In the NFL, you either have a quarterback or you don't. Not much matters until that piece, err, brick is in place. The San Francisco 49ers made it evident on Thursday that they believe they have their guy, signing Jimmy Garoppolo to a five-year contract extension.
When a front office makes a decision on committing to a franchise signal caller, tenure is irrelevant. It doesn't matter whether the player has years of starting experience or, in Garoppolo's case, just seven starts. There's a market value that comes with the importance of the quarterback position. That's what makes Garoppolo's contract such a statement by the 49ers and why the impact will be noticeable in several areas.
For starters, the timing of the deal speaks volumes to how much Garoppolo wanted to remain in San Francisco. It was obvious that the quarterback held all the cards in terms of leverage, and he easily could have dragged out contract talks into the final days leading up to free agency. Nobody would have batted an eye had Garoppolo wanted to wait and see what kind of money Kirk Cousins and Drew Brees received. That would have forced San Francisco to use the franchise tag. It's also a testament to Kyle Shanahan and Garoppolo's respect for his head coach's offensive acumen. You could argue that no coach would be able to help Garoppolo reach his ceiling more so than Shanahan.
Garoppolo signing in early February also gives the 49ers a month to strategize for free agency (which begins March 14) with their franchise quarterback as a prime selling point. It shows upcoming free agents that there's stability within the organization; that the momentum built at the end of 2017 isn't tapering off just because it's the offseason. The mutual buy-in from Garoppolo and the 49ers will speak volumes when San Francisco's front office is making their pitch to other players. And it goes well beyond wide receivers that will line up to catch passes from Garoppolo. Defensive players know enough about how the league works as well to be drawn to a team with a franchise quarterback in place.
Avoiding the franchise tag is meaningful for a number of reasons. For one, the franchise tag has gained a certain stigma following Kirk Cousins situation with the Washington Redskins and Le'Veon Bell's reported unrest with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Bell went as far as to say he'd retire should the Steelers tag him again this offseason.
The franchise tag isn't an ideal solution for either party. The non-exclusive tag would give other teams an opportunity to negotiate with Garoppolo. Given the importance of having a franchise quarterback, the price tag of two first-round picks wouldn't stop clubs from trying to enlist Garoppolo's services. That means the 49ers would have to use the exclusive tag, which would pay Garoppolo upwards of $30 million for 2018 without any guarantee of getting a long-term deal done in 2019. San Francisco has now assured itself of avoiding that multi-year headache.
Lastly, but certainly not least, is the impact on the 49ers plans for the 2018 NFL Draft. San Francisco currently owns nine selections, and for the first time in recent memory, the team isn't in the market for a quarterback. The 49ers will select either ninth or 10th in the first round depending on the outcome of a coin toss with the Oakland Raiders. With several quarterbacks projected to go in the top 10 – Baker Mayfield, Josh Rosen, Josh Allen and Sam Darnold to name a few – you could see top tier non-QB talent trickle all the way down to San Francisco.
It's also possible that another team attempts to trade up if any top quarterback prospect is still on the board at pick nine or 10. Remember, the Kansas City Chiefs traded up to get Patrick Mahomes at pick 10 and the Houston Texans traded up to get Deshaun Watson at pick 12. John Lynch and Co. will have no shortage of options.
You don't need to be reminded about how good Garoppolo looked in December, posting a 5-0 record with 1,560 passing yards and eight total touchdowns. His play immediately made San Francisco look like the winners of the deadline deal with the New England Patriots.
And yet, many scoffed at the 49ers five-game winning streak to close out the 2017 season. "Why move down the draft order for meaningless wins?" they said. This is why. Locking up Garoppolo in early February doesn't happen without the positive vibes from five-straight victories.
There is a national buzz surrounding the 49ers franchise right now, and with free agency and the draft still to come, this might only be the beginning.