in an offense that features some solid playmakers on the perimeter -- Tyler Boyd and A.J. Green (whenever he returns to action) -- as well as a very talented running back in Joe Mixon.

"That's why we drafted him," Taylor said on Halloween day, per the team website, after naming Finley the starter during Cincy's bye week. "He's got a very calm demeanor, a consistent demeanor. I think the guys will respond to that. He throws with great anticipation and accuracy. He's got good touch down the field and he can extend plays in the pocket a little bit."

I'm not saying that the offense will suddenly become explosive with Finley at the helm, but he is a better fit for what Taylor wants to do than Dalton -- and that could give the Bengals an unexpected spark down the stretch.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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