Jimmy Garoppolo’s 2018 season is done just three weeks into the season. The 49ers confirmed on Monday that he suffered a ACL tear to his left knee, effectively throwing a wrench into their plans on contending for a playoff spot in Kyle Shanahan’s second season at the helm.
Here are seven ways Garoppolo’s injury changes San Francisco’s immediate and long-term future.
C.J. Beathard’s takes the lead
As a product of signing Garoppolo to his five-year, $137.5 million contract in January, the 49ers were betting C.J. Beathard wasn’t going to factor into the long-term plans at starting quarterback. Beathard is in the second season of his four-year rookie contract – and seemed poised to leave the team in free agency at the completion of that deal in 2020 or get traded before his deal expired to allow the 49ers to extract some value.
That’s the reality for backup quarterbacks. And now that Beathard is playing, he’ll have a chance to improve through game reps and experience as the starter, much like he did as a rookie in 2017 when he started five games, and predictably took some lumps with a lackluster supporting case.
Kyle Shanahan in July was asked about the mental hurdles facing Beathard knowing Garoppolo was entrenched as the starter for the foreseeable future.
“I think C.J. does believe in himself and believes he can start in this league and I know I do too. I think this is a good thing for C.J., that he can get better through this stuff,” Shanahan said. “I know he wants reps. He’s going to get it in practice, he’s going to get a lot in the preseason and it’s the cliché everyone says, you’re always one play away from starting.
“I hope that never happens because you don’t want something to happen to Jimmy, but I know C.J. will be ready if he does. And if not, just the way he works, he will get better regardless and there’s plenty of stories that people know of good things happening to backup quarterbacks regardless of where it’s at.”
Even if Beathard struggles, the 49ers would benefit by getting a better draft pick and perhaps be in position to land a pass rusher off the edge they’ve been lacking since Aldon Smith was the last productive player in 2013.
Defense steps up?
The 49ers ranked 12th in the NFL in scoring through three weeks with Garoppolo at the helm, which meant the defense had a reasonable margin for error. Without Garoppolo, the defense is going to have to shoulder more of the load if San Francisco wants to remain competitive over the final 13 games.
San Francisco’s defense has 43 missed tackles through three games, the most in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. It will have to increase its focus and intensity, which might be a wake-up call the young group needs.
Reuben Foster is back and is still working on being the consistent force the team needs when Garoppolo returns in 2019. Same for rookie linebacker Fred Warner. Second-year player Solomon Thomas has a long way to go as a pass rusher. Free safety Adrian Colbert hasn’t gotten off to a great start in his second year. Rookies Tarvarius Moore and D.J. Reed have shown promise but could use experience.
A lesson to grow on
Injuries happen in the NFL. The Patriots lost Tom Brady to a torn ACL during the first game of 2008 and still found a way to 11-5, though they missed the playoffs. Then New England won the next nine AFC East titles (and counting).
That’s where they want to be in a few seasons once they build their roster and firmly establish their culture. Patriots coach Bill Belichick that season helped teach his team how to win without elite quarterback play. Matt Cassel went 10-5 as the starter despite a pedestrian 89.4 passer rating, tossing 21 touchdowns with 11 interceptions.
Shanahan could use those Patriots as an example.
The 49ers probably entered the season far too reliant on Garoppolo after his 5-0 sprint to end the 2017 season. Learning to win without top-shelf quarterback play, which means being more consistent in the running game and improving along the offensive line, could be valuable once Garoppolo returns.
Breida’s time to shine
One of the few positives from the first three weeks of the season was the emergence of Matt Breida, the undrafted second-year running back, who’s tied for the NFL lead with 274 yards rushing. He’s done it on only 32 carries, which means he’s averaged an impressive 8.6 yards per rush.
Shanahan would be wise to increase the workload for Breida and the running game as a whole. San Francisco has dialed up runs on 45 percent of their snaps. Perhaps a 50-50 split would help Beathard stay ahead of the chains, control the tempo of games and allow Breida to continue his rapid development ahead of 2019.
Get ready for 2019
Garoppolo’s new contract was front loaded, guaranteeing him $37 million for this season. With that, he’s lucky the injury happened after he signed the mega-deal.
Had he suffered the injury last season, it would put the organization in a serious predicament. Garoppolo would have likely been given the franchise tag, unless the 49ers decided against taking a big financial risk on an injured player and go after someone else... such as Kirk Cousins.
The injury is terrible news for San Francisco. But it happened early in the season, making Garoppolo more likely to return in time for the start of 2019. Conversely, Carson Wentz sustained his torn ACL last December and returned to action last week, just over eight months after suffering the injury. Garoppolo will have close to a calendar year before Week 1 next season.
Shanahan said Monday the 49ers are hosting a few quarterbacks for workouts on Tuesday. The biggest name of the group is former Texan Tom Savage. The others to receive invites: Kellen Clemens, T.J. Yates and Matt Moore.
The initial plan is to promote second-year player Nick Mullens from the practice squad. Shanahan reiterated that there was no plan to reach out to Colin Kaepernick because he doesn’t fit the style of offense, and he wants all his quarterbacks to have similar skill sets so he doesn’t have to adjust his game plan if he has to make a change.
The draft silver lining
The silver lining to any bad season is draft positioning. And the 49ers appear slated for another top-10 pick for the fourth year in a row.
The roster still needs upgrades at numerous positions. Namely, the team could use an outside pass rusher, which is one of the most coveted positions in the league – and also the most difficult to find. The draft has become the best avenue and a top-10 pick makes it more likely.
If the team decides against using its early pick, it can trade it away to a team needing a quarterback, perhaps for multiple first-round selections. Recent examples include the Chiefs and Texans who, in 2017, both traded packages that included two first-round picks to take Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, respectively. The 49ers would be wise to maximize their misfortune, and through the draft, find an important piece or capitalizing on other teams willing to deal away valuable assets.