The 49ers' decision to wait a little more than a month to start Jimmy Garoppolo until he could get a better grasp of the offense after giving the Patriots a 2018 second-round pick for him at the Oct. 31 trading deadline is being validated. 

The quarterback is breathing life into a downtrodden franchise.

Garoppolo, whose four-year rookie contract expires after the season, has engineered two game-winning fourth-quarter drives during San Francisco's three victories in the three games he has started. The last 49ers quarterback to go undefeated in his first three starts was Y.A. Tittle in the early 1950s. Garoppolo also has consecutive 300-yard passing games, a feat that hadn't been accomplished by a 49ers quarterback since Jeff Garcia in 2000.

In the three wins, Garoppolo, who still doesn't have a deep understanding of San Francisco's playbook, has completed 68.1 percent of his passes (77 of 113) for 1,008 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions to post a 94.6 passer rating. The 49ers' failure to finish drives in the end zone has resulted in 15 made field goals over the last three games. 

As good as Garoppolo has been, much maligned Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles has performed better during this span. Bortles is completing 71.4 percent of his passes (65 of 91) for 903 yards while throwing seven touchdowns without any interceptions to post a 128.6 passer rating in three December wins.

Garoppolo faces his biggest challenge to date in Sunday's Week 16 contest against the Jaguars, who have the NFL's stingiest pass defense. Jacksonville leads the NFL in sacks (51), passing yards allowed (168.9 per game), opponent's completion percentage (55.9) and opponent's passer rating (65.2). The AFC South leaders are also giving up the fewest points in the league at 14.9 per game. The 49ers close the season on New Year's Eve with another tough opponent, the NFC West-leading Rams.

Garoppolo's early success hasn't created a sense of urgency to sign him to a new deal. The 49ers seem content waiting until the season ends to have contract discussions. Regardless of what Garoppolo does for the remainder of the season, he is going to be a largely unproven commodity with only a handful of starts.

Garoppolo is practically in a no-lose situation provided he finishes the season healthy. Even if Garoppolo struggles against the Jaguars or the Rams, any long-term deal he signs this offseason should be greater than the four-year, $72 million contract containing $37 million fully guaranteed that Brock Osweiler received in 2016 free agency from the Texans after just seven career starts. The 49ers probably needed to negotiate a contract extension in conjunction with the trade in order to get Garoppolo, whose rookie contract is worth a little less than $3.5 million, on a long-term deal in this salary range.

Garoppolo won't have a lot of incentive to sign before the period to designate him as a franchise or transition player ends on March 6, unless the 49ers are willing to pay the 26-year-old top-tier quarterback money even though he hasn't demonstrated for an extended period of time that he can perform like one. Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, who was taken 26 spots ahead of Garoppolo in the second round of the 2014 draft and also is 26, isn't living up to expectations this season but was a leading candidate for MVP in 2016 before breaking his right leg shortly before the playoffs began. He became the NFL's first $25 million per year player in June. His five-year, $125.025 million extension with $70.2 million in guarantees averages $25.005 million per year.

The 49ers making a massive financial commitment to Garoppolo with such a limited track record wouldn't be unprecedented. The Packers surprisingly made first-year starter Aaron Rodgers the NFL's fourth-highest-paid quarterback (by average yearly salary) in 2008 with essentially one-and-a-half years left on his rookie deal when he had only seven career starts. Rodgers' five-year extension averaged $12.704 million per year with $42.77 million in the first three new contract years, and $20 million fully guaranteed. Nobody could have predicted that Rodgers would become arguably the game's best quarterback when he signed the extension.

Garoppolo has flashed enough potential that the 49ers letting him become an unrestricted free agent would be a risky proposition. Free agency would likely produce a bidding war for Garoppolo because ascending starting quarterbacks who have yet to reach their prime don't ever hit the open market in an NFL where there's a shortage of competent passers.

Two quarterback-needy teams are going to be flush with salary cap space in 2018. The Browns are on track to have to an NFL-best $112 million of room, assuming the 2018 salary cap is set at $178.1 million, the high end of projections given to teams at a league meeting last week. The Jets are projected to have just under $75 million of cap space before making any roster moves that could significantly increase their available room.

The 49ers using a franchise tag on Garoppolo would be the safest approach. The non-exclusive quarterback franchise tag should be $23.295 million with a $178.1 million 2018 salary cap. This tag allows a player to negotiate with other NFL teams but if he signs an offer sheet, his team has five days to match the offer. If the offer is not matched, his team will receive two first-round picks as compensation from the signing team. The steep compensation effectively deters pursuit of franchise players.

Negotiating with other teams is prohibited when the exclusive franchise tag is given. The 2018 exclusive number, which is the average of the top five salaries at a player's position once the restricted free-agent signing period of the current year has ended (April 20 for 2018), currently projects to $24.767 million. This figure will decrease if any of the quarterbacks with the five highest 2018 salaries are released or rework contracts to lower salary cap numbers before March 6, when the franchise tag designation period ends.

A practical consequence of the franchise tag is increased financial expectations. When a player is franchised, a competent agent typically uses the tag amount as a baseline or guide for a long-term deal. A second franchise tag in 2019 would be $27.954 million, a 20-percent increase over Garoppolo's 2018 franchise number. Garoppolo potentially being franchised in consecutive years could be used as justification for a long-term deal averaging more than $25 million per year with approximately $50 million fully guaranteed at signing.

Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins' embrace of the franchise tag may be providing players a new blueprint for how to handle the designation. Playing on the tag for the first time in 2016 gave Cousins a level of financial security where he could play hardball with the Redskins this year when given the designation for a second time as quarterback salaries escalated. Cousins is the first quarterback in league history to play two straight seasons on franchise tags. Receiving another franchise tag in 2018 at almost $34.5 million, a Collective Bargaining Agreement mandated 44 percent raise over his current salary, will make continuing to go year-to-year before hitting free agency in 2019 extremely attractive. That is, unless the Redskins are willing to make Cousins the NFL's highest-paid player over Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who signed a five-year, $135 million contract extension with an NFL-record $92 million of overall guarantees during the preseason.

Another option for the 49ers is placing the slightly cheaper and seldom used transition tag on Garoppolo. The transition designation, which would only give the 49ers a right to match another team's offer sheet, should be $21.028 million with a $178.1 million 2018 salary cap.

There are limits to the creativity with offer sheets because poison pills were outlawed in the current CBA thanks to shenanigans with Steve Hutchinson and Nate Burleson in 2006. The Vikings signed Hutchison, who was the Seahawks' transition player, to an offer sheet with a provision that guaranteed his entire contract if he wasn't the highest-paid offensive lineman on the team at any point during the deal. Seattle didn't match the offer because left-tackle Walter Jones had a higher salary. The Seahawks retaliated by signing Vikings restricted free-agent wide receiver Nate Burleson to an offer sheet that became fully guaranteed if he played at least five games in the state of Minnesota in any season of the contract or his average salary was greater than that of the highest-paid running back on the team.

The primary method of structuring a difficult-to-match offer sheet is with an astronomical first-year cap number. This won't work with the 49ers because Garoppolo's transition tender would already count against their cap and they should have the NFL's second-most-favorable cap situation, with approximately $110 million of cap space if the salary cap is set at $178.1 million. The 49ers' abundance of cap room limits the number of teams that could realistically pose a threat to the 49ers. As with making Garoppolo unrestricted, the Browns and Jets would be best positioned financially to be suitors.

Including provisions in an offer sheet allowing Garoppolo to void his contract after the 2018 or '19 season where he couldn't be designated as a franchise or transition player, or fully guaranteeing all contract years or at least a portion of the latter years might be more unappealing to the 49ers. Outside of these player-friendly structural concepts, there really isn't much another team could do to make it difficult for the 49ers to keep Garoppolo because of the poison pill prohibitions.

The 49ers could essentially let the market dictate Garoppolo's compensation with this designation, just like the Browns did in 2014 when the offer sheet transition-player Alex Mack signed with the Jaguars, making him the NFL's highest-paid center, was matched. Ultimately, Mack left Cleveland in 2016 during free agency after voiding the last three years of his contract because he wanted to play for a playoff contender.

Two dynamics that could lead to acrimonious negotiations would be mitigated, if not completely eliminated, by matching another team's offer sheet. Garoppolo is represented by the same firm, Yee & Dubin, as Tom Brady. His agents may feel a need to drive a really hard bargain to help erase any perceptions that exist within the industry about doing team-friendly deals. Brady consistently takes hometown discounts from the Patriots instead of driving the quarterback market, which is surely the five-time Super Bowl champion's idea. The new money Brady will receive through his multiple-contract maneuvers in recent years compared to what he would have gotten had he played out his 2010 contract, which was set to expire after the 2014 season, is $71 million over five new contract years for an average of $14.2 million per year. Yee & Dubin client Julian Edelman also signed a below-market contract extension for one of the NFL's best slot wide receivers during the offseason.

San Francisco's most lucrative veteran contracts historically have had a team-friendly structure. The guarantees after the first contract year are injury guarantees which typically become fully guaranteed on April 1 of each specific contract year. Large annual game-day active roster bonuses are also standard with 49ers contracts.

The primary benefit of the roster bonuses is they provide the 49ers some financial relief with injuries. The per-game amount is only payable if the player is on the 46-man active roster for that particular game. For example, Colin Kaepernick's 2014 extension had $2 million worth of roster bonuses annually. When Kaepernick was put on injured reserve after nine games in 2015, it cost him $875,000 because he didn't earn seven games worth of the roster bonuses.

Kaepernick's structure is the type Garoppolo's camp will want to avoid, while the 49ers are going to be extremely reluctant to establish new contractual precedents that will be used against them in future negotiations with other players, as are other NFL teams. His contract didn't provide him the same level of security in comparable quarterback deals. Kaepernick had slightly under $13 million fully guaranteed at signing when approximately $40 million was fully guaranteed upon execution with similar contracts. The relatively modest signing bonus, particularly for such a lucrative contract, and the conditional guarantees gave the 49ers the ability to part ways with Kaepernick at any time without adverse cap consequences.

The 49ers made a slight deviation from their preferred contract structure during free agency this year. Quarterback Brian Hoyer and wide receiver Pierre Garcon had a portion of their second year or 2018 base salaries fully guaranteed at signing. It remains to be seen whether this is an anomaly or a trend.

The route Cousins' camp reportedly wanted to take the first time he was franchised in 2016 might have appeal to both sides. The Redskins quickly dismissed a proposal Cousins' camp made for a three-year, $57 million made deal. If this offer had been accepted, the Redskins would have Cousins under contract for another season while paying him approximately $21 million less than if he plays three straight years on franchise tags.

Adjusting Cousins' offer to a 2018 salary cap environment would put Garoppolo in the same ballpark as the three-year, $66.4 million extension with $44 million fully guaranteed at signing Joe Flacco received from the Ravens in 2016. The 49ers would have a hard time reconciling that Garoppolo shouldn't have a clause in the contract preventing him from being designated as a franchise or transition player after giving one to offensive guard Alex Boone in the renegotiated contract he signed in 2014 to end his training-camp holdout.

The shorter-term deal would give the 49ers a significant discount over playing the franchise tag game with Garoppolo. Three years of franchise tags with Garoppolo will be in the $90-million neighborhood. The cost certainty of Garoppolo over the next couple of years would make long-range cap planning easier for the 49ers.

Garoppolo would receive a higher level of security and better cash flow than going year-to-year without continually incurring the risk of injury and poor performance. He would be in a better position to take advantage of changing market conditions earlier than with a longer commitment. The 49ers would probably approach Garoppolo about a new deal in 2020, when he is 28, provided his recent success is a preview of things to come.