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Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Is new 49ers backup QB Josh Dobbs an upgrade over Sam Darnold?

Marc Adams
Mar 24, 2024 at 2:45 PM--

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In 2022, the San Francisco 49ers seemed to have an embarrassment of riches at the quarterback spot. They had second-year player, and first-year starter Trey Lance, who they had traded the world away to draft. They had Jimmy Garoppolo, the team's starting QB from late 2017-2021, as Lance's backup. And they had a seventh-round draft pick in Brock Purdy, though he would be unlikely to play. Or so we thought.

After Lance and Garoppolo went down, Purdy surprised everyone by keeping the ship afloat and leading the 49ers back to the NFC Championship Game. But after an injury to the UCL in his throwing arm, Purdy's 2023 season was in jeopardy. Which quarterbacks the 49ers would take to training camp was now even more important. They still had Lance, but they added Brandon Allen and former first-round draft pick, Sam Darnold, to be there in case Purdy wasn't able to recover.

Purdy recovered so well that the 49ers decided to trade Lance to the Dallas Cowboys before the regular season began. The team was set at QB, with Purdy, Darnold, and Allen. But the big question was, what happens if Purdy goes down again? Can Darnold, who had struggled in his previous seasons, lead the team back to the playoffs and beyond?

Fortunately for the 49ers, Purdy stayed healthy, leading his team back to the postseason and Super Bowl LVIII. If not for a fluke special teams play, and a couple of missed blocks, he may have been the first 49ers signal-caller to win a championship since Steve Young.

And though things worked out at the position in 2023, there was always the fear that Darnold would be forced to play. The much-maligned former New York Jets QB has thrown 56 interceptions in his six seasons, not to mention many lost fumbles. He's also been sacked 149 times.

49ers fans did not want to see Darnold play for any extended period. And can you blame them? With a history of turnovers like Darnold has, it makes it extraordinarily difficult to win games.

But Darnold has moved on, signing with the Minnesota Vikings in free agency. The guy who finished the season as Minnesota's QB? Joshua Dobbs, who the 49ers recently signed to be Purdy's primary backup.

So with Darnold and Dobbs swapping teams, it only seems reasonable to ask if Dobbs is an upgrade over Darnold. Certainly, he's not, as far as raw talent goes. But is he an upgrade in the sense that you feel better about having to win a few games with him if Purdy were to go down?

Dobbs doesn't have the great arm talent that Darnold has. And he hasn't played as much as last season's backup. But Dobbs has some tools that may give him the edge over Darnold.

For starters, Dobbs is a better all-around athlete. He can use his legs in a way that Darnold can't, whether it's keeping a play alive or picking up a first down by running the ball. Dobbs has a career average of 5.5 yards per carry. To put that in perspective, Justin Fields averages 6.2 yards per carry in his career. Purdy has a career average of 2.6 yards per attempt. Darnold's career average is 3.6.

Dobbs is not simply a quarterback who takes off running, though. As he scrambles, he still looks to make plays in the passing game but is a threat to run when he has to. Darnold can do that, as well. But not like Dobbs can.

Last season, when Dobbs was with the Arizona Cardinals, he played against the 49ers. And he was pesky, passing for 265 and two touchdowns to go along with 48 yards rushing on 12 carries. His QB rating against the 49ers was 102.2, showing that he's more than just a running quarterback.

Although Dobbs' Cardinals were overmatched against the 49ers, the QB kept his team in the game, and late in the third quarter, pulled Arizona to within five points before Purdy and company finally put the game away. The 49ers won 35-16, but Dobbs kept the Cardinals in the game.

Another reason Dobbs may be an upgrade over Darnold is his mind. That's not to suggest Darnold isn't smart, but Dobbs is extremely bright. Last season, Dobbs started a game for the Cardinals, and then the following week, after being traded to Minnesota, passed for 158 yards and two touchdowns (101.8 QB rating) in his first game with the Vikings. He also rushed for 66 yards and one touchdown, on seven carries.

To change teams, and in only a few days, be able to learn a new offense and new teammates and still win a game on the road, is not something just anyone can do. It displays how bright Dobbs is. Darnold would have been lost in a situation like that and likely would have turned the ball over multiple times.

This is not to say Dobbs is without flaws. He has his share. Dobbs was benched later in the season when he threw four interceptions in a game against the Chicago Bears and wasn't much better a week later against the Las Vegas Raiders. Dobbs did not play the final four games of the season.

So Dobbs isn't going to be any threat to unseat Purdy, but he will be a good backup the 49ers can trust to come in and win a few games if he needs to. And that might make him an upgrade over Darnold.
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