SF 49ers: 2 options for team’s backup quarterback needs

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Wilton Speight (5) , quarterback Nick Mullens (4) and quarterback C.J. Beathard (3) watch quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) Mandatory Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Wilton Speight (5) , quarterback Nick Mullens (4) and quarterback C.J. Beathard (3) watch quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) Mandatory Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports /
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SF 49ers
Quarterback Andy Dalton #14 of the Dallas Cowboys,  Kerry Hyder #92 and Arik Armstead #91 of the San Francisco 49ers  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) /

The High-Priced Veteran for SF 49ers

This is the option many are considering for the SF 49ers, and in a vacuum, it makes sense.

A roster that needed competent quarterback play from its backups to make it to the playoffs should add a competent backup, and it’ll be set, right?

Well, it’s not so simple. The main issue with a high-priced veteran, or even someone making significantly more than the league minimum to be a backup to a position, is overall roster flexibility. In a time when the NFL salary cap is decreasing and the Niners find themselves staring at several top-end players about to reach free agency, there’s a price to pay for having this type of luxury.

Assume that veteran quarterback Andy Dalton, the player in the image above who seems to perfectly fit this option, is willing to sign a deal for only $5 million for one year. That may be too little for a player who proved to be competent, if not slightly below-average, and might be a perfect mentor/security blanket for a team with a young quarterback on the rise (more on this dynamic later).

With Dalton at $5 million and Jimmy Garoppolo at $26 million, that’s $31 million allotted to the quarterback position, or around eighth in the NFL if counting starting QB salaries. For a team that has only $16 million in cap space right now, that’s a pretty hefty sum to pay for a quarterback and his backup, neither of whom would be considered a top-10 signal-caller.

Additionally, paying the high-priced backup only makes sense if the player is able to approximate what the starter is able to do. Nick Mullens, for a stretch of time, seemed to be able to run head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense adequately enough to do that. However, as Mullens played more, it became clear he was unable to hit the basic keys necessary. The goal of upgrading the backup position through free agency, like this, is to get a player who can come in and run the ship without any major issues.

The problem with that is if this backup can approximate or even match what the starter is capable of, why wouldn’t they in free agency get the amount of money the starter has? For the SF 49ers, this would mean signing someone who would be making significantly more than they can invest in the position.

And even if they somehow didn’t get this equivalent salary, if they can truly approximate what the starter can do, or match them in a way such that the team does not suffer, what is the point of keeping the starter at his current salary, especially if it’s a player like Garoppolo, who makes a sizeable amount that could be distributed to several key players?

All this isn’t to say Dalton can play as well as Garoppolo or should command a hefty salary equivalent to that of the current starter. But surplus-value backups are not easily found in free agency. Most of the time, it’s an overpay and underwhelming performance.

Yet someone reading this would, correctly, counter by citing examples like the Philadelphia Eagles with their former quarterback, Nick Foles. And they’d be right, that was a situation where the backup was highly paid. But that situation only happens when there is a significant surplus value from the starting QB.

Surplus value in this situation is playing at a level above their salary. The easiest way for this to happen is through a rookie deal. Take those Eagles. They had quarterback Carson Wentz playing at an MVP-level in his second year when his contract was a mere pittance compared to his performance. That allowed them to splurge on luxuries without having to cut back on other parts of the roster. The Seattle Seahawks, when quarterback Russell Wilson was on his third-round rookie deal, one that was significantly more cost-effective given his play, had the same situation.

Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens, the list goes on and on.

Even the SF 49ers, in 2019, used the fact their star defensive line was largely built off rookie contracts, as well as their best offensive weapons, to go big in free agency and the trade market.

Their reward? A Super Bowl appearance.

The Niners don’t have that same extreme of roster flexibility anymore, and they clearly don’t have it at quarterback. Spending significant cap space on a player who is the ultimate luxury for a team doesn’t make sense in structure nor in practicality.

The reality is that if you have a backup QB problem, you might have a starting QB problem.

If the SF 49ers are committed to Garoppolo, fine. If they aren’t, also fine. But with his salary at play and the team with these many holes, they can’t spend money on a backup who best-case will never touch the field.

That said, the backup situation is a real issue as it currently stands. So how should they take care of it?