49ers' stunning trade shakes up NFL draft picture, but which QB do they want?

Eric Edholm
·6-min read

We’re now officially into draft season.

In a trade reminiscent of the Indianapolis Colts-New York Jets pre-draft swap a few years back, the San Francisco 49ers are essentially blindly trading up to the No. 3 spot with a quarterback in mind — but which one?

It could be curtains for Jimmy Garoppolo in a Niners uniform, or he could start early while the rookie sits for a bit. But unlike that Jets-Colts trade, we’d be naive to think that the 49ers didn’t put in a call to old friend Robert Saleh, who is now the Jets’ head coach. After all, he became a rock-star assistant under head coach Kyle Shanahan and general John Lynch.

In order to move up that far and give up so much — a third-rounder this year, plus two future firsts — one reasonably could surmise that the Niners know who the Jets are taking at No. 2 overall. (Meaning, they’re not the Mike Maccagnan-run Jets.)

Let’s throw out there the idea of Trevor Lawrence going first to the Jaguars and BYU QB Zach Wilson second to the Jets. We don’t know Wilson is for sure their guy, but it certainly feels like a strong possibility.

Who might the 49ers be targeting? They have three options.

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields warms up before the Sugar Bowl NCAA college football game against Clemson Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields warms up before the Sugar Bowl NCAA college football game against Clemson Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Justin Fields, Ohio State

If I was ranking these most likely to least likely, Fields is third on this list. I love his upside and believe he’ll end up one of the two or three best QBs from this class. But his skills might not be a perfect match for what Shanahan seeks in his quarterbacks.

The same types of phrases keep popping up in the evaluation of Fields: Needs to process better and faster. Not great on anticipatory throws. A hair slow through progressions.

Shanahan wants a quarterback who will run his system to near-perfection. A lightning-quick thinker who is ready to make high-level reads tomorrow. He wants them to be facilitators, hence why the 49ers have loaded up on yards-after-the-catch threats and mismatch pieces on offense.

That is not Fields right now. To be fair, it wasn’t Dak Prescott when he came out either. This is no indictment on Fields, who has some rare traits and exciting upside. It’s just that Shanahan’s offense would not be a glove fit for him.

Shanahan critics say he is too in love with his system, and that’s a debate for another day. But ignoring that element would be foolhardy.

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Trey Lance, North Dakota State

This is where it gets interesting. Lance, for all his supposed rawness and lack of high-level experience, is better at anticipating now than Fields. On the flip side, Fields does things Lance cannot yet.

But for the purpose of finding San Francisco’s more ideal QB, Lance has to be in consideration. The one fairly remarkable thing about scouting him that kept catching my attention was that for a player whom many colleges recruited as an “athlete,” Lance certainly has a high football IQ.

The Bison ran a pro-style system that included elements of the spread and the QB run game. It’s not terribly divergent from what Shanahan does. And you can see Lance making checks at the line and adjusting the protection as a redshirt freshman, in some cases with only a few starts under his belt. He ended up with only 17 in his career.

To have that level of acumen and confidence as a 19-year-old is special. Lance has room to grow and improve with the mental aspects of the game, but we don’t know of a scout who doesn’t believe Lance is capable of that, considering what he has shown.

Lance throws with timing and anticipation. Think of the old phrase, “he throws guys open.” With only one college interception (in his 2020 showcase game), it’s clear that he takes care of the football and puts a premium on that. Shanahan does too.

All the elements are there to make a match. The biggest question: Would Shanahan turn over the keys to the Ferrari to a player with one start in the past 14 months and with no experience vs. FBS competition?

Doing so could open the door to Garoppolo serving as the bridge QB and possibly being a trade-deadline candidate. It’s not a wild idea. We could see that happening, although Garoppolo has a no-trade clause.

Lance can’t be ruled out to the Niners.

Mac Jones, Alabama

They wouldn’t really take him at three, would they?

A month ago, you could see Jones landing at No. 15 to the New England Patriots, or perhaps 20th to the Chicago Bears. He was roundly viewed as QB5 in the pecking order, and we frankly don’t disagree with that idea.

But there has been a shift in the tide. Jones’ greatest trait might be that he’s very reliable. Is his arm talent special? No. Is he a great athlete? Not really, even if he tested better than expected.

What Jones does best is distribute. He gets the ball to his horses and lets them run. It might read as an older formula at the position, but it’s what Shanahan wants. He wants a QB who can make full-field progressions, throw cleanly with a quick release and deliver the ball with touch and placement.

Check, check, check, check — Jones passes those tests. Again, trading two future firsts and more to land Jones feels like selling your house to buy a brand new Prius. It’s not what we would do, but ruling out Jones here feels way too premature.

A few years ago at the NFL scouting combine, I asked a lot of head coaches with offensive backgrounds the same question: “What element of quarterback evaluation is a must-have, and what is a non-starter at the position?”

Shanahan’s answer: He wanted QBs with clean throwing motions. Coaching things out of them is easier said than done, and they tend to revert back to old, bad habits under duress. Jones has very clean, crisp mechanics. It’s why you hear the Tom Brady comps so often.

And before the 49ers traded for Garoppolo, who did they try to land? Yep, Brady. Jones might not be Brady, but he’s enough of a Brady clone in the things that matter to the head coach that we absolutely cannot rule out this pairing.

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