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Why 49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo is poised to have an MVP-caliber season in 2020

Brian Renick
Jun 1, 2020 at 4:17 PM3


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49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was 2 yards, or fewer, away from being named Super Bowl LIV MVP. That's how far he overthrew wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders for an easy touchdown in the 4th quarter. If Sanders was just a little bit faster, or if Garoppolo's throw had a little less behind it, the narratives surrounding the 49ers and their starting quarterback this offseason would be drastically different. As it is, Garoppolo has faced a barrage of analysis, articles, and tweets questioning whether he is a good starting quarterback, let alone a great one.

All of this chatter has come after a season in which he guided his team to a 13-3 record, completed 69.1% of his passes (4th in the NFL), threw 27 touchdowns (5th) and 13 interceptions, and 8.4 yards per attempt, which led all NFL quarterbacks who started 16 games. That is an awfully impressive season for somebody who has been discussed in such a negative light since the season ended. Not only is Jimmy Garoppolo a Top 10 quarterback in the NFL, but he is poised to have an MVP-caliber season in 2020 because of the following four reasons: an upgraded offensive line, new weapons on offense, a second full year in head coach Kyle Shanahan's offense, and a tougher schedule and likely defensive regression from 2019.

Upgraded Offensive Line


It may sound like heresy to say that the 49ers upgraded their offensive line when Joe Staley, their stalwart left tackle, retired in the offseason after 13 Hall of Fame worthy seasons with the team. However, in the wake of that announcement, the team traded for Trent Williams, the Washington Redskins' seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle, who was available due to an ongoing dispute with the team and its medical staff.

Williams will be 32 years old when the season starts, so he is younger than Staley, and on top of that, he did not play a single snap last season for the Redskins due to the dispute, so his body should be refreshed and ready to go. He also played for Shanahan during the coach's time as the offensive coordinator for the Redskins, so he is familiar with the offense and should slot right into that all-important left tackle position without missing a beat. With Staley retired, Williams is also, arguably, the most athletic left tackle in the league now, which means the run game shouldn't falter in Staley's absence.

The other upgrade the 49ers made was at right guard, where they released last year's starter Mike Person, re-signed Daniel Brunskill, and signed free agent Tom Compton to compete for the starting spot. Brunskill has the inside track for the position due to his experience with the team last season, and he brings a significant upgrade in pass blocking ability over Person, who was often overwhelmed by the elite inside pass rushers in the league like Aaron Donald, Grady Jarrett, and Chris Jones, the latter having batted down two big passes in the Super Bowl while rushing against Person. These two upgrades should mean an overall upgrade for the line as a whole, but more importantly for Garoppolo, an upgrade in pass blocking, leading to more time in the pocket and cleaner passing lanes.

New Weapons


The team was unable to re-sign Emmanuel Sanders, the veteran wide receiver it got from the Denver Broncos at the trade deadline last season, which will be a big loss for the offense. Sanders and Garoppolo developed an immediate rapport, and the offense, specifically the pass offense, reached another level once he joined the team.

However, even with the loss of Sanders, there are quite a few new weapons that the team added in the offseason, either through the draft or through injury recoveries. GM John Lynch drafted Brandon Aiyuk, the playmaking wide receiver out of Arizona State, with the second of the team's 1st-round picks, and Jerick McKinnon, Trent Taylor, and Jalen Hurd have all been cleared to resume activity after recovering from injury. It's easy to look at those four players and dream about all the ways that Kyle Shanahan can deploy them within his scheme.

Aiyuk ran a "pedestrian" 4.5-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. However, he was still recovering from a core muscle injury, which likely affected his time. Matt Barrows of The Athletic reported that the 49ers had GPS data from Aiyuk's final season at Arizona State in which he was clocked at 21.97 mph, which would have been the 4th fastest time recorded by any player in the NFL last season. He will definitely be able to take the top off the defense.

Jerick McKinnon is fully recovered (he was cleared to return before the season ended) from the knee injury he suffered in 2018 and the setback in recovery from that knee injury, which robbed him of the 2019 season as well. He is working out in Texas this offseason, and all reports indicate that he looks good, including videos posted to Twitter by Footwork King (@footwork_king1), which highlight his suddenness and lateral quickness. Adding McKinnon to an already talented backfield, especially combining his elite receiving ability with that of fullback Kyle Juszczyk, should give opposing defensive coordinators nightmares.

Finally, Trent Taylor and Jalen Hurd, two receivers who should see most of their time in the slot, are cleared to return from the injuries that kept them out in 2019. Taylor was Garoppolo's security blanket and favorite target during the 2017 season when the 49ers ripped off five straight wins to end the season after Jimmy was named the starter. Hurd, the 2019 3rd-round pick out of Baylor missed the entire season, but had an intriguing and tantalizing pre-season, catching two touchdowns against the Dallas Cowboys before going down with a back injury. All of these new weapons should give Garoppolo plenty of opportunities to move the ball through the air more in 2020.

A Second Full Year


Jimmy Garoppolo receives the type of criticism that you would normally see about a quarterback who has played for five or more seasons. What people seemingly forget, and Shanahan is fond of pointing out, is that Garoppolo has started fewer games in the NFL than Baker Mayfield, who was drafted in 2018. The man simply hasn't started enough games to receive the hate that has fallen on him this offseason.

This will be, barring injury, Garoppolo's second full season at the helm of Shanahan's offense. Matt Ryan won the MVP award during his second full season under Shanahan in Atlanta, and his numbers from his first year in that offense (66.3% completion, 21/16 TD/Int, and 7.5 yards per attempt) weren't as good as Garoppolo's last year. Shanahan runs a complex system, and it takes time and experience to master. Is Garoppolo poised to make the kind of leap that Ryan did in his second full year? It's hard to know, but Garoppolo doesn't have as far to go as Ryan did to make his numbers from this past season MVP worthy.

Likely Defensive Regression and Tougher Schedule


The 49ers had an elite defense last season. They led the league in fewest passing yards allowed (2,707) and fewest yards allowed per attempt (4.8). The defense is led by its ferocious defensive line, but it lost the leader of that group this offseason when the 49ers traded DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts for the 13th pick in the draft. With that pick (after a trade) they drafted Javon Kinlaw, the big, athletic, and strong defensive tackle out of South Carolina, who many believe will be a force to be reckoned with sooner rather than later. But the likelihood that he will plug right in for Buckner and have the same kind of impact is low.

On top of the Buckner loss, the team did not address any weaknesses in the secondary during the offseason, namely, the cornerback position starting opposite of Richard Sherman. Akhello Witherspoon and Emmanuel Moseley will battle it out for that position this season. While both have shown signs of elite play, they've both also put some poor play on film, with Moseley doing so on the biggest stage of them all while giving up a back-breaking 3rd down conversion to Tyreek Hill in the Super Bowl. Defensive performance is highly volatile season to season, so it is unlikely that the defense will play at the elite level it did during 2019.

In 2019 the 49ers played a 4th place schedule. In 2020, they will play a 1st place schedule. This doesn't necessarily mean that all of their games this coming season will be more difficult than the previous season, but it does mean that they are going to play more of the elite teams than they did last year. Combine a more difficult schedule, with a likely defensive regression, and you'll likely see more games like the heavyweight fight in New Orleans this past season. In that game, neither defense had any answers, and Garoppolo ended up having, arguably, his best game of the year in which he completed 74% of his passes for 349 yards, four touchdowns, and one interception. Extrapolate that out over an entire season, and that is 5,584 yards, 64 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions. That obviously won't happen, but performances like that give you a glimpse of what this offense, and Garoppolo, are capable of. 4,500-plus yards, 35-40 TDs, and 10 or fewer interceptions are not out of the realm of possibility.

In a league where Patrick Mahomes exists, the MVP award will always be his to lose. However, if the four reasons above come together, Jimmy Garoppolo will come hard for the crown.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


3 Comments

  • rebel4life
    I see, thanks for the heads-up, Mr. Renick! Should learn to read first and complain only then ;-) ...
    Jun 2, 2020 at 1:15 PM
    0
    Response: No problem! Just wanted to let you know what information I was using. Thanks for reading!
  • rebel4life
    Niners played a 11th place strength of schedule in 2019 (unbelievable as ist sounds), will play a 4th place schedule in 2020, I believe.
    Jun 1, 2020 at 5:34 PM
    0
    Response: In the article I was speaking about the creation of their schedule and not their strength of schedule. Each season, teams play their own division twice, then 4 games against a division within their conference and the other conference along with two games against teams from the other two divisions in their conference. Those games are based on divisional finish. Last year they played the AFC North, the NFC South and then the Redskins and Packers, both of whom finished in 4th place the previous season. This season they play the AFC East, the NFC East, and they play the Packers and Saints, who both finished 1st in their division last year
  • Tim Sprinkles
    I couldn’t agree more with this well written article. Excellent insights and I agree that Jimmy is ready to take the next step in his development. The 49ers future, both immediate and distant looks bright.
    Jun 1, 2020 at 5:01 PM
    0


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