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The 49ers had no choice but to pay Jimmy Garoppolo — and the next QB will get more

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Jimmy Garoppolo’s contract is gigantic now, but it could look prudent and cost-effective soon.

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Jimmy Garoppolo is the highest-paid player in NFL history with a new contract that averages a record-breaking $27.5 million per year. And it’s going to a player with seven career starts — five of which came with the San Francisco 49ers.

Garoppolo, 26, showed the 49ers everything he possibly could to convince the team he was worth his deal. In his five starts, San Francisco went 5-0 — a feat made even more impressive by the fact that the 49ers were 1-10 at that point in the year — and Garoppolo completed 67.4 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and five interceptions.

This, despite a mostly unimpressive offensive line and few truly dangerous weapons to work with.

But Garoppolo, seven starts and all, now makes more money than Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and every other quarterback who has spent much more than one month proving their worth.

The reality, though, is that the 49ers had no choice. If Garoppolo is going to be their quarterback of the future, the only option was to give him a blockbuster and record-breaking deal.

If the 49ers didn’t pay, another team would have

When Garoppolo was traded to San Francisco, it cost the 49ers just a second-round pick because the New England Patriots were running out of time to get compensation. The quarterback was in the final season of his rookie contract and would’ve left in free agency anyway.

So the 49ers inherited a contract at the end of October that was half a season away from expiring.

In hindsight, San Francisco should’ve done whatever it could to give Garoppolo a deal then. He had leverage but was still had fewer than 100 career passes. But the 49ers got a good look at what they had, and his play in December launched his value through the roof.

The 49ers’ options after his strong end of the season boiled down to:

  1. Give Garoppolo a blockbuster contract
  2. Franchise Garoppolo and deal with it later
  3. Allow Garoppolo to leave in free agency

Option three just couldn’t happen. And giving a quarterback a franchise tag would’ve only meant a large price tag and the threat of free agency still on the horizon.

Simply put: Garoppolo wasn’t going to get any cheaper. Barring injury or a staggering drop-off in his quality of play, the only choice was to give him a contract that he’s willing to take instead of testing his value on the open market.

The deal won’t look so bad once other quarterbacks get paid too

Before Garoppolo became the highest-paid player, that label belonged to Matthew Stafford. Before that it was Derek Carr. And then it was Andrew Luck.

That’s four different quarterbacks who have held the “highest-paid” title in the last calendar year, and there will likely be a fifth soon.

The NFL’s salary cap has jumped by at least $10 million in four consecutive years and will likely eclipse $175 million this offseason, freeing up huge amounts of money for teams to spend. Quarterbacks account for the largest percentage of that spending, and that means as more money becomes available, more money will go to passers.

San Francisco led the league in cap space and won’t get buried by this contract.

But if the team chose to wait until later, more record-breaking deals would’ve happened and pushed the price for Garoppolo even higher.

Who could be next?

Kirk Cousins

The immediately obvious candidate to reset the quarterback market is Kirk Cousins. His venture into free agency already looked inevitable, and it was only confirmed when Washington traded for Alex Smith in January — even if there’s silly reports of the franchise tag possibly being used.

Cousins, 29, has 99 touchdowns and 55 interceptions in six seasons in Washington and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl in 2016.

He isn’t the perfect quarterback, but few passers at his level have ever reached free agency and the impending bidding war could certainly eclipse the $27.5 million average given to Garoppolo.

Drew Brees

He’s third all-time in passing yards with 70,445 and passing touchdowns with 488. By the end of next year, the future Hall of Famer will likely be the all-time leader in yards and on the doorstep of the touchdown record.

Brees is also set to become a free agent in March. There isn’t much reason to think the Saints won’t get a deal done, and it will likely be pricy. But it probably won’t touch the total Garoppolo just got because Brees just had a 39th birthday in January.

Aaron Rodgers

Rodgers is arguably the best quarterback in the NFC, but he was sidelined for most of 2017 with a broken collarbone. At 34, there’s still probably plenty of good football left in Rodgers and Green Bay will want to make sure he’s with the Packers for all of it.

The quarterback is still under contract for two more years but hinted he’s looking for a new deal, as well he should:

It could take some time, and that’s why Rodgers is likely not going to get a record-breaking deal until after Cousins though.

Matt Ryan

The 2016 NFL MVP fell back to Earth a bit in 2017 with 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. But the Falcons will likely look to give him a new contract soon with his deal set to expire after the 2018 season.

Ryan, 33, led the Falcons to the Super Bowl a year ago and, even if he didn’t get the job done in the end, he is still a player who certainly belongs in the highest-paid conversation if Garoppolo, Carr and Stafford all do.

Like Rodgers, the Falcons are treating Ryan’s contract as the top priority and that means the big money is on the way.

For now, the 49ers gave an inexperienced player an incredible amount of money.

But with so many other quarterbacks set to receive huge contracts soon, the 49ers’ deal with Garoppolo may look prudent and cost-effective soon.

It was a deal the Niners had no choice but to sign and if their young quarterback continues to play at all like he did in December, it won’t be one they come to regret.