Incoming Jets head coach Robert Saleh may bring more than his defensive knowledge to New York.
With the Trevor Lawrence dream all but squashed and incumbent quarterback Sam Darnold’s future uncertain, some in the NFL community have speculated whether the former 49ers defensive coordinator could bring veteran quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo with him to the Jets.
The intriguing, long-shot scenario would potentially involve sending the 23-year-old Darnold to San Francisco in exchange for Garoppolo, who is under contract through 2022. He inked a blockbuster five-year, $137.5 million deal in 2018 and is set to earn a $24.1 million base salary in 2021 (with a $26.2 million cap hit, $1.4 million in signing bonus and $2.8 million dead cap), according to Spotrac.
The Jets currently have just over $61 million in cap space, which is third-most in the NFL. The move would net the Jets about $19 million in additional cap liabilities.
What makes this unlikely scenario an attractive one for the Jets is Garoppolo’s familiarity with the new offense in New York. Saleh is expected to bring 49ers passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur to fill the Jets’ offensive coordinator vacancy, which would reduce the learning curve significantly.
Garoppolo, 29, was a second-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. The Eastern Illinois product spent three-and-a-half years in New England as Tom Brady’s understudy. He missed nearly all of the 2018 season following a trade to the 49ers after suffering a torn ACL in Week 3. He helped lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl following the 2019 season, but has been hampered by injuries most of his career.
He missed 10 games this season while nursing a lingering ankle injury, and head coach Kyle Shanahan benched the struggling signal-caller mid-game in Week 5 in favor of C.J. Beathard. Garoppolo completed 67.1 percent of his passes for 1,096 yards, seven touchdowns and five interceptions in six starts in 2020.
In addition his injury history, some have questioned Garoppolo’s ability to perform outside Shanahan’s run-heavy/West Coast system in San Francisco. Levin Black of the Niners Nation Gold Standard Podcast said knowledge of the playbook aside, Saleh and LaFleur — who had been on the 49ers’ coaching staff for Garoppolo’s entire tenure — may be devoted advocates.
“They might truly believe he is a really good quarterback,” Black said. “It seems like there are some people on the 49ers that believe Jimmy Garoppolo is a true, really good quarterback.”
The Jets have other viable options should Saleh not make a push to general manager Joe Douglas for Garoppolo. After posting an abysmal 2-14 record, the Jets could draft one of the non-Lawrence quarterback prospects — either Ohio State’s Justin Fields or BYU’s Zach Wilson — with the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft.
Alternatively, some believe Darnold, who was selected No. 3 overall less than three years ago, could rebound under the right coaching staff and with enhancements to the Jets’ offensive line and playmaker corps. The team has yet to pick up Darnold’s fifth-year option. Saleh previously expressed his admiration for the USC product ahead of the Jets-49ers game in Week 2.
“I’ve watched him a lot whether it was college or last week’s game. … I’m a big fan of Sam’s,” Saleh said. “He’s a very good player. He’s going to have a very good career in this league. He makes a lot of plays. If you’re not on your stuff, if you let him get comfortable back there, he’ll pick you apart as good as any quarterback. He can throw it very well, and he sees the field extremely well.”
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