NFL

NFL Draft: San Francisco 49ers face defining decision of Shanahan-Lynch era

By Sports Desk April 29, 2021

In most years, in a draft where the top two picks are seen as virtual locks, those running the primetime broadcasts covering the NFL's rookie selection meeting would likely be left scrambling to create drama that does not exist.

But last month the San Francisco 49ers ensured television executives would face no such issues, trading up from pick number 12 to number three with clear intentions of selecting a franchise quarterback to succeed oft-injured starter Jimmy Garoppolo.

What makes the decision now facing San Francisco so fascinating is the makeup of the roster. The 49ers are an anomaly when it comes to a team picking in the top five; they are not a bottom-rung NFL franchise looking to rebuild a shattered roster, they are a team just under 15 months removed from a Super Bowl appearance that saw hopes of a return to the grandest stage devastated by injuries in 2020.

And, having kept around a talented and deep roster in free agency but with continued concerns over Garoppolo's ability to stay on the field, the 49ers can rightly be considered a quarterback away from a return to the season-ending showpiece.

Should they identify the right quarterback with the third pick, it will set the Niners up for short and long-term success. Make the wrong call and it could be curtains for head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch.

What the 49ers do will define the Shanahan-Lynch era and the 2021 NFL Draft.

Garoppolo's fall from grace

Way back in February of last year, the Niners and Garoppolo were fewer than seven minutes from lifting the Lombardi Trophy, holding a 10-point lead over the Kansas City Chiefs.

But a 21-point deluge from Patrick Mahomes and Co. and a now-infamous Garoppolo missed deep shot to an open Emmanuel Sanders that likely would have won the game set in motion doubts over his long-term viability as the starter under center, which were only furthered by a disastrous 2020.

Garoppolo was not alone in missing time last season – 40 members of the Niners' roster were placed on either the injured reserve, physically unable to perform or reserve/COVID-19 list over the course of the year.

However, the 10 games Garoppolo missed through a high ankle sprain suffered in Week 2, from which he unsuccessfully attempted to return, took his tally of injury-enforced absences since his trade from the New England Patriots in 2017 to 23.

That was simply too many for the Niners, who were left to battle to a 6-10 record with backups Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard and a decimated roster, to countenance.

The torn ACL Garoppolo sustained in 2018 was key in them securing the second pick in 2019, with which they selected a pivotal piece of their Super Bowl team in star pass rusher Nick Bosa.

This time, his 2020 injury issues put them in a position to strike a franchise-changing deal and put another quarterback in place to reap the long-term benefits of playing with a stacked squad.

Running it back

The 49ers could hardly have enjoyed a better free agency period.

Facing a potential plethora of departures in a year where the salary cap decreased, San Francisco managed to keep most of its team together.

A secondary that faced being dismantled retained Emmanuel Moseley, Jason Verrett, K'Waun Williams and Jaquiski Tartt, while on offense the 49ers succeeded in bringing back Kyle Juszczyk, unquestionably the most versatile and dynamic fullback in the league.

The most important bit of business, however, concerned left tackle Trent Williams, the 49ers in this instance holding off the Chiefs – who had significant interest in the eight-time Pro Bowler – to keep him around on a six-year contract that made the former Washington star the highest-paid player at his position.

His return ensured the Niners had no glaring need to address at number 12, giving them the freedom to make such a dramatic move up the board.

Possessing arguably the best tight end in football in George Kittle and with Bosa set to return from his ACL tear, the Niners are a team seemingly primed for a bounce back after convincing the bulk of their core who were on expiring contracts to stay.

But their success in holding on to their own and their aggressiveness in surrendering three first-round picks to jump nine spots will be all for nought if they get the decision wrong.

The choice

Despite a plethora of initial reports claiming the Niners made this dramatic move for Alabama quarterback Mac Jones – buzz that has not died down – San Francisco's selection with the third pick remains shrouded in mystery.

All that is known is that either Jones, North Dakota State's Trey Lance or Ohio State's Justin Fields will be a 49er come Thursday.

It is very much a choice between the old school and the new norm at the quarterback position.

Jones was masterful in guiding Alabama to the National Championship in 2020 while leading the FBS with a remarkable completion percentage of 77.4.

Displaying consistent accuracy from the pocket, he also topped the FBS in completion percentage when blitzed (76.9) and red zone completion percentage (75.9). On third down, he ranked fourth, connecting on 71.6 per cent of his passes.

The problem with Jones is that his domain is almost exclusively the pocket. In the NFL in 2021, quarterbacks who can escape those confines in the face of pressure and make plays on the run with both their arm and their legs are fast becoming king.

That is not Jones' game. If the 49ers drafted either Lance or Fields, they would be acquiring a player who thrives in those situations and can add another dimension to one of the most creative offenses in the NFL.

Fields is seemingly the outsider in this race despite having the best resume.

He led Ohio State to the College Football Playoff in successive seasons, outplaying presumptive number one pick Trevor Lawrence en route to the final in the 2020 season. 

While his completion percentage (70.2) was behind that of Jones in 2020, Fields was the most accurate of the four presumed first-round FBS quarterbacks on downfield throws.

On throws of 15 or more air yards, Fields had a well-thrown percentage of 76.47 compared to 71.43 for Lawrence, 69.41 for assumed second pick Zach Wilson and 67.39 for Jones.

So, Fields would add a downfield element that has long since been absent with Garoppolo while also offering mobility that has allowed him to make outstanding throws on the run and rush for 1,539 yards and 19 touchdowns in college.

However, had Lance played more than one full season, he would have dwarfed that number.

The wild card of the quarterback crop, Lance is undoubtedly the most devastating runner, displaying speed in the open field and the power to inflict punishment on defenders who dare to try to tackle him.

He had 18 touchdowns in his Bison career, 14 of which came in a spectacular sole season as the starter under center in which he added a further 28 touchdowns through the air and did not throw a single interception.

Lance's limited experience at FCS level, the second tier of college football, means any team picking him would be taking a substantial risk.

But with a howitzer of an arm that opens all levels of the field to him and widespread praise of his intelligence that suggests the interception-less season was far from just luck, the potential pay-off is massive.

The choice for Shanahan and Lynch is between evolving with the times with a quarterback who can solve problems with their athletic gifts or picking one who can run their offense efficiently but whose physical limitations will likely cap the ceiling of that attack.

Those behind them in the order will be praying they take the latter route and allow a mad scramble to commence, with teams sure to try to get up the board for one of Fields or Lance if they are both on the board after pick three. The Niners have made their seismic move, now their selection process has to be right to ensure the coming years of a Super Bowl-ready roster do not go to waste.

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