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The top free agent quarterbacks just might be Geno Smith and Jimmy G.

Geno Smith and Jimmy Garoppolo. ( and /Getty and AP)
7 min

Had someone told Geno Smith and Jimmy Garoppolo at the start of training camp that they would enter December primed to be the most lucrative free agent quarterbacks available in 2023, it’s fair to wonder whether the veteran passers would have believed it themselves.

As improbable as it seemed at that time — Smith was a journeyman truly competing for a starting job for the first time in years; Garoppolo was banished from the 49ers all offseason while recovering from surgery as the team peddled him around the NFL — that appears to be where the market is heading. The 49ers have become perhaps the best team in the NFC since Garoppolo, 31, replaced injured youngster Trey Lance, only doing so after agreeing to a thorough reworking of his contract that allows him to become an unrestricted free agent next year. And Smith’s remarkable ascent in Seattle, becoming the league’s second-highest-rated passer (107.9) through 12 weeks — even as the superstar he replaced, Russell Wilson, withers in Denver — is among the more shocking quarterback developments in recent years. (Garoppolo is the fifth-rated passer at 103.0.)

Now, both are poised to cash in, significantly, atop a tepid free agent market at the most important position in pro sports. And plenty of plugged-in agents and executives around the league anticipate those quarterbacks staying right where they are.

Lamar Jackson is a lock for a franchise tag in Baltimore. Tom Brady might hang around and play another year somewhere, though he did “retire” for a few months just this year. Outside of that, the upcoming quarterback market includes Jacoby Brissett (who performed admirably for the Browns before making way this week for Deshaun Watson); Daniel Jones (whom the Giants probably want to keep around on a short-term deal); Taylor Heinicke (ditto for the Commanders); and, well, Mike White. Slim pickings compared with past years, leaving two NFC West players who had become afterthoughts suddenly very much top of mind for franchises that covet a seasoned quarterback.

I probed a handful of executives and established agents who have negotiated all manner of quarterback deals over the years to get a sense of the upcoming market. Most anticipated the Seahawks making a concerted effort to keep Smith, 32, after getting a haul of draft picks for Wilson and still ending up with the superior quarterback in 2022, already surpassing expectations at 6-5. They should be in position to take a quarterback high in the first round — Denver (3-8) relinquished its top pick and much more in the Wilson swap — but Pete Carroll is the oldest coach in the NFL, and having a proven commodity under center while a rookie learns is more his style.

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“Can’t you see them keeping Geno, using those [early] picks on blue-chip players and taking a quarterback on Day 2 [of the draft]?” proposed one NFL general manager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he isn’t permitted to speak about pending free agents.

A different longtime NFL personnel executive said he thinks that Smith is a better fit in Seattle than he would be in many other places and that his arrest on suspicion of driving under the influence in January could be a deterrent for some franchises.

The general manager suggested Derek Carr of the Raiders as a potential financial comparable for the top of Smith’s market: roughly $40 million a year. The personnel executive projected Smith to command closer to $30 million a year if he continues his current play, perhaps more if the season ends with a solid playoff showing. Both officials agreed that his market is likely to be limited by how long it took him to finally cement himself as a solid starter — 10 years — as well as questions about his decision-making raised in the scouting community over the years.

Garoppolo’s case is highly unusual as well. He has proved in San Francisco he can win games when healthy, and he helped the 49ers reach a Super Bowl. But he also benefits from an elite play caller in Coach Kyle Shanahan and the premier talent around him. He has been injury prone, and his market last season was mitigated by the timing of major surgery on his throwing shoulder and his challenging contract situation.

The 49ers parted with a haul of assets to move up to the third pick in 2021, where they drafted Lance, a raw project who barely played college football. Lance has barely played at the NFL level, either, and he will enter the 2023 offseason recovering from season-ending ankle surgery. San Francisco has another Super Bowl-caliber roster and arguably the best defense in the game, and unlike many other teams, it’s not facing a salary cap crunch, meaning expectations should be high again next season with a winning quarterback in place. Lance, meanwhile, has attempted just 420 passes in games since his 2017 high school season — 102 in the NFL and 318 at North Dakota State.

“Where does [Garoppolo] fit better than where he already is?” the GM asked. “How do they go back to Lance now? [Garoppolo is] more valuable to Kyle now than he’s ever been before. They know exactly what Jimmy G. is. No one knows what Trey Lance is.”

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One longtime agent who is very active in the quarterback market agreed wholeheartedly. The agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to frankly discuss active players, pointed to the shrewd contract restructure Garoppolo agreed to just before the season — and all the reasons it would make sense for him to stay, from scheme fit to coaching to personnel and familiarity to his standing in the locker room — as evidence of why another deal with San Francisco appears prudent.

The agent, who has extensively evaluated the upcoming quarterback market, put Smith and Garoppolo at the top of this class and in the second tier of NFL starters overall — ranked somewhere from seventh to 15th. If top-tier guys make $45 million or $50 million, “the guys in the second tier are generally around 75 percent of that,” he said. “That’s where I see Geno and Jimmy. Is it $35 million a year? Maybe closer to $30 million?”

The Seahawks and 49ers are likely to be in a similar negotiating position: wanting a shorter-term deal to allow for flexibility moving forward, with both agents and executives suggesting a two- to three-year pact, with the first two years essentially fully guaranteed, and with dummy voidable future years beyond that to relieve the salary cap impact.

“They should both want to stay where they are, and those teams will want them back,” the agent said. “But can you really commit to them for more than two years? They should both stay. … The real question is for how long. But that’s the art of what we do.”

And so barring Smith’s play dramatically falling off or Garoppolo suffering yet another injury, anticipate both quarterbacks staying put. As for which other teams will be exploring free agent quarterbacks this offseason, the Panthers, Texans, Colts, Saints, Buccaneers, Commanders and Lions are the teams most chattered about — although at least some of them will address the need in the draft — while the Giants, Jets, Raiders, Falcons and perhaps even the Packers could find themselves in need of a veteran or a bridge quarterback of some sort.