2018 NFL Preview: 49ers are grateful the Patriots gifted them Jimmy Garoppolo

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2018 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 1, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

Imagine if New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick hadn’t texted San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan last October with a gift out of the blue.

We’d be talking about a 49ers team that started 0-9 and probably would have finished with three or so wins. We’d be wondering about some of Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch’s personnel moves. We might focus more on star linebacker Reuben Foster and his off-field issues. We’d look closer at the roster and see the warts and the work that needs to be done.

Good thing Shanahan checks his messages. The 49ers are this year’s fun sleeper, all because of a text from the Patriots about Jimmy Garoppolo and a five-game winning streak to end last season.

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The conversation between Belichick and Shanahan came down to one shocking offer: Garoppolo was suddenly available, for the unbelievable price of a second-round pick. Presumably, had the Patriots shopped Garoppolo around they would have gotten a first-round pick and then some. Maybe they’d have landed two first-round picks. There’s no question he’s worth at least that now.

Instead, Shanahan got a random text from a fellow coach, and it turned the direction of the franchise. It was that easy.

“I called [Belichick] back and he told me [Garoppolo] was available,” Shanahan said, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “… So now he was available when he wasn’t earlier in the year. There really wasn’t much talk. It was just that: He wasn’t available and now he is. And that was intriguing.”

Intriguing? You think?

If Garoppolo wasn’t so cheap, or if Belichick didn’t hand-pick Garoppolo’s landing spot, the 49ers probably wouldn’t have pursued it. Shanahan loved Kirk Cousins. Nobody has denied that after the fact. It seems clear the 49ers were going to blow him away with an offer in free agency. But Belichick gave the 49ers the deal of the century, for whatever reason.

It’s not hyperbole to say that conversation might end up changing NFL history. Whether the Patriots’ generosity was because Belichick liked and respected Shanahan’s father Mike, the former Broncos coach, or that Lynch spent a bit of time at the end of his career in New England, or whatever conspiracy theory you have about why Belichick sold Garoppolo for a couple quarters on the dollar – we’ll presumably never hear Belichick discuss it at any length – the 49ers turned around their franchise’s future with one move.

Still the hype seems a little too much and too soon, for Garoppolo and the 49ers as a whole. The five-game winning streak was great but you can pour some cold water on it if you look closely:

Win 1, 15-14 at Chicago Bears: The 49ers beat the Bears, who finished 5-11, on a field goal with four seconds left. San Francisco didn’t score a touchdown. Any win in the NFL is an accomplishment but let’s not put this in the “quality wins” bin.

Win 2, 26-16 at Houston Texans: The Texans went 1-9 without Deshaun Watson. T.J. Yates, who doesn’t have a job in the NFL right now, was Houston’s starter. The Texans still led in the second half before fading.

Win 3, 25-23 vs. Tennessee Titans: The Titans were technically a playoff team but also one that needed overtime to beat the Browns and got its final six regular-season wins against the Colts (twice), Browns, Bengals, Texans without Watson and a Jaguars team with nothing to play for in Week 17. And the 49ers, at home, needed a field goal as time expired to win. The 49ers didn’t score a second-half touchdown. It was fine, but …

Win 4, 44-33 vs. Jacksonville Jaguars: This was a good win. The Jaguars led 19-16 in the second half and then the 49ers got hot. Quality win.

Win 5, 34-13 at Los Angeles Rams: Hopefully we all remember that the Rams seemed determined to lose in Week 17 and get a more favorable playoff draw, and sat basically anyone who could help them win. This was the easiest win an NFL team had all year; it was the rare instance of one side literally trying to lose.

Winning five games in a row in the NFL is hard, no matter the opponents or circumstances. But if we’re jumping fully on board with the Garoppolo 49ers after those five games – in which he had six touchdowns and five interceptions – it’s fair to look at it through a realistic lens.

Here’s where the eye test matters. If you watched those games, Garoppolo really did look like a future star. He handled himself as you’d hope a franchise quarterback would. He made everyone around him better. Four of the wins might have been against the awful Bears, even worse Texans, paper tiger Titans and the Rams’ junior-varsity team, but he definitely looked the part. Shanahan gave up his man-crush on Cousins, and the 49ers paid Garoppolo like he had already won an MVP. There’s risk in the five-year, $137.5 million deal. But what were the 49ers going to do, not pay him?

“I wouldn’t have signed with the team if I didn’t believe in Garoppolo,” new 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman said in an interview with the NFL Network. “I watched how he moved down the stretch, I watched how poised he was. I had conversations with his teammates, I had conversations with the head coach about how they coach him, about how he approaches the game.

“And just seeing his demeanor and seeing how he interacts with his teammates, I think I made a fantastic decision [to join the 49ers].”

The hype train isn’t going to slow down. We want to believe a star was born in December of last season, even if the hype got out of control this offseason. Given the way he got to the 49ers, with the Patriots’ confusing charity, it will be a part of NFL lore if Garoppolo is as good as everyone wants him to be.

And maybe the 49ers will be as good as everyone hopes. Shanahan believes running back Jerick McKinnon, signed from the Vikings, can be great in his offense. Pierre Garcon, Marquise Goodwin, Trent Taylor, second-round pick Dante Pettis and tight end George Kittle have promise as a skill-position group. The offensive line added tackle Mike McGlinchey, the ninth pick of the draft. The defense has intriguing pieces, especially if Sherman rebounds from an Achilles injury.

But the sunny outlook centers around Garoppolo. However the 49ers landed him, he’s there and will be for a while. Hope is a good thing, and the 49ers have plenty now.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo turned around the 49ers’ long-term outlook with a strong stretch of play last season. (AP)

The Jimmy Garoppolo heist has obscured that the 49ers have made some odd moves in the year-plus with John Lynch/Kyle Shanahan running the show. This offseason, the splashiest moves were to sign running back Jerick McKinnon, who Shanahan is convinced can be a star despite little NFL production to prove it, and 30-year-old cornerback Richard Sherman coming off Achilles surgery. The largest contract went to former Giants center Weston Richburg, who has concussion questions. The first-round pick was offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey, who was a bit of a surprise pick at No. 9 overall with some really good prospects still on the board, and the second-round pick was receiver Dante Pettis, who was also a surprise ahead of some other receivers. The moves could work out, and there’s nothing wrong with going against the status quo, but the 49ers see greatness in their acquisitions that other teams might not.

GRADE: C-

Since we spent many words on the obvious answer above, let’s pick something other than Jimmy G. I like what the 49ers are building in the front seven, though that progress will hinge on Reuben Foster not getting in any more trouble. As we’ve seen, expecting unreliable players to change can be a fool’s errand. The defensive line has DeForest Buckner, a fantastic player, and former first-round picks Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas. Armstead has shown promise, though some injuries have slowed him down. Thomas was a blue-chip prospect. On the field Foster was great as a rookie, when healthy, and I like the third-round pick of BYU linebacker Fred Warner. It’s not a finished product yet, but you can see what the 49ers are building.

The two-game suspension for Reuben Foster was probably a best-case scenario from a football standpoint for the 49ers. The NFL did its usual dance around consistency and decided to suspend Foster for a marijuana possession arrest and pleading no contest to a gun charge, while practically ignoring a very serious domestic violence accusation. Foster’s ex-girlfriend recanted her statement and said in court she was lying. The NFL has ignored similar changes of heart in other cases, but Foster got just two games. It’s still a blow for the 49ers on the field. The 49ers start the season at the Vikings and then host the Lions, and will do so without one of their best defensive players. Given how tough the NFC will be, you don’t want to get off to a slow start. Malcolm Smith will probably get a bigger role, and that’s not the best news after he missed all of last season due to injury. Rookie Fred Warner could become a starter in place of Foster. The 49ers defense will be affected for a couple games by Foster’s absence.

It’s fine if you don’t buy my argument above that we might be a little too early on the Jimmy Garoppolo love for 2018. But maybe you’d listen to Joe Montana?

“I think it’s still a little early for it myself,” Montana said on NFL Network’s “Good Morning Football” this offseason, via the San Francisco Chronicle.

“I still want to see a full season played, because it’s easy to come in at the end of a season when the team’s down and no one’s expecting things and be able to win. I won’t say it’s easy — that’s a bad word to choose — but I think it was set up for him to be successful that way.”

Jerick McKinnon wasn’t considered a star, at least not until some glowing words from Kyle Shanahan and a large contract from the 49ers. McKinnon, who split time with Latavius Murray on the Vikings last season after Dalvin Cook’s injury, got a four-year, $30 million contract with $15.7 million guaranteed. That’s star running back money for a player who has never had 1,000 yards from scrimmage in a single season and has 1,918 rushing yards in four seasons. Shanahan clearly believes McKinnon will do far more in his offense than he ever did with the Vikings. Shanahan talked about watching McKinnon’s tape and visualizing all the ways to use his versatility.

“What is a huge bonus on him is when you talk about the pass game,” Shanahan said, according to the 49ers’ transcripts. “When it comes to separating and beating linebackers and safeties in man-to-man coverage, I definitely think he’s an issue for teams.

“There’s lots of things you can do with them and when you have a guy like Jerick, when he’s on the field, he’s not on the field just to run passes. He’s not on the field just to run the ball. He can do both and when you can do both, it puts defenses a lot more in a bind and gives us a lot more options.

“He’s good enough to make it as a runner alone in this league. He’s good enough to make it in the pass game as just a third down threat alone, but when you can do both of those, it gives you a lot of freedom as a coach. Based off of what downs you put him in and that when you do put him in, the defense doesn’t know exactly what type of plays you’re trying to run because he can do it all.”

From Yahoo’s Dalton Del Don: “George Kittle fell to the fifth round despite off the charts workout metrics, thanks to playing in an Iowa system that didn’t utilize him much as a receiver. You can bet Kyle Shanahan has big plans for the sophomore tight end, who impressed as a rookie while playing through multiple injuries and often with poor quarterback play. Jimmy Garoppolo looks like a budding star in a productive (and fast-paced) system that’s short on threats in the red zone, where the 6-4, 250-pound Kittle should be targeted frequently. Kittle’s yards per route run (2.57) during Garoppolo’s five starts would’ve ranked first over the full season last year, so he’s primed for a breakout and should be treated as a top-10 fantasy tight end.”

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If you believe extreme records in close games is a good way to predict regression, that’s another reason to like the 49ers. The 49ers became the first team in NFL history to lose five straight games by three points or less. They went 0-5 while being outscored by 13 total points. That includes two overtime losses on the road. Considering that stretch was historically unprecedented, it’s safe to say such bad luck in close games won’t repeat in 2018.

ARE JIMMY GAROPPOLO’S RECEIVERS GOOD ENOUGH?

Everyone is excited about Garoppolo, but a lot of a quarterback’s success is based on how good his teammates are. The 49ers have some questions in their receiving corps, but there’s promise within the group.

Pierre Garcon is returning off a neck injury and is 31 years old, but if he’s healthy he has 1,000-yard potential. The 49ers rewarded Marquise Goodwin’s 962-yard season with a three-year deal worth a little more than $19 million. Tight end George Kittle, a fifth-round pick last year, looks like a steal. He was really good late last season. And the 49ers have doubled down at slot receiver, with 2017 rookie Trent Taylor and 2018 second-round pick Dante Pettis. Pettis should also help in the return game.

There’s uncertainty throughout the group, but on paper it looks good enough to help Garoppolo succeed.

Maybe the five-game winning streak was a sign of things to come. I think the Rams would need to take on injuries to open up a window for the 49ers to win the NFC West, but injuries happen. Jimmy Garoppolo has looked like a future star for a while, and it’s not crazy to dream a scenario in which he’s an MVP candidate this season. After all, the 49ers have the most expensive offense in the NFL according to the San Francisco Chronicle. And if Garoppolo is one of the league’s best quarterbacks the 49ers can be in competition for a playoff spot, even in the brutal NFC.

Welcome to life in 2018: It seems we intentionally overhype young players just to overreact when they have normal regression. That’s what happened with Dak Prescott. Jimmy Garoppolo is a really fun story, and I assume he’s going to be very good. It also wouldn’t be a huge shock if he struggles some in his first full year as a starter. Don’t forget, the 49ers were 0-9 just eight months ago; they still have issues to work on. If Garoppolo isn’t great right away, that would probably lead to a negative overreaction that would equal all the over-the-top gushing over him this offseason. That’s just how it works these days.

The 49ers might be the team people are most excited to watch this season. They are tied for the NFL lead with five prime-time games, a rarity for a 6-10 team. I think the expectations are just a little too high. While 8-8 would be a fine growth season, it wouldn’t meet the hype. I think Jimmy Garoppolo plays well, the 49ers finish about .500 and perhaps next year they’ll have a huge breakout.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. Indianapolis Colts
30. New York Jets
29. Arizona Cardinals
28. Buffalo Bills
27. Cincinnati Bengals
26. Chicago Bears
25. New York Giants
24. Miami Dolphins
23. Washington Redskins
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Houston Texans
20. Seattle Seahawks
19. Oakland Raiders
18. Denver Broncos

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!