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How we expect the San Francisco 49ers to deal with Jimmy Garoppolo’s contract

On Sunday, Jimmy Garoppolo delivered yet another fantastic performance for the San Francisco 49ers in a comeback victory over the Tennessee Titans, giving his new team even more of a boost than anyone could have imagined since coming over via trade from the New England Patriots less than two months ago.

Garoppolo now has won his first three starts for the 49ers, moving him to 5-0 overall as a starting NFL quarterback — the first QB to win the first five starts of his career since Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. In each of his past three starts, Garoppolo has improved his passing-yard total and his QB rating.

“He’s been just as good as advertised, if not better,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said after Sunday’s game. “I’ve really enjoyed working with him, and I’ve enjoyed game day with him. It gets a little bit easier for both of us each week, and hopefully that will continue.”

All of this now begs a fascinating question: How will the 49ers handle Garoppolo’s contract situation in the offseason? He is an unrestricted free agent-to-be come March, and there’s still quite an interesting debate afoot. After all, how do you value a potential franchise quarterback after making what could be a total of seven NFL starts, with only five of them coming with your team?

The most obvious answer is that the 49ers could place the franchise tag on Garoppolo. However, in speaking to people who are familiar with how the 49ers do business, we don’t believe that will be the end game here.

Kirk Cousins might be as close to a comp as we have with Garoppolo, who is proving to be quite the unique circumstance, and Cousins had made 25 starts before Washington franchised him the first time. So even that’s apples to oranges.

Franchising Garoppolo the next two seasons, as Washington has done with Cousins, would ensure Garoppolo almost $50 million guaranteed. And you could argue that Garoppolo would earn more guaranteed on the open market next spring than Cousins would, if they both were set free.

But that’s not likely to be the case, and the 49ers know that franchising Garoppolo could end up just kicking the can down the road and being a cost-prohibitive move over the long term. It would cost the 49ers more than $23 million this year alone, and what would happen if Garoppolo played even better next season? It would cost them more.

Hard as it might be to think about a player who signed for more than $70 million guaranteed, but Derek Carr took a discount to stay with the Oakland Raiders. So did Matthew Stafford, who earned $22 million more than Carr did guaranteed, in staying with the Detroit Lions. Had either player hit the open market, the prices only would have been higher.

That’s how the 49ers are viewing the Garoppolo negotiations. They traded for him, got him on the cheap (a high second-round pick) but now must pay in the form of long-term cash. The franchise tag doesn’t appear to be their best option at all.

There’s always the chance he fails, of course. Look at Carr’s struggles this season. Or think about what happened to Joe Flacco after he signed his post-Super Bowl deal. But it’s the price of doing business, and that’s what the 49ers appear to realize. Taking Carr a step forward, if he was a free agent this coming offseason — as he was originally slated to be — he still would get a monster deal, even with a poor 2017 season. That’s the positional value of quarterback in the NFL today.

So we expect the 49ers to sign Garoppolo to a deal that is something in line with what the Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins paid their quarterbacks, Alex Smith and Ryan Tannehill, respectively, in 2014 and 2015. Add annual inflation, which in the NFL is as much as 10 percent, and you could be looking at, at the very minimum, a four-year extension in the neighborhood of at least $85 million to $90 million total — with somewhere around 40 to 50 percent of it guaranteed, and a big chunk of it coming in the first two years of the deal.

(If you extend the deal to five or six years, the overall numbers go up, but Garoppolo might want to bet on himself and try to hit the market again following his age-30 season.)

And those first two years of any deal he signs would clearly have to be north of the franchise guarantee — the 2018 tender, plus a 120-percent kicker in 2019 — that almost certainly would exceed $50 million. Is that expensive to pay a player with so little experience? Yes, but we believe the 49ers have the foresight to know that it could be more costly for them to avoid paying that now and have it end up costing them more later.