With the San Francisco 49ers’ season already over, many of their leading assistant coaches and at least one executive are appearing on the cusp of jobs with other teams. No one has gotten more attention than 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. After receiving his second interview with the New York Jets, Saleh appears the favorite to become Gang Green’s head coach.
Saleh will no doubt bring about 49ers assistants to New York, likely choosing Mike LaFleur (passing match coordinator) or Mike McDaniel (run match coordinator) to lead the teams’ attack. If he does, it could open the door for an important transaction.
The Jets will have at least $ 70 million in cap space this low season and the second overall choice in the design. While fans are frustrated to miss Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, they are in a great position to draft the next best signal caller. Ohio’s Justin Fields and BYU’s Zach Wilson are the two names touted as the second-best QB prospect in this year’s draft. While first-round 2018 Sam Darnold could serve as a bridge to a new QB in New York, a time-tested veteran option with fame in a Shanahan-esque system seems like a better match.
Of course, the 49ers have their own quarterback riddle. Nick Mullens and CJ Beathard have yet to look like capable starters, and Jimmy Garoppolo is bogged down with injuries and some consistent shortcomings on the field. With several pending salary cap decisions, Garoppolos $ 26.9 million in 2021 raises some questions. Although they have a reasonable salary for a starting quarterback, can the 49ers afford to make such an expensive bet on Garoppolo? On the other hand, identifying viable alternatives can be an even more cumbersome proposition.
But late last year, before the 49ers took to the Jets in Week 2, head coach Kyle Shanahan was asked about Darnold. Below is his answer:
I saw him a lot, whether it was college or last week’s game. I am a big fan of Sams. He’s a really good player. He will have a very good career in this competition. He makes a lot of plays. If you’re not sitting on your stuff, if you let him get comfortable there, take you apart as well as any quarterback. He can throw it very well, and he sees the field extremely well.
If Shanahan is indeed that high on Darnold, it starts to make sense to move Garoppolo to acquire him.
A trade would cost the Jets a little over $ 19 million in cap space, a very reasonable price for a starter. Garoppolo has consistently received rave reviews for his presence in the dressing room. Saleh certainly wants to take a lot of what he helped build in San Francisco to his next job, and players like Garoppolo could do that. Plus, his familiarity with the offense could be of great help to a young quarterback like Fields of Wilson.
In addition, without a guaranteed salary remaining in his contract, Garoppolo gives the franchise sufficient flexibility.
If he returns next season, New York can trade him to recoup design capital. If he gets hurt again or fails to perform, he can be released without adding a lot of dead money to the Jets books.
The savings may not be that big for the 49ers, but it would be pretty significant. They would make the same $ 19 million in space, but would likely be more obliged to add a proven veteran, such as Andy Dalton, Jacoby Brissett, or Tyrod Taylor, to provide primary competition and insurance. But even if it required a $ 5 million one-year deal, the moves would yield more than $ 14 million in capital savings. Some may prefer Garoppolo over Darnold and Taylor, but $ 14 million in savings could go a long way to other parts of the roster.
Darnolds’ contract expires after 2021. Technically, the Jets (or 49ers in this scenario) could exercise the fifth-year option on his rookie-scale contract to keep him for another season. However, that decision will have to be taken before May 1 of this year. The Darnolds fifth year option is worth approximately $ 25 million and is fully guaranteed. Without the chance to see him practice or play with the team before then, it is extremely unlikely the team would make such a move. Instead, the 49ers would have the franchise tag at their disposal to keep Darnold from leaving if they wanted to keep him for longer than next year.
The cost of creating space now, by moving Garoppolo for Darnold, would later cost the 49ers more if Darnold was a viable long-term option. That may seem like running in circles, but it’s just what the 49ers need. The salary ceiling is dropping this year due to lost earnings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it could explode off-season.
Saleh remains one of the most popular head coach candidates in the NFL. If he leaves the 49ers this year, it looks like no landing spot would be more beneficial to San Francisco than the Jets. He would be at another conference creating a hands-on way for the 49ers to get a young starting quarterback and get much needed cap space.
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