The 49ers added a veteran quarterback to the mix in former first-round draft pick Sam Darnold. But what does his contract tell us about the team’s faith in Brock Purdy’s recovery timeline?
Unsurprisingly, the San Francisco 49ers added a veteran quarterback to their roster as NFL free agency began, albeit in an unofficial fashion, on Monday.
Maybe the player they added, former New York Jets and Carolina Panthers signal-caller Sam Darnold, was a little shocking given how poorly he has played during his tenure with both teams. Still, given that both Trey Lance and Brock Purdy are coming off surgeries to their ankle and elbows, respectively, the move made perfect sense.
And while Lance is expected to be ready in time for offseason activities, Purdy, who just had his UCL repaired in his throwing arm done last Friday, is officially on the clock for the reported six-month recovery and rehab time expected given the nature of the surgery.
For those of you doing math at home, six months from Purdy’s surgery date of March 10 is roughly Sept. 10, which is the exact date the Niners’ first regular-season game is likely to happen unless they are tapped to start their season on Monday Night Football one day later.
This means that Purdy would need to proceed with no setbacks during his initial three-month recovery time and no issues in his build-up to throwing over the final three months leading up to the season. You also wouldn’t expect a normal training camp or preseason for Purdy as he continues to work on his rehab.
49ers are paying Sam Darnold more than a QB3 should earn
This leads us to the reports regarding Darnold’s contract which came out in the later part of the day on Monday. According to NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero, Darnold agreed to a one-year deal with a base value of $4.5 million, a number that seems high for a player who is likely to spend most of the season as QB3.
However, it is the next part of the report that is most interesting, as Pelissero added that the former first-round draft pick was given $3.5 million in guaranteed money on the deal, a striking figure based on his expected role.
Obviously, the specific structure of this deal will provide more clarity in terms of how the 49ers view Darnold’s role for 2023, but the sticking point of the guaranteed money suggests they might see Darnold as more than just a guy who can hold down the backup job for a few weeks while Lance and Purdy both get fully healthy.
One viewpoint might say that this contract tells us that Lance is on the trading block, but it doesn’t feel like A) the Niners would want to tip their hand so much if that were the case or B) that Lance has much value given that San Francisco is the only team that knows what kind of player he looks like, given how little game time he’s gotten.
Teams might be wary that if the 49ers, who know Lance best, are ready to give up on him, then what does that say about how well Lance is progressing as a player?
The more likely issue is the timeline for Purdy’s recovery is a concerning one, and so the Niners want to have a buffer in place in case there are issues either during either section of the six-month timeline.
Of course, that may mean they’d have to bite the proverbial bullet, cut Darnold, and take the $3.5 million dead-money hit if Purdy recovers ahead of schedule, something they did last season when they guaranteed Nate Sudfeld $1 million and ended up letting him loose after Jimmy Garoppolo restructured his contract and Purdy impressed in camp.
Or, maybe they’ve communicated with Darnold that they’d like for him to be able to stick around regardless of what happens with Purdy and Lance, potentially taking a spot on the practice squad as the season progresses.
In any case, the contract tells us what teams think of players, and the contract the Niners gave to Darnold suggests they have a role for the quarterback in mind.
What that role is remains to be seen, but certainly implies San Francisco is preparing for Purdy to not be 100-percent ready for the season to begin.