Jimmy Garoppolo poised to take next step in second year with Kyle Shanahan and 49ers

Jay Asser 14/08/2018
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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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Why Kirk Cousins can thrive with Minnesota Vikings and improve on Case Keenum

Jay Asser 13/08/2018
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This offseason, the NFL experienced a rare quarterback carousel that dispersed several veterans across the league.

At the centre of the game of musical chairs were Kirk Cousins and Case Keenum. After coming up one win shy of a Super Bowl appearance, the Minnesota Vikings opted to make what they believed was an upgrade at the position by signing Cousins and letting Keenum walk.

A career year for journeyman Keenum – including the legendary ‘Minnesota Miracle’ in the NFC Divisional Round to cement his status as a hero in the region – wasn’t enough to convince the Vikings. Rather than committing to the 30-year-old, Minnesota were fine with letting him leave for the Denver Broncos, who gave Keenum the opportunity to start.

This past Saturday in Week 1 of preseason, Cousins and Keenum made their debuts for their new teams, fittingly against one another. The Vikings came out on top 42-28 as Cousins looked sharp and Keenum was lacklustre, but a meaningless exhibition isn’t going to serve as a referendum on Minnesota’s decision – this season and beyond will.

There’s a reason Cousins was the most sought-after free agent this offseason. In the three years he spent in Washington as the full-time starter, Cousins recorded a passer rating of 97.5, which ranked sixth among all quarterbacks.

While his efficiency has actually regressed since 2015 – his passer rating dropped from 101.6 to 97.2 to 93.9 last season – his talent is unquestionable, and at just 29, he was the rare franchise quarterback available on the open market.

The Vikings pounced at the opportunity to sign Cousins to a three-year, fully guaranteed $84 million deal, despite Keenum having the better overall season. However, as well as Keenum performed, it remains to be seen if his breakout year was an aberration or a sign of what’s to come.

Prior to this past season, Keenum had never been a starter for a full campaign or managed a passer rating above 87.7. One of the keys to his success with Minnesota was his QBR rating (a variation of passer rating) of 58.5 under pressure, which not only ranked first in the league last year, but placed sixth all-time since 2009. Just a season prior with the Los Angeles Rams, Keenum ranked dead last in QBR under pressure with a mark of 6.5.

Clearly, the Vikings weren’t confident Keenum could produce similar magic going forward.

Cousins might have to in order to succeed in his new surroundings, as Minnesota’s offensive line has been an issue for years. The Vikings didn’t drastically improve the line in the offseason, although simply being healthier could make a significant difference.

Under pressure last year, Cousins was a mixed bag as his 11 big-time throws under pressure ranked fourth, while his nine turnover-worthy passes ranked sixth, according to Pro Football Focus.

What Cousins has working in his favour in Minnesota is the supporting cast, on both sides of the ball. He’ll have one of the best receiver duos to throw to in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, while Dalvin Cook will give the Vikings a running game to lean on – something Cousins didn’t have in Washington as they ranked 28th in rushing yards last year.

A more favourable game script may be the biggest advantage for Cousins as he’ll likely be ahead more often than not, with Minnesota’s defence expected to once again be one of the very best in the league. They allowed the fewest points last season (15.8), whereas Washington were tied for 27th (24.3).

One facet that could benefit Cousins in the long-term, but potentially result in a slow start out of the gates, is his comfort with new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo.

After shining as the Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterbacks coach in their Super Bowl run last year, DeFilippo is poised to leave his imprint on the Vikings offence. His system, however, could put more burden on Cousins to freelance – something he wasn’t used to in a more structured attack in Washington.

Because of the strength of Minnesota’s roster though, they’re in the enviable position of being Super Bowl contenders right away, even if Cousins doesn’t live up to those high expectations immediately.

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How Derrius Guice's season-ending injury affects Washington's running game

Jay Asser 11/08/2018
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One game into their preseason slate, Washington have already lost a player that was expected to be a key contributor to their offence.

Rookie running back Derrius Guice suffered an ACL tear in his left knee in the first quarter of Thursday’s preseason game against the New England Patriots, which will keep him out for the year. It’s the same knee that gave him problems last year at LSU, causing him to miss a game in his junior year.

Though he has yet to play a regular season game, Guice was supposed to open up Washington’s offence as a playmaking threat in the running game. Washington invested a second-round draft pick on the 21-year-old following a season in which they ranked 28th in the league in rushing yards (1,448) and 30th in yards per rush (3.4).

With Guice in the backfield and new quarterback Alex Smith under centre, Washington were set to have a revamped attack. Now, they’ll likely have to rely on familiar faces in the backfield.

Rob Kelley and Samaje Perine are in line for extended roles as early-down backs. Neither were particularly effective last season, however, as Kelley averaged just 3.1 yards per rush in his second year, while Perine was mostly inefficient with a 3.4 mark.

Perine, who Washington drafted in the fourth round in 2017, may get the first opportunity with Guice now sidelined, thanks to his heavy workload in the second half of last season when he eclipsed the century mark in yards twice.

Washington also have Chris Thompson, who was the change-of-pace and third-down back before breaking his leg last year. Though he’s not a much of a bruising, in-between-the-tackles type of runner, Thompson could see the field the most among all of Washington’s current options because of his ability as a receiver – a trait that meshes well with Smith, who has a penchant for attacking with shallow throws.

Regardless of who Washington turn to, or if it’s a committee, the reality is their running game is unlikely to take a major step forward.

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