In less than a year, Jimmy Garoppolo has gone from the back-up quarterback on a Super Bowl favourite, to the leading man for an up-and-coming contender aiming to stamp its own mark.
Garoppolo’s rise is no longer theoretical. While the future is bright for the 26-year-old, it’s also already here. The San Francisco 49ers signed him to a five-year, $137.5 million deal in the offseason that, at the time, made him the highest-paid player in NFL history.
The annual value of the contract was surpassed not once, but twice, in the following months by fellow quarterbacks Kirk Cousins and Matt Ryan, but the sky-high expectations attached to Garoppolo remain unchanged.
After shining in two starts in the beginning of 2016 with the Patriots before getting hurt and then giving way to Tom Brady, Garoppolo was set free when New England traded him to the 49ers in the middle of last season.
Garoppolo then led San Francisco – who were 1-10 before making him the starter – to five straight wins to close out the year, posting seven touchdowns, five interceptions, 8.76 yards per attempt and a passer rating of 96.2 with his new team.
It was an impressive showing for a young quarterback getting his first taste as a full-time starter, let alone for one that had little time to get accustomed to the offensive system and playbook.
Especially in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s system, Garoppolo could have passed for a player who had a full offseason to work with the offence. But now that he’s actually had an offseason under his belt, Garoppolo is poised to take another major step forward.
Garoppolo is not in too dissimilar of a position that Ryan was in heading into the 2016 season, which ended up being an MVP campaign for the Atlanta Falcons quarterback.
It was also Ryan’s second year with Shanahan as the offensive coordinator and the comfort level between the pairing was evident as it nearly translated into a Super Bowl title.
Ryan’s stats across the board skyrocketed and his baseline was much lower than what Garoppolo’s was last year – 7.48 yards per attempt, 21 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and a passer rating of 89.0 in 2015.
Garoppolo appears ahead of the curve, perhaps due to the three years he spent in New England, where he received coaching from Bill Belichick and served as Brady’s understudy.
Of course, much of Garoppolo’s success this season will depend on the weapons around him.
San Francisco’s offensive skill players are nowhere near the talented group Ryan had in 2016 with Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and others, but their playmakers may also have untapped potential.
Marquise Goodwin emerged as the 49ers’ de facto number one receiver last season after being a part-time player in his four previous years in Buffalo, and had two of his 100-yard games with Garoppolo under centre.
Veteran Pierre Garcon missed the second half of the season with a neck injury, but is back to full health and figures to be a reliable possession receiver.
Tight end George Kittle broke out towards the end of the season and could have a more prominent role going forward, but a separated shoulder suffered in the first week of preseason may keep him sidelined to start the year.
In the backfield, the 49ers went out and signed Jerick McKinnon, who could be the team’s feature back as a versatile runner and receiver capable of making defenders miss. There’s hope Shanahan will unlock all of the speedster’s talents and put him in the best position to succeed.
For Garoppolo, the pieces are in place for him to succeed and continue to set the bar higher.
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