NFL

What if the Patriots didn’t trade Jimmy Garoppolo to 49ers? An alternate history of Jimmy G and Tom Brady

When the Patriots used a second-round draft pick on quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in the 2014 NFL draft, everyone thought they had lined up a then 36-year-old Tom Brady’s successor. But in the middle of Brady’s third MVP season in 2017, that no longer become the plan when Garoppolo was traded to the 49ers for another second-round pick in 2018.

Almost three Halloweens later, Garoppolo is the starting QB for reigning NFC champion San Francisco, while Brady is trying to dethrone that team as the new starting QB for Tampa Bay. Meanwhile, New England, after netting fourth-round QB Jarrett Stidham in the trickle-down picks from the Garoppolo deal, is trying to stay in the AFC playoff hunt with Cam Newton.

With Garoppolo since 2017, the 49ers got a talent made to execute Kyle Shanahan’s offense with fine success. With Brady from 2017-19, the Patriots got to two more Super Bowls and won a sixth.

MORE: Why did Tom Brady leave the Patriots?

As Garoppolo was a pending free agent in 2018 and Brady’s then stellar play made the Patriots continue to commit to him, they really couldn’t afford to pay two quarterbacks at a high level and had to make the move with the 49ers in order to get something in return.

But let’s say the Patriots found a way to retain Garoppolo, either replacing Brady when his performance started going south in ’18 or grooming Garoppolo for full-time duty in ’19. In that scenario, the 49ers would have needed to go in a different direction at QB, while Garoppolo, not Stidham or Newton, would be starting for the Patriots in 2020.

There’s also the possibility no other team would have made the Garoppolo trade in ’17 and the Patriots simply let him walk in ’18 free agency, in which case a third team would be employing the services of Garoppolo now.

Here’s a look at four alternate timelines had the 49ers-Patriots Garoppolo trade had happened in real history:

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What if … the 49ers didn’t trade for Jimmy Garoppolo?

This one is easy. Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch, before Garoppolo became available for reasonable compensation from the Patriots, had their eyes on one quarterback above the rest for 2018: Kirk Cousins.

Shanahan got great play from Cousins when he was Washington’s offensive coordinator and Cousins would have been a natural fit again in his scheme. In fact, until the Vikings extended Cousins through his age 34 season in 2022 this offseason, there was still talk of looking at Cousins in 2021 free agency, when the 49ers had their first reasonable out from Garoppolo’s contract.

If Cousins ended up in San Francisco, then Minnesota would be in a much different place at QB. The Vikings signed Cousins over their own three unsigned QBs, Case Keenum, Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater. But they were also attached to another free agent, AJ McCarron. In retrospect, with no Cousins available, sticking with Bridgewater might have been the best plan, but then again, without his two years with the Saints, Bridgewater doesn’t go back to being the solid starter he is now with the Panthers.

The Vikings have had one shaky first season from Cousins followed by the most efficient season of his career, which helped them get back to the playoffs in 2019. This year, he’s back to being a mistake-prone gunslinger. Still, he was a much better choice for the Vikings vs. McCarron, who bounced from the Bills to the Raiders to the Texans as a backup.

Digging a little deeper, had the Vikings not signed any of those non-Cousins options, they had the No. 30 overall pick in the 2018 draft. Two spots later at No. 32, the Ravens traded back up into the first round to take Lamar Jackson. Imagine if the 2019 MVP was wearing a different kind of purple, running around with Dalvin Cook.

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What if … the Patriots didn’t trade Garoppolo and re-signed him?

There was a small chance the Patriots could have finagled a contract to keep Garoppolo as a high-end backup behind Brady, given the two quarterbacks shared (and still share) the same agent. The 49ers ended up giving Garoppolo a ridiculously lucrative five-year, $137.5 million deal after coveting him so much they traded for him. In the open market in 2018, he still could have been compensated at that level long-term by another team.

The only way the Patriots could have kept Brady and Garoppolo would have been committing a combined $45 million against the salary cap in 2018 — $22 million in Brady’s salary, $23 million with a Garoppolo franchise tag. In that case, they would have needed to get creative with some restructures and releases to make that work as a short-term splurge, knowing for sure they were set up to transition from Brady to Garoppolo in 2019.

The Patriots would have broken up with Brady before he had his roughest season in New England since 2013, or the year before they expended a second-round pick on Garoppolo. Garoppolo would be well locked in with his original team, likely signed for even longer than he is now, through 2023. 

As for Brady, he would have entered free agency a year earlier. In 2019, Nick Foles (Jaguars) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (Dolphins) were the only two QBs of note signed to be starters, leaving the Eagles and the Buccaneers, respectively. Brady still might be playing in Florida now, but for either Jacksonville or Miami, had this scenario played out.

But if Garoppolo would have been franchise-tagged in an obvous move to roll with him 2019, then the Buccaneers might have thought twice about picking up James Winston’s fifth-year option in April 2018 for that year, which ended up being the first under Bruce Arians. So there’s also chance Brady would already have been in Year 2 with Tampa Bay, too.

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What if … the Patriots didn’t trade Jimmy Garoppolo and didn’t re-sign him?

Remember, the Patriots drafted Stidham in 2019 because they ended up flipping the Garoppolo second-rounder for an extra fourth-rounder last year, among other picks. In this scenario, they probably still stick with Brady like they did through last season.

In the 2018 draft, the Patriots did take a quarterback without Garoppolo behind Brady, but it was a seventh-rounder, Danny Etling of LSU, who ended up with the Falcons last season and is now on the Seahawks’ practice squad. But moving Garoppolo without the same compensation might have made them more aggressive about going after Brady’s new successor in the 2019 draft. 

Would the Patriots have traded up from No. 32, where they picked as Super Bowl champions, to get Dwayne Haskins, who went No. 15 to Washington? Or, would they have stayed put and taken Drew Lock, who went No. 42 to the Broncos, instead of disappointing (so far) wide receiver N’Keal Harry? Both seem like strong alterative possibilities, especially the latter with Lock as a Garoppolo-like second-round pick.

So had the 49ers had their choice between Garoppolo and Cousins in free agency, we already know they would have gone Cousins. The Vikings would have been in play for Garoppolo, for sure, but it’s more likely the Broncos, who signed Keenum instead, would have turned their attention to Garoppolo in John Elway’s search for a franchise passer vs. more of a bridge type, which Keenum was.

Lock in New England and Garoppolo in Minnesota or Denver in 2020? It definitely could have happened.

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What if … the Patriots traded Tom Brady to the 49ers and re-signed Garoppolo?

OK, we’re somewhat joking here. But Lynch himself has joked at how he actually inquired about whether Belichick would trade Brady to the 49ers instead of Garoppolo at the 2017 deadline.

In this scenario, Brady would be the aging hometown boy in San Francisco and Garoppolo would be in New England. Cousins still goes to the Vikings and everything else is the same, except for Tampa Bay needing to go a different route at QB post Jameis Winston, maybe even keeping Winston. Maybe it’s the 49ers who go one-for-two in Super Bowls instead of the Patriots. Or the Patriots win two with Garoppolo, and he’s seen as the ultimate genius move for Belichick in replacing Brady..

Regardless, the Patriots’ decision to trade Garoppolo to the 49ers created some interesting ripple effects from 2018 to now. Had it not gone down, it would have been a whole lot more intriguing to see what both teams — and a few others — would have done.

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