Mr. Relevant! Brock Purdy has opportunity to make NFL history as 49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo replacement

Mr. Irrelevant will be very relevant in San Francisco.

Brock Purdy, the 262nd and final selection of the 2022 NFL Draft, sits as the 49ers’ starting quarterback with Jimmy Garoppolo sidelined by a broken foot.

Purdy jumped into the fray Sunday against Miami, helping lead the 49ers to a 33-17 victory over the Dolphins (8-4). The rookie, who took the field in place of the injured Garoppolo on San Francisco’s second drive of the day, completed 25 of 37 passes for 210 yards and two touchdowns while throwing one interception and taking three sacks. With the victory pushing the Niners to 8-4, San Francisco currently holds the NFC’s No. 3 seed, with a one-game lead over 7-5 Seattle in the NFC West race. Purdy has a chance to guide San Francisco to the playoffs. It’s quite a development for the seventh-round rookie.

Tuesday’s news that Garoppolo’s foot injury won’t require surgery means the veteran signal-caller could be available to play at some point in January, though Niners coach Kyle Shanahan downplayed that possibility on Wednesday: “There’s that way outside chance (of a return) late in the playoffs, but just an outside chance. Not real optimistic about it, but never rule it out.”

In other words, this is Purdy’s show — and his opportunity to do something the NFL has never seen before.

Since the draft moved to seven rounds in 1994, no quarterback selected in the final round has started a playoff game as a rookie. Only six seventh-round signal-callers have even appeared in a playoff game during this time period (Jay Walker, Gus Frerotte, Matt Cassel, Koy Detmer, Jarious Jackson and Matt Flynn), with none accomplishing the feat in Year 1. If we expand the parameters to undrafted quarterbacks, we get more postseason hits — the most famous being Kurt Warner, along with the likes of Tony Romo and, more recently, Taylor Heinicke and John Wolford. But again, none of them were rookies when making that first postseason appearance.

Seventh-round picks simply don’t get the type of opportunity Purdy is in line to see. Since 1994, 35 seventh-round QBs have appeared in a regular-season game, and only 26 of them have attempted more than five passes in their respective NFL careers. With Sunday’s performance, as well as mop-up duty in Week 7’s 44-23 loss to Kansas City, Purdy already ranks 15th in pass attempts (46) among seventh-rounders, and he’s tied for 11th in passing touchdowns (2). Perhaps the most famous seven-round quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick — who retired leading his round-mates with 34,990 yards and 223 TDs — never appeared in a postseason game.

Let’s pause here to sort out the “Mr. Irrelevant” bit. If you’re not a draftnik glued to your TV at the end of the seemingly interminable final day of the NFL draft, you might wonder what the term pinned to Purdy means. Mr. Irrelevant is the nickname given to the final pick of each year’s draft. It began in 1976, when former 49ers receiver Paul Salata (a 10th-round selection out of USC in 1951 who passed away in October of 2021) began honoring the last draft pick with an event in Newport Beach, California, dubbed “Irrelevant Week.” The festivities have included a trip to Disneyland, golf tournaments, a regatta. There is also hardware: The Lowsman Trophy mimics the Heisman Trophy, but depicts a player fumbling the football. Kelvin Kirk became the first Mr. Irrelevant.

Since 1994, the most notable Mr. Irrelevants have been linebacker Marty Moore (the first to play in a Super Bowl), kicker Ryan Succop, linebacker Tae Crowder and quarterback Chad Kelly (the nephew of Hall of Famer Jim Kelly who played one career snap). Not exactly a who’s who of memorable NFL performers. Sunday, Purdy became the first Mr. Irrelevant to throw a regular-season touchdown pass.

All this is to say that the 49ers’ sudden starter has an unprecedented opportunity in modern football.

San Francisco declining to put in a claim on Baker Mayfield suggests Shanahan is comfortable riding Purdy through the final gauntlet. It’s possible the 49ers had an inkling the division-rival Rams would scoop up Mayfield and decided it’d be more prudent to project confidence in the rookie than spark questions by placing a would-be empty claim. Either way, the Niners are set to roll with Purdy.

A four-year starter at Iowa State, Purdy entered Sunday’s contest against Miami in the first quarter with the 49ers trailing 7-3 and immediately led them on a 54-yard touchdown drive. San Francisco added another 76-yard TD drive to close the half, giving the Niners a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. The rookie displayed moxie, standing in and delivering under pressure to tight windows. Even against free rushers, he released the ball quickly or avoided pressure. Purdy got the ball out on time and showed some ability to get through his reads. That Shanahan trusted Purdy to throw on a swarm of short third downs underscored the coach’s confidence in the rookie.

“Brock came in and made some big plays. He’s got some balls out there, forgive me for saying it that way,” Shanahan said Sunday after the win.

It wasn’t all pretty for the rookie, as he didn’t display the ability to stretch the field and threw several passes behind targets. His red-zone play needs cleaning up, as with most young QBs. And a yards per attempt average of 5.7 leaves a lot to be desired.

But thrown into the fire against a playoff-caliber opponent with little preparation, Purdy performed swimmingly. The question is whether he can continue to develop as defenses get more tape, begin to take away his first reads and load up to stop the run. We’ve seen other young quarterbacks play well for stretches before defenses caught up and exploited their inexperience. On the plus side, these 49ers are built to withstand the catastrophic injuries they’ve suffered at quarterback — from Trey Lance going down in Week 2 to Jimmy G hitting the shelf on Sunday.

San Francisco boasts a menacing defense that hasn’t given up more than 17 points in five straight games, ranking first in scoring D and total D. It’s a shutdown unit littered with playmakers — from Nick Bosa to Fred Warner to Dre Greenlaw to Talanoa Hufanga — capable of carrying any club deep into the postseason.

Offensively, thanks to October’s Christian McCaffrey addition, the running game can shoulder the load in big situations if needed. The Niners also boast a bevy of run-after-catch demons in Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, Jauan Jennings and George Kittle, all of whom can turn short throws into big gains. From Weeks 3 through 12 with Garoppolo under center, according to Next Gen Stats, the Niners led the NFL with 60.1 percent of its receiving yards coming after the catch. While that stat might not signify a work-of-art offense, it underscores that Shanahan’s attack can buoy a young quarterback. San Francisco’s pass catchers punish the first tackler, daring the next man to bring them down.

The 49ers don’t need Purdy to be a hero. They just need him not to be a zero. San Francisco doesn’t have the easiest schedule down the stretch, but it isn’t a murderers’ row of opponents, either:

If Purdy avoids turnovers and moves the chains as he did this past Sunday, the Niners will make the tournament. And the seventh-round rookie can make history.

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