San Francisco 49ers have created win-win situation at quarterback; five make-or-break players in 2021

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:

— Five players facing a make-or-break season in 2021.

— Football fans (and fantasy fiends) should keep a close eye on one young tight end.

But first, a look at San Francisco’s big question at the game’s most important position …

It’s rare for a team to create a win-win scenario when adding a young franchise-quarterback candidate to a roster that already features an established QB1, but the San Francisco 49ers might have constructed an environment that will help them win today and tomorrow, while also putting their veteran signal-caller in position to cash another big check in the near future.

Perhaps that was the exact plan John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan had in mind when the Niners traded up to the No. 3 pick and eventually drafted Trey Lance with Jimmy Garoppolo still entrenched as the starter.

Jimmy G owns a 22-8 record as San Francisco’s starter and led the 49ers to a Super Bowl two seasons ago, but the organization’s brain trust still felt the need to spend three first-round picks and a third-rounder on another arm. The bold move clearly spawned — at least in part — from Garoppolo missing 23 games due to injury over the past three seasons, leading to concerns about his durability as a starting quarterback. That said, the 49ers certainly value their QB1, who still has two years left on a five-year, $137.5 million extension, though the dead-money implications would no longer be prohibitive to a trade or release. And the team believes the relationship remains a healthy one, built on consistent transparency.

“I think Jimmy’s got a really good trust in myself and Kyle,” Lynch told Colin Cowherd last week. “I think you earn that, and I think, from Day 1, we’ve been very upfront with Jimmy. When I went to Jimmy, I told him the truth. Like, ‘Look, we have made a decision that we’re going to pursue a quarterback this offseason. You know, Jimmy, when you’ve played, you’ve been tremendous, and the record speaks to that. We feel like there’s room for growth. The biggest thing has been it’s hard to keep you on the field.’ That’s not an easy thing to tell a player, but Jimmy took it tremendously.”

There is no denying Garoppolo’s impact on San Francisco when he is on the field. In 31 games with the 49ers over the past four seasons, Jimmy G has completed 67.5 percent of his passes with a 46:26 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 98.1 passer rating. Most importantly, Garoppolo has won 73.3 percent of his starts. Perhaps this explains why Niners brass has been adamant that Garoppolo remains central to the franchise’s plans in 2021, despite the fact that the 29-year-old carries a base salary of $24.1 million and the team just ostensibly drafted his replacement. Lynch reiterated this mindset in his conversation with Cowherd:

“And my other commitment was, ‘But here’s the good news, Jimmy: We don’t want you to go anywhere. We want you to be here, and our ownership has made the commitment that we can do that. We can fit it in our cap, and we think it’s a good situation for you; probably not the one you ultimately want to hear. I’m sure you want to be the long-term guy. There’s a flip side to that. You still could be.’ Because he’s going to have a chance to compete and earn that job, and we’re just going to let that play out. But Jimmy’s a really good football player.”

Garoppolo has a solid résumé, but some believe that he’s not the total package as a passer/playmaker — and that San Francisco needed to upgrade the position to maximize its potential as a title contender.

“He is a good player, but he misses a handful of throws each game that should be considered layups,” a former NFL player and offensive assistant told me. “Shanahan is one of the best in the business at designing ‘can’t-miss’ explosive plays, but there are times when Jimmy doesn’t see it or flat out misses. That has to cause some frustration in the offensive meeting room.”

Reviewing the All-22 Coaches Film, Garoppolo does indeed miss some throws. The most memorable misfire was certainly the overthrow of Emmanuel Sanders on a would-be touchdown late in Super Bowl LIV. Garoppolo’s inability to consistently cash in shot plays — and some easier throws — in the passing game puts a cap on San Francisco’s offensive potential. Moreover, the inconsistencies apparently prompt Shanahan to lean heavily on the ground attack instead of putting the game on his QB1’s shoulders. Don’t believe me? Just look at the box scores from the playoff games during the 2019 49ers’ Super Bowl run. Garoppolo completed just 17 passes combined (on 27 attempts) in the NFC Divisional Round and NFC Championship Game before connecting on 20 of 31 passes during the Super Bowl. Those numbers certainly do not suggest the offense runs through the quarterback, but the Niners’ 7-27 mark in non-Garoppolo starts over the past four years reflects the veteran’s value as a game manager for the squad.

Despite the concerns surrounding his consistency and injury history, Garoppolo is a proven winner in a league that rewards winning quarterbacks with hefty paydays. That is why I love the veteran’s mentality and approach heading into a training camp that will feature a quarterback competition. Asked if he has hard feelings about the situation on Tuesday, Jimmy G provided an inspired answer.

“If you start thinking about all those things, especially as a quarterback, you’re gonna be in some trouble,” Garoppolo said. “I got enough things to worry about just with the offense and things like that, trying to improve things here and there. At the end of the day, we’re here playing football. And so that’s what I love to do. I love to go out there, be with the guys, win football games. I mean, that’s what I do. It’s one of those things, the situation is what it is, it’s not changing. So you just try to make the best of it. The way I do that is I try to attack each day and just try to put my best foot forward.”

To that point, the eighth-year vet has said and done all the right things since Lance’s arrival. Garoppolo was one of the first team members to text the young quarterback following his selection and he has continued to act as the leader of the team.

“When it initially happened, there’s a million emotions that go on throughout your head,” Garoppolo said of the Lance pick. “You think of all the possible scenarios and things like that. But at the end of the day, I want to play football, I want to go out there and win games — it’s what I do. It wasn’t anything too crazy. It took a while to process everything. But once I did, it was just, Go out there and ball. You just gotta attack it. The NFL’s a crazy business, things happen, but you just gotta attack it day by day and make the best of it.”

This is exactly what you want to hear from a veteran player facing the potential of being replaced: Garoppolo is going to compete. He’ll do his best to keep the rookie holding the clipboard on the sideline. And his best has already produced some serious NFL accomplishments. Meanwhile, Lance is a 21-year-old making a significant jump in competition from the FCS to the NFL after starting just 17 games at North Dakota State.

Consequently, it’s not hard to imagine Jimmy G holding the starting job longer than many anticipate, shepherding this loaded San Francisco squad back into contender status and further bolstering a résumé that could look pretty enticing to QB-needy teams next offseason, when Garoppolo will still be just 30 years old. All the while, Lance would be able to marinate in Shanahan’s system and adapt to the pro game before being thrown into the fire. This could be the best thing for all parties involved. A true win-win.

’21 SEASON: Top 5 now-or-never players

If you ask any old-school evaluator how long it takes to determine whether or not a player is a legitimate baller in the NFL, they will say you should see signs within a guy’s first three seasons. While situations and circumstances obviously vary from team to team, the true blue-chip players will flash enough playmaking potential to enable coaches and scouts to confidently bet on their upside as impact players at some point in that time frame.

For early draft picks, the three-year assessment is particularly critical due to the decisions on long-term extensions and fifth-year options that are crucial parts of the team-building process. General managers and coaches want to quickly identify their core players and build the roster around a nucleus of standouts that enable the team to compete at a high level each season.

With teams in Phase Three of the offseason program, OTAs (organized team activities) and mandatory minicamps provide us with a preview of how teams are coming together on the field. So I thought this was the perfect time to identify five players who must get it done this year or potentially lose their spots as featured players on their respective teams. Here are the top five guys on my now-or-never list heading into the 2021 NFL season:

Joe Judge has firmly thrown his support behind his young QB1, and it is time for Jones to reward the head coach with his performance on the field. Sure, the third-year pro has shown flashes as a playmaker with 6,672 total yards and 38 touchdowns (35 passing; 3 rushing) in 27 games, but his turnover woes (39 giveaways) are problematic for a team with a razor-thin margin for error. If Jones can curb the TOs while showing more consistency as a distributor from the pocket, the Giants could rise to the top of the NFC East behind a mobile quarterback with the traits (size, athleticism, arm talent and IQ) and playmaking potential to blossom into a top-10 player at the position. 

No more excuses will be issued for the fourth-year pro if he fails to realize his potential in Carolina. Darnold has been placed in a highly favorable environment, with a creative offensive coordinator (Joe Brady) directing an attack that features numerous high-end playmakers. From Christian McCaffrey to D.J. Moore to Robby Anderson, the Panthers offer the young QB1 a bevy of catch-and-run specialists with the capacity to turn short passes into big gains. In addition, the team eliminated any threats to his job as the QB1 by trading away his predecessor, Teddy Bridgewater, and bypassing a potential quarterback of the future on draft weekend. With the Panthers pushing all of their chips to the middle of the table to bet on Darnold’s talents, it is time for the former USC standout to put up or wave goodbye to his chance of becoming a franchise signal-caller.

Head coach Sean Payton has been waiting on the former first-round pick to show up and show out playing opposite Pro Bowl DE Cameron Jordan. Davenport has flashed disruptive potential with his explosive athleticism and quick hands, but he’s recorded just 12 career sacks in 37 games. While the flashes prompted the Saints to pick up the UTSA product’s fifth-year option, the team needs more production from a pass rusher coming off a disappointing 2020 campaign in which he registered just 1.5 sacks in 11 games. If Davenport is going to emerge as a capable sidekick or potential successor to Jordan, he needs to show up as a consistent playmaker off the edge. 

If the fourth-year pro is going to be a feature back in this league, he must prove that he can handle the rigors of being a three-down player in the final year of his rookie contract. Will coach Kliff Kingsbury give him a chance to do so in 2021? Arizona let Kenyan Drake leave as a free agent, but signed former Steelers RB1 James Conner to a one-year deal. Considering Edmonds’ lack of experience as a workhorse (he’s carried the ball more than 11 times just twice in his career) and his diminutive frame (5-foot-9, 210 pounds), the jury is out on whether the former Fordham standout can really handle the load as a lead back. If Edmonds gets the opportunity to spark the Cardinals’ offense as the No. 1 option in the backfield and fails to take advantage of it, it’s hard to imagine him getting another chance to shine as a feature back in the league.

Reagor has become Public Enemy No. 1 to some Philly fans, largely thanks to the immediate success of his first-round classmate, Justin Jefferson. Considering the Eagles bypassed Jefferson, the 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year runner-up, in favor of Reagor, the pressure is mounting on the second-year pass catcher to show the football world that he can play at a high level. He failed to do so as a rookie, posting just 31 catches for 396 yards and one touchdown in 11 games (missed five contests due to a thumb injury). I know it’s still very early in Reagor’s career, but patience wears thin quickly in today’s NFL. With Philadelphia using its top pick on a receiver again this year (DeVonta Smith, 10th overall), Reagor needs to show up in a big way to carve out a prominent role in the offense.

T.J. HOCKENSON: Next great tight end?

It is hard to tout a Pro Bowl tight end as the NFL’s next breakout player, but real and fantasy football observers should keep a close eye on the Detroit Lions’ all-star tight end as a potential next-level performer in 2021.

T.J. Hockenson is coming off a solid season in which he snagged 67 passes for 723 yards and six scores. The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder finished with six receptions of at least 20 yards while displaying an impressive combination of size, strength and athleticism as the team’s designated playmaker over the middle of the field. Most impressively, he tallied 339 YAC (yards after catch), fourth-most among tight ends.

As the No. 8 overall pick from the 2019 NFL Draft, Hockenson is expected to put up those kinds of numbers, but he has the potential to do so much more as the No. 1 option in the offense.

“I think it’s been a fairly consistent message all offseason from Coach (Dan) Campbell to A-Lynn (offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn) that there’s plenty meat still on that bone for him,” Lions tight ends coach Ben Johnson said last week. “And I think he’s embraced that. He agrees with that, and we’re really looking forward to getting more out of him now.”

Given Campbell’s history as an NFL tight end and Lynn’s experience working with a star tight end in Los Angeles (Hunter Henry), the Lions could unlock Hockenson’s potential as a dominant force in the passing game this season. Part of the plan could include more seam routes, crossers and deep-overs for Hockenson, as the playbook features more bootlegs and play-action passes to complement a zone-based rushing attack.

In addition, the Lions could sprinkle in more quick-rhythm passes designed to get the ball into the hands of playmakers in space. With Hockenson capable of running through arm tackles from smallish defensive backs in the open field, the emphasis on catch-and-run plays could enable him to rack up big numbers on low-risk throws.

The 2020 Pro Bowler certainly knows he is capable of adding another dimension to the offense if he can take his game up a notch with new quarterback Jared Goff in tow.

“I’m preparing myself to be the best player that I can be, and I know my ceiling is high,” Hockenson said. “I know I can do what other people in this league do, and just being able to prepare myself for that. And maybe it doesn’t happen and maybe it does, but I’m just preparing to be the best that I can be, the best that Detroit wants me to be — and trust me, there’s not more of a critic about myself than myself.

“That’s what I’m excited about this year is just being able to work with these new guys, work with these new draft picks, work with Goff and be able to become that and know that I can do that. That’s something I’m excited about and something I think we’re working toward.”

If the Lions’ big-bodied pass catcher builds upon his solid 2020 campaign, Detroit’s new offense could surprise opponents while elevating Hockenson’s status as a top tight end.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter.

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