The 49ers’ hopes of competing in the 2023 NFC championship game were quashed when starter Brock Purdy left after just a few plays due to an elbow injury.
Now, the team is hoping that injury won’t have an impact on its 2023 season.
Purdy was diagnosed with a fully torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his throwing elbow after an MRI on Monday. The 49ers had initially hoped that his elbow only had within it a partial tear that would allow him to rest, recover and return after a six-week absence.
Instead, Purdy is staring down a potential six-month absence, and that is leaving the 49ers with uncertainty in the quarterback room.
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Purdy is hoping to be available for training camp, per NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero, but will San Francisco be able to count on him? Even a minor setback could delay his return and jeopardize his availability to begin the 2023 season.
And if Purdy ends up needing full, reconstructive UCL surgery — a.k.a. Tommy John surgery — instead of just a “repair,” that could further complicate his timeline for return.
As such, the 49ers are facing major quarterback questions as they approach the 2023 offseason. Signs had pointed toward Purdy as the team’s favored, long-term starter; but with his availability in flux, can San Francisco count on him? And if not, what are its other options?
Below is a breakdown of the 49ers’ quarterback dilemma as they look to establish themselves as a Super Bowl contender once again in 2023.
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49ers QB depth chart
First, it’s important to establish exactly what the 49ers have at the quarterback position. Currently, they are carrying four players at the position, but only two of them will be under contract in 2023: Brock Purdy and Trey Lance.
Both of the team’s veteran quarterbacks — Jimmy Garoppolo and Josh Johnson — are set to be free agents in 2023. As such, their futures with the team are in limbo.
Originally, it was presumed that San Francisco would be comfortable with Purdy and Lance as its top two quarterbacks. They would make a cheap, high-upside tandem, and if the 49ers felt they were too inexperienced, they could bring in another lower-cost, veteran option to battle for a backup job with the team.
Now, however, Purdy’s uncertain status may change San Francisco’s calculus. The 49ers need to be prepared to potentially play without him, so they need to be confident in their Plan B at quarterback.
It’s worth wondering whether that will be Lance or somebody not currently under contract for 2023.
Can 49ers trust Trey Lance after Brock Purdy injury?
Lance probably represents the 49ers’ most likely insurance policy behind Purdy. It’s easy to forget, but the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft began the 2022 season as San Francisco’s starter. The team was willing to trade Garoppolo and roll with Lance as the raw, high-upside quarterback got acclimated to the NFL.
However, disaster struck Lance in Week 2 when he suffered a season-ending ankle injury. He has since had two surgeries to repair the problem and is expected to be ready for the start of the 2023 season.
The 49ers will eventually need to see what they have in Lance, so this could be the perfect time to evaluate him during Purdy’s absence. The team could install Lance as the top quarterback during the offseason and see if Purdy could overtake him when healthy.
MORE: Will Brock Purdy start for 49ers or compete with Trey Lance in 2023?
Of course, there are a few questions about that plan. The first is about whether Lance will be healthy enough to assume that role with the organization. He is currently expected back for OTAs after his second ankle surgery in late December, but a setback could leave San Francisco in a pickle with Purdy also out.
The second is about who the 49ers would add to the quarterback room to provide depth behind Lance and Purdy. The team’s bigger swings at quarterback would come with the built-in insurance of having the two young quarterbacks on the roster. But if the 49ers want to trust Lance and Purdy, they would probably have to sign a veteran backup like Jacoby Brissett or Case Keenum to ensure that they are well-stocked at the position in case Purdy can’t return before the regular season.
The 49ers would almost certainly be willing to do that. So, it all comes down to one final question: Are the 49ers confident enough that Lance will take the next step and be able to lead the 49ers to a Super Bowl? That will ultimately determine whether they walk this path or pursue a potential veteran stopgap.
Will the 49ers re-sign Jimmy Garoppolo?
Garoppolo would represent a veteran stopgap option, and he is familiar with the 49ers organization. He has been in San Francisco since a midseason trade in 2017 and has largely fared well with the team.
Garoppolo led the 49ers to an appearance in Super Bowl 54. While they didn’t win that game, they have won far more often than not with Garoppolo under center. He has posted a 38-17 record in 55 starts with the team and has averaged 4,056 yards, 24 touchdowns and 13 interceptions per 17 games played with the team.
The 49ers know that Garoppolo is at least capable of leading them to victory and getting them to a Super Bowl. So, if they are worried enough about the Purdy/Lance combination, they could try to bring back the veteran on a one-year deal.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that Garoppolo would accept that. Remember, the 49ers tried to trade him during the 2022 offseason, as he wanted a chance to start that he wasn’t initially going to get in San Francisco.
It’s hard to imagine the 49ers choosing to start Garoppolo over Lance given the organization’s faith and investment in the younger quarterback. So, retaining him is a long shot — unless he fails to find a team willing to let him compete for a starting job, which seems unlikely unless his foot injury is worse than it initially seemed.
Could Tom Brady to 49ers happen?
This option also seemed unlikely for a while. As Purdy played well down the stretch, the chances of Tom Brady landing in San Francisco seemed to dry up.
But now, with the young quarterback banged up and the 49ers dealing with quarterback questions, a door has potentially opened that could allow Brady to move back home to the Bay Area.
Brady would be a good fit with the 49ers on paper. He is a smart, efficient quarterback who reads the field well. He should be able to effectively distribute the ball to Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle and should manage the Kyle Shanahan offense very well.
Additionally, both Purdy and Lance could learn from the all-time great while he is in the quarterback room. That could be particularly beneficial to Purdy, who drew Brady comparisons during his run to the NFC championship game.
There are obviously some concerns with Brady. He will turn 46 before the start of the 2023 NFL season and could, eventually, slow down significantly. Still, he was solid last year despite playing behind a beleaguered offensive line and threw for 4,694 yards, 25 touchdowns and nine interceptions; he should do better within a better-coached offense like the one in San Francisco.
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The only other issue with pursuing Brady would be compensation-related. The 49ers have just under $16.4 million in cap space, per OverTheCap.com, but they will need more than that to get Brady on a one-year deal. However, they also have several other key players set to hit free agency including right tackle Mike McGlinchey and defensive back Jimmie Ward, so adding Brady could make it harder to do that.
Still, the NFL’s salary cap is flexible, so the 49ers would probably be willing to perform salary-cap gymnastics to capitalize on their wide-open Super Bowl window.
The 49ers may prefer just to roll with their young quarterbacks and avoid blocking them with a guy like Brady. But given that San Francisco doesn’t have any glaring question marks outside of quarterback, it should consider adding Brady to the fold.
That would give Brady a chance to finish his career in storybook fashion: competing for a Super Bowl title with his favorite childhood team.