“The 49ers have hijacked the draft. They’re all we’ve talked about ever since they made this trade. Really, have we ever talked less about the number one or two picks?”
Former NFL quarterback Chris Simms isn’t alone in his assessment on this year’s NFL Draft, with many asserting that the real intrigue begins with San Francisco’s selection at No 3 on Thursday night.
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Trevor Lawrence, quarterback out of Clemson, is virtually a lock to go No 1 to the Jacksonville Jaguars, while BYU QB Zach Wilson has seemingly cemented his spot at No 2 to the New York Jets.
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A month ago, on March 26, the 49ers traded away their No 12 pick from this year’s draft, as well as their 2022 and 2023 first-round picks and a third next year for the privilege to also select their quarterback of the future. But who is it?
The contenders are clear: Mac Jones (Alabama), Justin Fields (Ohio State) and Trey Lance (North Dakota State), but San Francisco’s intentions are decidedly more vague.
On Monday, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters: “After going through this, I feel good about five guys at three.
“We started with one candidate in mind, but all have gotten better since.”
Of those ‘five guys’, and with Lawrence and Wilson expected to be off the board, the most widely held belief is that Jones is the one candidate Shanahan had in mind at the beginning of the process.
The favourite. Perhaps not among 49ers fans, who have become enamoured with the greater skillset and athleticism of the other QBs available, but the Alabama prospect is seen as the greatest ‘fit’ within Shanahan’s scheme.
Jones was the passing leader in the 2020 college season, throwing for 4,500 yards, with 41 touchdowns to just four interceptions, while his completion percentage was a staggering 77.4 per cent.
Those numbers will leap off the page to Shanahan, who places an extremely high value on his quarterback throwing the ball accurately, ensuring that the skill play he has schemed up to be wide open on any given play is delivered the ball efficiently.
The knock on Jones, however, is that the modern NFL has left his breed of quarterback behind – a pure pocket passer with limited mobility – in favour for the new era of dynamic QBs like Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, who can not only sling it downfield but can stretch a defense with their legs too.
🗣️ "We made a decision in this process that we felt we needed to get a starting quarterback this year."
Jones is seen more in the same vein as a Kirk Cousins or a Matt Ryan, both of whom have had hugely productive seasons under the tutelage of Shanahan – hence the link – but guys who are considered to be firmly in the second tier of NFL signal callers.
One guy who knows more than a thing or two about what it takes to play the position, Josh McCown – an 18-year veteran of the league – thinks the knocks on Jones are underserved, pointing to a certain seven-time Super Bowl winner, and not the most mobile of folk, in Tom Brady.
Speaking as part of an NFL UK ‘Draft Special’ live stream, McCown said: “Everybody looks at him [Jones] and says, ‘why him?’ But we forget that a 43-year-old dude just won a Super Bowl!
“There is a premium on throwing it from A to B accurately. That is the quarterback position, decision-making and accuracy.
“If you can do the other things, the Pat Mahomes things, that is the icing on the cake, but you’ve got to be able to stand back there and throw first and foremost.”
When it comes to Pat Mahomes style ‘icing on the cake’, the quarterback who comes with a healthy slice of that is Ohio State’s Fields.
In his two years as a college starter, Fields threw for a combined 5,373 yards, 63 touchdowns and nine interceptions, in a combined 22 starts. He added a further 867 yards and 15 TDs on the ground.
Yet Fields is arguably the most polarising prospect in the draft. Initially viewed as Lawrence’s biggest threat to the No 1 spot, Fields is now thought to be sliding down draft boards – and with no great assertion as to why, beyond maybe some faulty mechanics in his throwing style.
He is raw, sure, and yes he might need some work on those mechanics, but if the 49ers’ plan – as Shanahan has suggested – is truly to keep Jimmy Garoppolo as the starting QB to kick off the 2021 season, then it allows time for the kinks in Fields’ game to be ironed out before he is let loose on the field.
Fields’ Buckeye’s lost to Jones’ Crimson Tide 52-24 in the college football National Championship game last season, but it was his performance in beating Lawrence’s No 2 ranked Clemson in the Sugar Bowl that so stood out to recruiters.
Fields completed 22 of 28 passes for 385 yards, with six touchdowns (and one pick) in a 49-28 triumph. A performance made all the more remarkable considering that Fields took a big hit to the ribs that left him in a lot of pain late in the first half.
Former NFL wide receiver Nat Burleson wants Fields to be the pick, salivating at the prospect of pairing his skillset with San Francisco’s talent on offense.
“I want something different from what I’ve seen Shanahan be successful with,” Burleson said this week on Good Morning Football.
“I’ve seen him be successful with Matt Ryan, successful with Jimmy Garoppolo; If you’re going to go for a quarterback, get somebody who can add a dynamic to your offense – an athlete that can match the athleticism of the wide receivers, tight ends and running backs.
“Can you imagine just for a second, Fields dropping back and George Kittle is double-teamed, Deebo Samuel is on a screen across the middle, the running backs are flaring out of the backfield, every defender has the offensive players covered, but Fields – who is running at 4.4 speed – then just tucks it and runs for a 40, 50-yard touchdown?”
That dream of Burleson’s isn’t just limited to Fields. North Dakota quarterback Lance – the true wildcard of the 2021 NFL Draft – is another standout athlete capable of destroying defenses as much with his legs as with his arm.
That said, the unknowns surrounding Lance concern the small sample size of college starts to his name (17), and the level of competition he came up against, with the Bison competing in NCAA Division I football, a far cry from the SEC or Big Ten homes of Alabama and Ohio State.
Yet, in those 17 starts, Lance put up eye-watering numbers, most notably in the 2019 season when he threw for 2,786 yards and 28 touchdowns – with zero interceptions! – and also accounted for a massive 1,100 yards and 14 scores on the ground, leading his team to an undefeated 16-0 record. Lance’s 287 pass attempts is an NCAA record for the most thrown in a season without an interception.
Hurting Lance’s stock is the disruption caused by Covid-19 to the 2020 season, with North Dakota capable of fulfilling only one fixture – an exhibition game against Central Arkansas – in which he completed just 15 of 30 passes, threw two touchdowns, ran in two, but also threw the first and only interception of his college career.
As a result, Lance comes with similar baggage to Fields and Shanahan would likely be best sitting him for a season behind Jimmy G, but that brings with it its own risk.
“It is such a big swing,” GMF’s Peter Schrager said this week. “We have never had a prospect who has played just one game in that long a stretch and who has only attempted 300 passes.
“If you think you’re going to ‘redshirt’ Lance, that will mean he won’t have played in the 2020 season, 2021, and then in 2022, after playing one game in 28 months, you’re giving him the ball. That is a huge deal!”
And yet, the widely held belief is that it is Lance, along with Jones, that the 49ers have narrowed their search down to, two such polarising prospects.
Who will it be?
In the month since they traded up, there have been other rumours swirling around that San Francisco could yet trade back down, or that the QB talk was nothing more than a smokescreen so they could take tight end talent Kyle Pitts and pair him with Kittle.
Shanahan’s comments this week seem to have put such talk to bed and it will be a quarterback that will be selected at No 3 – it’s just a case of which one.
It’s a choice that they can ill afford to get wrong.
“We crush the [Chicago] Bears for taking Mitch Trubisky over Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson at number two in the 2017 Draft,” Schrager said on GMF. “Well, the Niners had the third overall pick that year, with Brian Hoyer as their quarterback on the roster and they selected Solomon Thomas, a defensive tackle who is not on the team anymore.”
“It’s a huge moment for their organisation,” said Simms. “Shanahan’s name is going to be attached to this forever, and that’s a lot of pressure.”
So, all eyes on San Francisco come Thursday night.
“And with the third overall pick of the 2021 NFL Draft the San Francisco 49ers select…”
Watch all three days of the 2021 NFL Draft unfold on Sky Sports NFL, April 29-May 1, starting with live build-up to the first-round from 8pm on Thursday, April 29, with the first picks expected to be made just after 1am.
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