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What’s the scenario? Looking at where 49ers could be drafting, if all goes wrong (or, right)

© Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers, for the third time in four years, will have a losing record. At best (or worst, given that losing out is a positive thing), this team can finish 7-9. Below, we break down the scenarios for this team losing out, winning one game, or winning both games over the next two weeks.

Here is a look at the current standings, visualized with strength of schedule, per Tankathon. The only remaining game this week is an irrelevant, scheduled loss for Cincinnati, against the Steelers on Monday night.

The tiers

Top three

Three teams are in the top-three tier. Cincinnati (2-10-1) is on its own island with the third pick and the Jets (1-13) and Jaguars (1-13) are still battling it out for the first pick, though Jacksonville will win if it’s tied due to strength of schedule.

Next two

In the next tier, it’s basically Carolina (4-10) and Atlanta (4-10). Both of those teams will finish with a better draft pick than the 49ers unless they win out, due to strength of schedule.

The Panthers play Washington (6-8) and New Orleans (10-4) and the Falcons face the Kansas City Chiefs (13-1) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-5), so don’t bet on either of those two teams to win out.

Effectively, the top five picks are out of the question.

Houston (goes to the Miami Dolphins thanks to Bill the Thrill O’Brien)

The Houston Texans (4-10), though, have been in almost every game this season, and are sort of a flukey bottom-barrel team with one of the league’s five best quarterbacks.

They currently have a tougher strength of schedule (.552) than the 49ers (.447) and face the Joe Burrow-less Bengals, which should be a win for them. If their strength of schedule holds as tougher than the 49ers and they win one game (their other is against the 10-4 Tennessee Titans), they would lose a draft spot to San Francisco if San Francisco loses out.

It’s of course possible they win none, or they win both. They’re such a bizarre team, it’s really impossible to tell, but I would expect they beat Cincinnati.

The 5-9ers and Philadelphia (a.k.a. NFC East junction)

This tier is where it gets slightly tricky, but the 49ers are guaranteed to move up a draft spot on at least one NFC East team in this group if they lose out (we’ll get into the scenarios shortly).

In order, you have the Philadelphia Eagles (4-9-1), Dallas Cowboys (5-9), Los Angeles Chargers (5-9), New York Giants (5-9), Detroit Lions (5-9), 49ers (5-9) and the Denver Broncos (5-9).

The Broncos, with a .561 strength of schedule, are pretty much screwed in any tiebreaker situation against any of these teams.

The Cowboys face the Eagles and the Giants, meaning that if they split games, or lose both games, two of those three NFC East teams will have another win, meaning at worst, two of the following: 6-10 Cowboys, 5-10-1 Eagles, or 6-10 Giants.

The Giants face the Baltimore Ravens (9-5) and Cowboys. They’ll almost certainly lose to the Ravens, who are still fighting for a playoff spot.

The Eagles face Washington (6-8) and Cowboys.

The Chargers face the Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs (13-1), except they play the Chiefs in Week 17, which means the Chiefs could be fielding a team of reserves.

The Lions face the Minnesota Vikings (6-8) and the New Orleans Saints (10-4).

Best case scenario: Losing out

If the 49ers lose to the Arizona Cardinals (8-6) and the Seattle Seahawks (10-4) the teams above them do not matter. We’ll address them later.

The best thing that could happen to San Francisco right now is losing out. Something tells me they’ll find a way to win a game because they’ve already lost to both Arizona and Seattle, and there’s a weird complex that goes on with these teams which defies logic. But if they lose out, here’s where they could wind up:

The worst case if they lose out is the 11th pick. Because the Cowboys will play the Giants and Eagles, one of the NFC East teams will drop a spot, guaranteed.

Here’s a breakdown of the NFC East cannibalism situation, and the different ways it could go. Records below indicate how those three teams would finish out against a 5-11 49ers team.

  • Worst case (jump one spot):
  • If Giants (5-11, face Ravens, Cowboys), Eagles (4-11-1, face Cowboys, Washington) both lose out, 49ers would only jump Cowboys (7-9). +1 spot
  • Medium case (jump two spots):
  • If Cowboys (5-11) lose out, the 49ers (5-11) would jump the Eagles (at least 5-10-1 or 6-9-1) and the Giants (6-10 or 7-9). +2 spots
  • If Giants (6-10) beat Cowboys, the 49ers jump the Giants. If Cowboys (6-10) beat the Eagles and Eagles (4-11-1) lose to Washington, 49ers jump only Giants, Cowboys. +2 spots
  • Best case (jump three spots):
  • If Giants (6-10) beat Cowboys, the 49ers jump the Giants. If Cowboys (6-10) beat the Eagles, but Eagles (5-10-1) beat Washington, 49ers jump all three. In other words if you see this: NYG def. DAL, DAL def. PHI, PHI def. WAS, the 49ers jump all three. +3 spots
  • If Dallas (6-10) beats the Giants and loses to the Eagles (5-10-1), the 49ers (5-11) would jump both the Cowboys and Eagles. If Giants (6-10) somehow beat Baltimore, the 49ers jump Giants too. +3 spots

The best reasonable case scenario is finishing 6th, or up to 9th. Here’s how a few of these scenarios could play out. The top five is basically off limits, so here’s the path for the 49ers to get up to the sixth pick

  • Texans (5-10) beats Bengals (2-13-1). Their strength of schedule (currently .552) holds behind the 49ers’ (currently .547). +1 spot
  • Jump all of three NFC East teams in one of those above scenarios (likely the first one) where the Giants (6-10) beat Cowboys (6-10), Cowboys beat the Eagles (5-10-1) and the Eagles beat Washington (7-9). The worst case scenario with the NFC East teams is +1 spot, the most likely scenario is +2 spots and the best case scenario is +3 spots.
  • Chargers (6-10) beat either the Broncos (5-11 or 6-10) or the Chiefs. Again, this is the Chiefs in Week 17, and they’ve already played an overtime game together, so it’s in play. +1 spot
  • Lions (6-10) beat either the Buccaneers (9-5) or the Vikings (7-9). This is not exceedingly likely, but none of the involved teams are predictable. +1 spot

So, if all of those things go right for the 49ers, who just have to lose two a pair of plus-.500 division teams (easier said than done), they could finish with the 6th pick. My best guess? If they lose out, they gain +2 spots from the NFC East teams, Texans win against Cincinnati (+1 spot) and the Chargers beat either the Broncos or Chiefs (+1 spot).

I do not think the Lions win one of its final two games, and my faith in the Chargers is based solely on how weird they get and that Justin Herbert against Drew Lock is a favorable matchup.

That would give San Francisco the 8th pick, or if the Chargers don’t win, the 9th pick.

Medium case scenario: Winning one game

This is what I think happens. Not because it should happen. This team should absolutely lose out because it is a bad team with a bad quarterback making bad mistakes. Bad, bad, bad.

But I don’t trust either of the Cardinals or the Seahawks, and the fact that both have already beaten the 49ers this year gives me one of these gut feelings that they’ll somehow, for no logical reason, win one of these games. Here’s how this could play out, with a 6-10 49ers team.

The best they could finish in this scenario with the NFC East is gaining +2 spots. That is the least likely scenario. If the Giants (7-9) beat the Ravens (not happening) and the Eagles (6-9-1) beat both the Cowboys (5-11) and Washington, that’s both of those teams finishing higher in the standings than San Francisco.

But, let’s look at it again under a frighteningly different lens.

  • Worst case (gain zero spots):
  • If the Cowboys (5-11) lose out, Eagles lose to Washington (5-10-1) and Giants (6-10) lose to Ravens, that’s a net gain of zero spots for the 6-10 49ers. +0 spots
  • If Giants (6-10) beat Cowboys, but lose to Ravens, Cowboys (6-10) beat Eagles, and Eagles (4-11-1) lose to Washington, 49ers gain zero spots. +0 spots
  • If Giants (6-10) beat Cowboys, Cowboys (6-10) beat Eagles and Eagles (5-10-1) beat Washington, 49ers gain zero spots. In other words, if you see this: NYG def. DAL, DAL def. PHI, PHI def. WAS, the 49ers gain zero spots. I know, this is insane given that in the previous scenario they gain three spots. But if they win even one game, they need an NFC East team to win two. +0 spots
  • Medium case (gain one spot):
  • If Giants (5-11, face Baltimore, Dallas), Eagles (4-11-1, face Dallas, Washington) both lose out, 49ers would only jump Dallas (7-9). +1 spot
  • If Dallas (6-10) beats the Giants and lose to Eagles (5-10-1), the 49ers (5-11) would jump both Cowboys and Eagles. If Giants (6-10) somehow beat Baltimore, the 49ers jump Giants too. 
  • Best case (jump two spots):
  • If the Giants (7-9) beat Baltimore and Cowboys (5-11), and Eagles (6-9-1) beats Cowboys and Washington, the 49ers (6-10) jump two spots. +2 spots

Now, for the non-NFC East teams.

If the Texans (currently 4-10) win out and their strength of schedule (.552 versus the 49ers’ .447) holds up, that would be +1 spot. That requires wins over the Bengals and Titans, which is unlikely.

If the Chargers (5-9) beat both the Broncos and Chiefs, that would be +1 spot. That can be considered unlikely, but like with the Texans, not completely out of the question.

If the Broncos (5-9) beat either the Chargers or Raiders, the 49ers would not lose a spot. The best-case scenario is that they beat the Raiders and Chargers win out, so the 49ers stave off Denver and gain +1 spot on the Chargers. If the Chargers beat Denver, though, and Denver loses to the Raiders, and the Chargers to Kansas City, that’s a -1 spot swing.

If the Lions (5-9) beat both the Buccaneers and Saints, that would be +1 spot. Can you bet on that not happening? If you can, think about it. It won’t happen.

As for the 6-8 Vikings (to face New Orleans, Detroit) and 6-8 Patriots (to face Buffalo, Jets), if either of them win a game, they’ll finish behind the 49ers in the draft.

But if either lose out, they will jump a 6-10 49ers team due to strength of schedule. Both seem likely to win one game, but if they lose out, it could be a -1 spot or even -2 spot swing.

There is actually a worst-case scenario here, requiring the Vikings, Patriots and Broncos to lose out, the Chargers to beat the Broncos but lose to the Chiefs, and all of the NFC East teams not named the Football Team to win one game or less, in which the 49ers drop from 12th to 15th, which is basically as bad as if they win the final two games.

Now, the real floor in this situation is probably 14th, given that it is unlikely New England loses to the Jets, or 13th, given how frisky Minnesota is and bad the Lions are.

The best-case scenario, requiring the Texans, Lions, Eagles, Giants and Chargers to win out, Broncos to beat the Raiders, and the Vikings and Patriots to win one game, would result in a +5 spot swing, bumping the 49ers up to, at best, 8th.

The most likely scenario here is that the 49ers don’t gain any spots on the NFC East teams, and they all split down the stretch, or they gain +1 spot, from the Cowboys or Eagles. I can’t see the Giants beating the Ravens.

The Texans likely will not win out, nor will the Lions or Chargers; though,  the Texans and Chargers both play bad teams in the Bengals and Broncos next week, and have two tough, but playoff-secured teams in the Titans and Chiefs, who just might take their foot off the gas a bit. Most likely, they gain zero spots here.

The Vikings should beat the Lions, and the Patriots should beat the Jets, so that shouldn’t represent a lost spot.

Denver, though, could easily lose to the Chargers and Raiders, which would be -1 spot.

My best guess is that if the 49ers split their final two games, they finish between 11th and 13th. Staying at 12th is firmly in play.

Really? scenario: Winning both games

If the 49ers lose out, the absolute worst they could mathematically draft is 17th. It’s more likely that they’d draft 16th at worst, if Chicago (7-7) beats Jacksonville (1-13), and 15th if the Las Vegas Raiders (7-7) beat either the Miami Dolphins (9-5) or Denver (5-9).

Then, it gets tricky. The absolute best they could draft is 12th, which would necessitate the Broncos beating the Raiders and Chargers, and Raiders beating the Dolphins. 

If the Raiders lose both, barring a sudden change in strength of schedule (.536 compared to the 49ers’ .547) they drop behind the 49ers. If the Broncos lose to the Chargers, that’s another spot. So if they win out, they could keep their spot at 12, lose one spot, or lose two spots, all depending on the results of the Broncos and Raiders.

If they win out, the likely best they would draft is 13th, given that staying at 12 requires a couple of wins from the Broncos and Raiders to beat the Dolphins.

If both the 6-8 New England Patriots (face the 11-3 Bills, 1-13 Jets) and 6-8 Minnesota Vikings (10-4 Saints, 5-9 Lions) only win one game, which seems likely, the 49ers are guaranteed to lose two spots. 

The most likely scenario if they win out is that they have -1 spot to the Broncos or the Raiders, -2 spots to New England and Vikings, and keep a spot on Chicago. That would have them drafting 15th.

Epilogue: Franchise quarterback time?

If you made it to this point, thanks for spending this much time reading too many hypotheticals. As far as drafting a quarterback is concerned, the 12th pick puts the 49ers in position to draft either Zach Wilson or Trey Lance, unless Justin Fields falls for no discernible reason, or teams freak out because he injured his thumb against Northwestern.

One stat to keep in mind. There have only been three years in which at least four quarterbacks have been drafted in the top-12. Four went in the top-10 in 2018 (1, 3, 7, 10), four went in the top-12 in 2011 (1, 8, 10, 12), and five went in the top-12 in 1999 (1, 2, 3 and 11, 12).

Outside of those years, no more than three quarterbacks have been drafted in the the top-14 (four went top-15 in 1983). Now, there’s more cause for concern because two of those data points are in the last decade, but San Francisco is poised to be close enough to trade into the later part of the top-10 without shelling out a king’s ransom.

Let’s look at the order again and who would be interested in a quarterback:

  1. Jaguars – YES, Trevor Lawrence
  2. Jets – Probably, Justin Fields, or someone trades up for Fields in this spot
  3. Bengals – NO, likely Penei Sewell
  4. Panthers – Maybe, Teddy Bridgewater is pretty much guaranteed in 2021, but can be cut cheaply in 2022
  5. Falcons – Probably not
  6. Dolphins – NO
  7. Eagles – NO
  8. Cowboys – NO
  9. Chargers – NO
  10. Giants – NO
  11. Lions – Maybe
  12. 49ers – Maybe

If you get past pick five with both Zach Wilson and Trey Lance on the board, the 6-through-10 picks represent prime trade-up candidates through teams which will almost certain not pick a quarterback.

To recap all of this: the 49ers will likely be drafting in the 7th through 15th-pick range. They are close enough to trade up into the second half of the top-10 to grab a quarterback if they are so inclined, unless Lawrence, Fields and Wilson all go in the top-five. The 49ers could trade into that range, too, but it would likely cost them a future first-round pick.


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