When the 49ers aggressively traded up with the Dolphins to acquire the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft last week, it was to take a top quarterback prospect. After some initial speculation on whether that was true, general manager John Lynch and offensive-minded coach Kyle Shanahan all but confirmed that on Monday.
San Francisco for now has no plans to trade incumbent starter Jimmy Garoppolo, but the team has every intention of replacing him with a younger, higher-ceiling QB soon. As they should, Lynch and Shanahan didn’t tip their hands on which top-five first rounder they are targeting to succeed Garoppolo on April 29.
That QB won’t be Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence. Urban Meyer and the Jaguars are locked into him at No. 1.
That QB also probably won’t be BYU’s Zach Wilson. That is unless Shanahan got inside information from his former defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and former passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur, now the head coach and offensive coordinator of the No. 2-picking Jets, knowing they will pass on the position. It’s still a good bet Wilson’s upside is too high to ignore for New York vs. sticking with Sam Darnold.
That whittles it down to the trio of Alabama’s Mac Jones, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance and Ohio State’s Justin Fields as the 49ers’ choice. The trendy feeling from many inside the NFL is the choice will be Jones, but just as many think Lance or Fields will land in San Francisco.
49ERS MOCK DRAFT: Who will San Francisco take at No. 3 overall?
The 49ers have liked Jones for a while. Shanahan has taken personal interest in his pre-draft workouts. He fits the profile of QBs he’s liked in his QB-friendly system in the past, Kirk Cousins in Washington and 2016 NFL MVP Matt Ryan in Atlanta. Jones is a polished, poised pocket passer, capable of hanging and distributing the ball with confidence to diverse weapons.
There’s little question Jones, who will be 23 in September, can start immediately for San Francisco, allowing it to save big cap money on Garoppolo via a later trade or release. He doesn’t provide a running element, but he’s athletic enough to buy time and execute Shanahan’s passing game.
The 49ers have a strong offensive line, dynamic weapons (George Kitte, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk) and the balance of an effective running game in place to win big again now with Jones. Jones has the championship-winning pedigree from Alabama, much like the one Garoppolo carried with him from the Patriots, which paid off in a Super Bowl 54 run.
Jones does have a high floor as a QB who takes full advantage of his support system. But the big question around Jones is whether there are physical limitations to make him the ultimate “dependent” QB, needing everything well in place around him. The 49ers might be OK with that, because that was the case for Shanahan with Cousins and Ryan, and there’s trust Lynch won’t let the line and skill positions become weak.
Jones may not have the special potential for which a team usually trades up, but he might be worth to the 49ers because they know they can get the most out of him.
Lance also guided his college team to a national championship. But he turns only 21 in May and started only one season for North Dakota State. That said, he’s got a jaw-dropping arm and athleticism to match That combination can turn him into a sizzling dual threat in the NFL with some refinement in a great offensive system.
If the 49ers are not rushing to move Garoppolo and plan use him as a well above-average bridge for 2021, then Lance would get a season to develop and absorb everything under Shanahan before setting up for a potential Patrick Mahomes-like Year 2 explosion. Or, the 49ers may simply want to see what Lance can do being let loose in a system that will help him learn well on the fly.
That’s what makes reading the 49ers so tough. Their offense is geared to any passer who’s accurate and quick in his ability to get the ball to their playmakers. Lance adds the extra dimension of being able to take off and run when things aren’t there downfield and also giving defenses something more to think about against an already prolific rushing attack.
Shanahan has had the traditional passers before and may see a chance to welcome a different style of prized pupil to expand his playbook. Also, it’s no secret the No. 4-picking Falcons have been enamored with Lance, and it would make sense that Lynch pushed to No. 3 knowing that was the only way to ensure getting him. If the Falcons can think about replacing Ryan with Lance, then logic would say the 49ers shooting for Lance over Garoppolo is a similar upgrade mentality.
In the debate of Jones vs. Lance, Fields falls somewhere in the middle. He’s got the big-program polish and College Football Playoff success of Jones. He’s got the arm and athleticism upside of Lance. Therefore, he might offer the 49ers the best of both worlds in trying to replace Garoppolo.
Shanahan and Lynch might see the sweet spot between floor and ceiling with Fields. He sees the field well and moves around well to think he also could thrive in the 49ers’ offense. While at Ohio State, Fields worked with a lot of pro-tailored zone running and quick-pass concepts.
Fields turned 22 in March, right between the ages of Jones and Lance. As two-year prolific starter, he could suit the 49ers being plugged into the llineup right away or they could choose to be a little more patient with him.
With all three QBs for the 49er, there are all pros, and mostly no cons involved with their big decision, thanks to Shanahan’s offense. When they say they’re not sure which QB they want to take at No. 3, everyone should completely believe them, for now. There are myriad factors to consider, including which QB would mesh personality-wise with Shanahan and offer the best young leadership qualities for a a veteran team.
The 49ers did win an NFC championship with Garoppolo, but there was a feeling they have left a lot on the table in regards to their offensive potential. Garoppolo’s durability issues also are concerning.
Whoever San Francisco chooses to take at No. 3, it was a definitive move to make sure it gets the rookie QB it wants vs. hoping one would fall to No. 12. That’s a good problem to have.