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Super Bowl LVIII: Brock Purdy has San Francisco 49ers sitting pretty at QB for near future

LAS VEGAS -- Brock Purdy kept his head down and his hopes up. He studied his playbook relentlessly, competed as hard as possible and prayed that his hard work would pay off. One of the few noteworthy aspects of Purdy when he arrived at his first San Francisco 49ers training camp was his status as Mr. Irrelevant, the last pick of the 2022 NFL Draft. Purdy also was toiling on a quarterback depth chart that included Trey Lance, the third overall pick in the previous year's draft, and Jimmy Garoppolo, who led the team to a Super Bowl in the 2019 season and the NFC Championship Game in 2021.

Purdy did his best to support Lance, a player groomed to become the team's next franchise quarterback. Purdy maximized his opportunities with limited practice reps, as well, fully aware that his spot on the roster wasn't guaranteed. With all those challenges stacked against him, the rookie signal-caller couldn't help wondering what 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan thought about his potential, a question that didn't really have an answer until injuries thrust Purdy into a starting job late in the 2022 season. As Purdy told reporters last week, "I got my opportunity against Miami (in Week 13) and we talked after that. That's when [Shanahan] started telling me, 'Hey, since you've been here, you've been doing everything right.' "

Purdy had no way of knowing the excitement he created in the organization back when he was simply worried about survival. Shanahan even pulled owner Jed York aside after one training camp practice and revealed that Purdy looked like the best quarterback on the roster in those early days. It was an alarming admission for York to process -- "One thing that owners don't love to hear when they've invested money and/or draft picks, or both, into people is that the last pick in the draft is the guy that we think is the best," he told local reporters last week -- but the end game has played out well for the 49ers. Along with unearthing a hidden gem in Purdy, they're also poised to run the core of this team back next year.

As much as NFL franchises pine for an elite quarterback like Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes, the superstar against whom Purdy will compete in Super Bowl LVIII, the reality is that unicorns only come along every so often. Most organizations must vie for Lombardi Trophies by finding quarterbacks who can win with a strong supporting cast, which is exactly what Purdy has done for the 49ers. His next challenge is finding a way to lead his team to victory over a Chiefs organization that has won two of the last four Super Bowls, including Super Bowl LVII. If things break right for the 49ers, they might be the team in position to pursue back-to-back titles next year.

"Brock has become what a lot of teams should be trying to find if they can't get a big-time franchise QB," said one NFC personnel director. "He's a true game manager, a point guard who distributes the ball well and doesn't overthink things. Everybody is so consumed with finding that future Hall-of-Famer in the first round but you can win a lot of games with a guy like this. He reminds me of (Minnesota Vikings quarterback) Kirk Cousins in that way. Kirk isn't such a great deal when he's expensive but he's a terrific deal when he's inexpensive because you can build around him. That is what they're doing with Purdy."

Most of the conversation surrounding Purdy has focused on how he should be defined. The numbers he generated -- this season, he threw for a franchise-record 4,280 yards and led the NFL in passer rating on his way to a Pro Bowl bid -- were as good as those of any quarterback in the league this year. The problem is that Purdy's lowly draft stature makes observers question how he would perform with less resources around him. But such criticisms really don't matter when you're a general manager trying to develop and sustain a strong roster.

All team builders love to operate with ample salary-cap space. Thus, quarterbacks on rookie deals -- which, for drafted players, are at least four years long, with compensation determined by a rookie wage scale that is tied to players' draft slots, and extensions not permitted until after Year 3 -- are invaluable. There is simply more room for error and more opportunities to create the depth at other positions that often leads to championships.

The blessing the 49ers received with Purdy's rapid maturation was time. As the final pick in the final round of his draft, he was given a contract that paid a base salary of $870,000 this season and will pay $985,000 next year, meaning 49ers GM John Lynch can remain creative with his roster until Purdy becomes eligible for an extension in 2025.

The 49ers had the most expensive defensive line in the league this season. That didn't stop them from making two mid-season trades to bolster that unit, with Chase Young and Randy Gregory joining the team. The 49ers also have six players ranking in the league's top three at their positions in terms of average annual salary (running back Christian McCaffrey, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, tight end George Kittle, left tackle Trent Williams, defensive end Nick Bosa and linebacker Fred Warner). San Francisco currently is projected to be over the cap in 2024, per Over the Cap, and Purdy's presence (his cap number will be a little over $1 million) makes it easier for them push tough roster decisions into the near future.

Purdy has undoubtedly been a missing link for a franchise that lost to the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV with Garoppolo at quarterback. However, his biggest value is even more apparent: It's called bang for the buck.

"The return on investment has been huge for him in that organization," said Doug Whaley, who served as the Buffalo Bills general manager from 2013 to '17 and recently worked as the senior vice president of player personnel for the XFL. "It gives them so much flexibility, both to build now and to be able to weather the storm when he reaches a point where he's up for a more expensive deal. The reality is that nobody is giving you a franchise quarterback so you need to do something. In this case, that means maximizing what you have around a guy like Brock. If you can't have a Mahomes, then what San Francisco has is a general manager's dream."

It certainly felt like Purdy was living a fantasy as he maneuvered through Media Night inside Allegiant Stadium on Monday. Whether he was posing with the Lombardi Trophy with Mahomes on an elevated podium or fielding questions from throngs of reporters at his assigned booth, Purdy operated just as he does on the field: with a genuine ease that suggests his ego doesn't need any massaging. The more the large contingent of 49ers fans chanted his name, the less he seemed to notice. This was just one more event he needed to get through before returning to prepare for the biggest game of his life.

A week earlier, Purdy celebrated with his teammates as they stood atop a crowded stage in the aftermath of San Francisco's 34-31 win over Detroit in the NFC Championship Game. All the questions that dogged Purdy in the regular season -- specifically, how he would handle playing from behind in the second half of critical games -- didn't carry much weight in that moment. He led the 49ers on a game-winning drive in a Divisional Round victory over Green Bay, then rallied his team from a 17-point halftime deficit against the Lions. As the crowd roared inside Levi's Stadium while the 49ers accepted the George Halas trophy as NFC champions, Purdy grinned and hugged teammates who had grown tired of critics doubting him.

"I've been saying it all year -- you've got a guy like that who can control the game, who knows where to go, when to go with the ball, man, I'm happy he's on my team," said safety Tashaun Gipson Sr. "I never worry. When Purdy needs to put up points, that's when he's at his best. He came out, he showed that again, time and time again. Now, we've just got one more game. One more game to cement all of our legacies."

"They've believed in me since I've stepped in last year," Purdy said when asked about his teammates' confidence in him prior to the NFC Championship Game. "And throughout the year I feel like I've grown and we've all grown together, so [I'm] definitely blessed to have these guys in the locker room with me and they've definitely had my back through the good and the bad. We've been through some stuff this year and it hasn't all been pretty. There's been some good times, there's been some tough times, but through it all, these guys have continued to have my back and show love."

The story of how the 49ers reached this point with Purdy obviously can't be told without a firm understanding of where the franchise failed. The initial plan hatched by Shanahan and Lynch was to find a quarterback who could be an upgrade in their timing-based offense and improvise when necessary. Garoppolo didn't have the mobility to make that happen. Lance was supposed to be the answer, especially after the 49ers traded three first-round picks to Miami for the chance to select him third overall in 2021.

Then bad things started to happen. Lance appeared in six games (two starts) while sitting behind Garoppolo in 2021, then sustained a season-ending ankle injury in Week 2 of the 2022 season. Garoppolo resumed starting duties, then went down with a foot injury in that Week 13 win over Miami. The entire football-watching world wondered how the 49ers would cope, but Purdy's play against the Dolphins only confirmed what Shanahan long believed.

Shanahan was most impressed by how Purdy handled Miami's constant blitzing in that game, the way the quarterback deftly sensed pressure, evaded rushers and found ways to complete passes. "You always want a guy who can sit there and get the ball to the right people every single time and find that hole in the defense and make those throws standing in there [while] being accurate," Shanahan told local reporters before the Divisional Round. "But that's not always the case. Sometimes it's impossible to get to No. 3 without someone beat ... He's got a natural ability of when to give up on the play, when to make a guy miss, when to turn it off-schedule. No matter what happens, he gives you a chance."

San Francisco won all seven of the games Purdy started after that point, right until he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow in the first quarter of an NFC Championship Game loss to Philadelphia. That injury created some concerns about what the 49ers would do at quarterback heading into this season -- given their sizable investment in Lance -- but that mystery ended as soon as Purdy recovered in time for training camp. Garoppolo already had signed a free-agent deal with the Raiders, and the team traded Lance to Dallas in August. As much as Purdy had proven himself to be the best quarterback, his price tag surely didn't hurt, either.

It's easy to say now that the 49ers made a shrewd move in selecting Purdy. The truth is that they were fortunate to have an unexpected insurance plan in the event of Lance underwhelming. "Nobody could've predicted the way this played out for them because they gave up three first-round picks to draft Lance," said Mark Dominik, a Sirius XM radio broadcaster who also worked as the general manager for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2009 to '13. "They actually were trying to find their next guy in the first round and they ended up with the best bargain in the league. It's a great story because they found the genie in the bottle."

Purdy acknowledged that this season has been more gratifying because he's played a larger role in the team's success. The 49ers started the year with a five-game winning streak, then lost three in a row while injuries hit McCaffrey, Williams and wide receiver Deebo Samuel. Purdy faced ample scrutiny for not being able to lead the 49ers to wins during that stretch, as well as a 33-19 loss to Baltimore (when he threw four interceptions). But the 49ers also finished with a 12-5 record and the top seed in the NFC.

Said Purdy: "I've obviously played more games this year compared to last year. So to help this team from the beginning and all the way to the end, to get to where we are now, for me it's a little different ... To say that I actually helped our team, that's cool. Where last year, I got thrust in and we had a good team, we were rolling. Not to take away anything that happened last year, but it sort of does feel a little different because you went through so many highs and lows this year."

The next challenge that awaits Purdy is delivering on all the promise the 49ers created coming into this season. He's spent a good part of these playoffs peppering his veteran teammates with questions about their own experiences in these moments. There are 11 players on this current San Francisco roster who were on that Super Bowl LIV team, including seven starters. Two others have played in the Super Bowl for other franchises as well (cornerback Charvarius Ward, who was facing the Niners as a member of the Chiefs four years ago, and defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, who played in Super Bowl LVII with the Eagles).

It's not easy to keep that much quality talent together over a four-year span. The Chiefs also have 11 players who appeared for them in Super Bowl LIV, but just five who entered this year as starters: Mahomes, tight end Travis Kelce, defensive tackles Chris Jones and Derrick Nnadi and kicker Harrison Butker. And their ability to win a title last season was notable for one other crucial difference from that 2019 team: Mahomes was no longer on his rookie contract, having signed a lucrative extension in 2020. The 49ers now face a different type of urgency to prove what they can accomplish with Purdy under center.

This won't be a situation like the Los Angeles Rams faced a couple seasons ago, when they went all-in to win a championship with expensive veterans that they later needed to jettison for budgetary compliance. Lynch will have to do some restructuring to create more cap space in the offseason, but there shouldn't be seismic cutting. The 49ers have 10 players who currently have cap hits of at least $14 million next season, with five of those being over the $21 million mark. Such cost-cutting would be much harder to achieve with a high-priced quarterback on the roster.

Of course, there will come a day, after next season, when the team will have to decide what Purdy is worth. The Philadelphia Eagles faced a similar situation with Jalen Hurts heading into his third year, and he responded with Pro Bowl campaign that led to a five-year, $255 million deal. The Eagles then parted ways with some essential players who helped them reach the Super Bowl last season. Those departures ultimately factored into what became a full-scale implosion at the end of this year, when the Eagles lost six of their last seven games following a 10-1 start.

Bill Polian, a Hall of Fame general manager with the Bills (1986-1992), Panthers (1995-97) and Colts (1997-2009), noted that after next season, the real work will begin, because unlike the rookie contract of someone selected with a Round 1 choice, Purdy's contract does not carry the option to be extended for a fifth year. As Polian said, "The nice thing about drafting a quarterback in the first round is you get up to five years to decide what he is. When you have to do that after three years, it gets a lot harder. I don't see Purdy not working out but there is a risk that comes with signing him with less years of evaluation."

The 49ers don't have to face that challenge yet. When they do, they'll already have benefitted immensely from the player nobody saw coming. "The worst place you want to be in this league is quarterback purgatory, where you have a guy who costs a lot of money and can win a lot of games but not a championship," Whaley said. "The 49ers have the flexibility with their cap, and there's nothing wrong with drafting another quarterback next year. A guy like Purdy won't care because his mindset will be to beat out whoever shows up. Because as much as people want to doubt him, he's put this team in a great position. At the end of day, he's playing in this game and guys like Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson aren't."

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