Grant Cohn: 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo faces much stiffer challenges as career proceeds

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Jalen Ramsey, the All Pro cornerback for the Jacksonville Jaguars, appeared on NFL Network this week and said Jimmy Garoppolo doesn’t deserve to rank in the NFL’s top 100 players.

Ramsey should have kept his mouth shut, but he was right.

Every year, the NFL publishes its top 100 list, as voted on by the players. Not all the players vote. Only a few do. It’s not a scientific ranking. It’s only for fun. This year, Ramsey ranked 17th, and Garoppolo ranked 90th. He was the one 49ers player who made the list.

“What did he play, five games?” Ramsey asked. “He has good potential, I think he’ll be a good player, but my experience in playing him, it was a lot of scheme stuff. It wasn’t like he was just dicing us up.”

Ramsey was referring to Week 16 last season, when the 49ers beat the Jaguars 44-33. As the score indicates, someone certainly diced up the Jaguars defense that day, but who did the dicing shouldn’t concern Ramsey. He should be concerned with his defense, which got exposed, both in scheme and personnel.

Ramsey does know his business, though. Garoppolo did not dissect the Jaguars defense that day – Kyle Shanahan did. Shanahan pinpointed its weaknesses. Shanahan created the patterns that featured the running backs and tight ends the Jaguars struggled to cover. Shanahan outcoached them.

Only one 49ers wide receiver had more than 25 receiving yards in that game. Shanahan’s plan was brilliant – he avoided Ramsey altogether. If Garoppolo had made the offensive game plan and called his own plays, as Peyton Manning used to do, then Garoppolo would get the credit.

Garoppolo was extremely impressive last season, and his future is promising. But, for the five games he started, he benefitted from Shanahan’s offense and a series of opponents who hardly had seen him play. “Nobody got to scheme on him this year,” Ramsey said. “There was not a lot of film on him.”

That’s about to change.

Defensive coordinators have studied the five games Garoppolo played last season, and have a book on him now. A book is important in sports.

Here’s a classic example from baseball.

In 1959, pitchers didn’t have a book on Willie McCovey. The Giants called him up during the summer, he played 52 games, batted .354 and won the National League Rookie of the Year Award. He lit up pitchers who had no idea how to throw to him. They learned as they went along.

The next year, 1960, they learned. McCovey’s batting average plummeted to .237 that season. All of a sudden, the pitchers’ book on McCovey was better than McCovey’s book on the pitchers. So, he had to adapt, and that took time. He never hit above .300 again until 1969, when he was 31. He needed 10 years to match his rookie season.

Garoppolo will face a similar challenge.

I’m not saying he will have the second-season slump McCovey had, or the Hall of Fame career McCovey had, either. I am saying Garoppolo needs to continue to play well after his opponents have targeted and exploited his weaknesses before we rank him.

Putting him in the top 100 now is a projection, a hope. He hasn’t achieved anything. Hasn’t passed enough tests, such as the test of time. If he produces those quality results over an extended period, which is a hell of a lot longer than five or seven games, then he’ll rate in the top 100.

Check out some of the quarterbacks Garoppolo ranked higher than: Kirk Cousins, Marcus Mariota, Alex Smith and Eli Manning.

Cousins has made 57 starts and gone to a Pro Bowl. Mariota has made 42 starts and won a playoff game. Smith has made 151 starts, won two playoff games and led the league in passer rating. Manning has made 214 starts, won 12 playoff games and two Super Bowls, and is sixth all time in passing yards and eighth in passing touchdowns,

Those quarterbacks have seen everything the league can throw at them, and overcome those obstacles. Succeeded in spite of them. Garoppolo can’t compare. His resume doesn’t belong in the same category as theirs.

Garoppolo will see things next season he never has been exposed to – not last season, not in the preseason, not in college.

During the season opener, he will face the Minnesota Vikings, whose head coach, Mike Zimmer, is one of the sharpest, most creative defensive minds in the NFL. He will create coverages and blitzes even Shanahan hasn’t seen. Zimmer won’t just Xerox last season’s playbook.

The NFL is coming for Garoppolo. His career will be much more difficult than those five wins were last season. It’s going to be constant adaptation and adjustment. And that hasn’t even begun.

Grant Cohn covers the 49ers for The Press Democrat and in Santa Rosa. You can reach him at

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