The 49ers believed they finally solved their riddle at quarterback when they signed Jimmy Garoppolo to his five-year, $137.5 million contract in February. His 5-0 run as the starter to end last season has generated more optimism than the team has seen in years, perhaps since bringing back Jim Harbaugh’s club in 2012, coming off the first of three straight appearances in the NFC title game.
But San Francisco’s quarterback story is not unique this season. A young class of emerging quarterbacks is hoping to take the mantle from Super Bowl winners such as Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning.
Garoppolo might end up being great, but in doing so he’ll have to be better than a number of other quality candidates. He’s a member of a burgeoning group that includes Carson Wentz (Eagles), Jared Goff (Rams), Deshaun Watson (Texans), Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs) and Dak Prescott (Cowboys), among others.
Not to mention the touted group of rookie signal callers entering the league — No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield (Browns), new Jets starter Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen (Cardinals), Josh Allen (Bills) and Lamar Jackson (Ravens) — or the standard bearers with at least a few years left, such as Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan.
The league is suddenly replete with promising and capable quarterbacks, which wasn’t the case all too long ago, when journeymen such as Blaine Gabbert, Brian Hoyer, Josh McCown and Brock Osweiler were given the keys as starters throughout the league. The first two names, of course, are well known by 49ers fans (and are not starting games for their teams this weekend).
“There’s a lot of young good ones,” Kyle Shanahan said. “They’ve done well over the last year, especially with Wentz, who would have been a possible MVP guy last year. I know the young guy with Goff having the success he did. So, there’s a lot of good young ones out there, and there’s a lot of good older ones, too. It’s time for some good young ones to be coming up.”
Shanahan, of course, is closely connected to the quarterback the 49ers will be facing Sunday in the season opener against the Vikings. Kirk Cousins — who signed a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million contract in the spring — was a very real option for San Francisco before the team decided on Garoppolo. Shanahan, then an offensive coordinator, was integral in Washington drafting Cousins in 2012 and later developing him into a capable starter.
General manager John Lynch in March made waves during an ESPN Radio interview saying: “there were some days when Kyle Shanahan was, like, in mourning, because I think everybody knows his master plan was to have Kirk Cousins come in eventually.”
The quote created a stir of headlines, particularly with Garoppolo cemented as the face of the franchise for the foreseeable future. Shanahan was asked this week how he responded to Lynch’s quip.
“I told him how bad of a choice of words that was,” Shanahan said with a grin. “But, no, I understood what he was trying to say. I have a lot of respect for Kirk and I think he’s in a very good situation and went to a very good place and I’m very happy for him for that with what he’s been through. I’m extremely happy with who we have here, and where we’re at, and the decision that we made on who to go with before that.”
Smith ‘doubtful’ to play — A day after defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said he expected linebacker Malcolm Smith to make his 49ers regular-season debut, the team listed Smith as “doubtful” to play. He’s working back from a hamstring injury initially suffered in the exhibition opener. He returned to play 10 snaps in the third preseason game, but he hasn’t recovered fully.
Smith spent the early portion of Friday’s practice on the side field before slowly jogging over to join his teammates during an individual period. San Francisco will start rookie Fred Warner and Brock Coyle at inside linebacker with Reuben Foster serving the first of his two-game suspension.
Person of interest — Shanahan said Mike Person will be the starter at right guard, not 2016 first-round pick Joshua Garnett, who made a late push in the preseason. Shanahan previously said Person was the favorite to win that battle and Garnett had a chance to beat him out during practice.
Watson suffers injury — Pass rusher and special teams standout Dekoda Watson was scratched for Sunday’s game after suffering a hamstring injury during practice on Friday. He won’t travel with the team to Minnesota in order to get treatment on the injury.
Reserve offensive lineman Erik Magnuson (hamstring) was also ruled out.