The 49ers have kept their choice at No. 3 overall in this year’s draft a well-guarded secret. Heavy leanings toward Mac Jones appear mostly to be guesses from people in media and inside the league. While we furiously scramble to uncover and then connect dots that will eventually lead us to a premature answer on who San Francisco will pick, the answer might’ve already been given by head coach Kyle Shanahan.
Shanahan said something interesting in his March 29 press conference when asked if Kirk Cousins was his archetype quarterback. That was long the assumption when Shanahan said his initial plan for the club was to sign Cousins in free agency following the 2017 season.
Since then every quarterback conversation around the 49ers has begun with Cousins. It stands to reason that’s where much of the Jones hype started as well – based on the assumption a Cousins-type QB was what the 49ers’ head coach was after.
Shanahan called that assumption ridiculous in his press conference.
“I think Kirk does a good job for whatever team he plays for every year,” Shanahan said. “There’s a number of quarterbacks like that, but that’s the only one I’ve been associated with because people thought I was trying to bring him here, which I was at the time. It’s not because that’s how you draw it up. If you’re going to draw it up, you’re going to draw the biggest, fastest, strongest and best quarterback in the pocket. So, I think that’s pretty ridiculous to say that.”
Did Shanahan with that quote inadvertently tell us who the 49ers are going to select with the third overall pick in the 2021 draft? Let’s run down the list of attributes he described.
Quality 1: Not Kirk Cousins
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Shanahan specifically says a Cousins-type player is not how he would draw up his ideal quarterback. Trading three first-round picks to move up seems an awful lot like the type of move a team would make if a quarterback is available that is what the coach would draw up. Advantage: Not Mac Jones.
Quality 2: Size
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This is an easy one. Shanahan said he’s looking for the biggest quarterback in an ideal scenario. That makes sense, so let’s look at the size of each of the three quarterbacks via the NFL.com scouting pages. Jones: 6-3, 217 pounds Fields: 6-3, 227 pounds Lance: 6-4, 224 pounds Advantage: Lance, barely
Quality 3: Speed
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Finding the fastest quarterback in the group is a little bit tougher because Lance didn’t run a 40-yard dash at his first Pro Day. Perhaps that changes at his second workout when Shanahan is in attendance. However, Lance’s legs were a key piece of what made him a productive quarterback at North Dakota State University. Let’s look at each player’s 40-time since that’s the only tangible indicator we have of speed. Jones: 4.83 Fields: 4.44 Lance: N/A Advantage: Fields, for now.
Quality 4: Strongest
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This one is essentially impossible to quantify since we don’t have a combine with bench press reps to act as our stand-in for a strength measurement. What we can do is check out the tape to see how each player handled the athletes they were playing against. Fields and Lance have a bigger sample of dealing with defenders because of their rushing ability. Lance’s games are full of plays where he railroads smaller FCS defenders. It looks like he should be playing a level higher. Fields has fewer plays where he’s smashing into defenders the way Lance did, but he was playing against FBS teams. Arm strength also plays in here, and that probably goes to Fields, although Lance made a number of impressive tosses. Again, this one is hard to quantify so we’ll call it mostly a wash. Advantage: Fields, for now
Quality 5: Pocket presence
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This is where things get sticky because preferences and Shanahan’s priorities and evaluations come into play. His specific quote said he’s looking for the “best quarterback in the pocket.” The difference in the three quarterbacks throwing from the pocket is not particularly vast, and offensive scheme, roster talent and competition all play a role in making the job of playing from the pocket easier or more difficult. Jones does a great job navigating the pocket with his feet and making the right throws, but it’s not as if Lance or Fields are bad at it. Even if Shanahan determines Jones gets the edge here, it would be easy to argue that Lance and Fields add an athletic element that makes any dip in productivity from the pocket more palatable. Shanahan’s not looking for a quarterback that strictly stays in the pocket, but one who can throw from there when required. Advantage: Jones, barely
Final assessment: Justin Fields … maybe
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It sure seems like Fields is the quarterback who most closely checks the boxes Shanahan laid out. He’s big, fast, strong and can sit in the pocket and make throws. His athleticism is an additional asset, not the quality on which a majority of his success hinges on. Fields has a great arm and utilizes it from the pocket and on the move when plays break down. The ability to create off schedule when needed could pretty easily help outweigh any advantage another quarterback might have from the pocket. That added layer of speed would be a nightmare for defenses to worry about against a 49ers run game that’s already difficult to defend. Putting one more number in the mix would allow Shanahan to draw up more actions that create mismatches for the 49ers’ offensive line. One interesting wrinkle to watch will be how Lance winds up factoring into the discussion. He’s the most experienced in play-action passes with his back to the defense. ESPN’s Nick Wagoner tweeted a slew of numbers that indicate Lance’s readiness to run a play-action game like Shanahan’s is superior to the other signal callers expected to be available when the 49ers pick. Lance checks a lot of the same boxes Fields does, but his 17 starts at the FCS level make his pro readiness a significant question mark. Still, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if he winds up becoming the third selection in this year’s draft. While differentiating between Lance and Fields comes down to various nitpicks, what really stands out is where Jones lacks in the areas Shanahan laid out. He’s neither the biggest, nor fastest, nor strongest, and his play from the pocket isn’t so substantially better than the other two that it makes sense to put him ahead of the pack. Jones appears to fit into the Cousins mold Shanahan mentioned when he said he’s a quarterback a team can win with. Jimmy Garoppolo is that as well. The 49ers are clearly looking for something more than that, and if they weren’t, they might’ve sat at No. 12 to see if Jones fell, or found a prospect they liked in Round 2 to try and plug in. So, while Shanahan maybe didn’t give enough to let us know who it will be, it sure seems like he laid out some qualities that tell us who it won’t be.