© Gary Cosby Jr via Imagn Content Services, LLC
It’s been a weird couple of weeks since the 49ers traded up for the third overall pick. It’s clear that most fans, analysts, and sane people saw that trade as Kyle Shanahan diving head first into the future of the quarterback position, pursuing Justin Fields or Trey Lance.
Sure, why not? Bet the franchise and your careers on a guy who goes against the grain of the league because he “fits the system.”
You know what system Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, etc. fit into? Just about any (because there are some downright terrible head coaches out there) system. Because they can singlehandedly win games.
There’s a reason you’re scratching your head over the Mac Jones talk. It doesn’t make sense; not at No. 3.
It will be 10 years from now and the 49ers will have won three Super Bowls under Jones, and I’ll still be sitting here, yelling into the ether, “I don’t buy it.” Because I don’t. You cannot convince me that Mac Jones is worth the No. 3 overall pick and that he is how the 49ers will spend it.
And that’s ignoring the two firsts and a third San Francisco gave up to get there; if the Dolphins, or any team holding that third overall pick took Jones, I would be equally stunned.
This is not to say that Jones is some horrible, incompetent quarterback. I actually like what he brings to the table, but I viewed him as a late first-round pick, and only because there is a premium on quarterbacks. Less than a month ago we were talking about him as a second rounder.
I know NFL teams view that differently, and I believe the 49ers traded up to the third spot knowing that if they came out of their evaluations unimpressed with both Fields and Lance, Jones was a safe option they would be alright with.
But, there are credible reporters saying not-so-subtly that Jones is likely to be the pick. So, we’ll look at both scenarios; why the talk that Jones is going to go No. 3 is legitimate, and why I’m not buying it (not that I’m not buying the reporting, but why I don’t buy that Jones is the pick).
Why you should believe the Jones talk
When Kyle Shanahan talks about the qualities he values in a quarterback, it always leads with pocket passing ability. What he loves about Kirk Cousins to such a nauseating degree is that Cousins follows directions well; he generally delivers the ball on time, accurately, and with good anticipation and awareness in the pocket.
But Cousins has never been a game-changer. He’s just a guy you know you can usually rely on to get the ball where it needs to go. When you have elite talent and coaching around him, that can work.
And the 49ers have elite talent around whoever their next quarterback is, plus the benefit of a rookie contract to help extensions and potential other free agent additions. So from the perspective that Mac Jones possesses similar qualities to Cousins, and the 49ers are following the recipe to win with Cousins, that makes sense.
The most obvious reason to believe that Jones is the pick is the people who are talking about him. Mike Silver of NFL Network and Matt Maiocco of NBC Sports are two of the most reliable 49ers reporters, and both have been heavily suggesting Mac Jones will be the pick, or is at least strongly in the conversation.
Oh, and Adam Schefter said pretty definitively on Monday that Jones would be the 49ers’ pick.
Snippet of audio from the DiPietro, Canty & Rothenberg show this morning
Adam confidently proclaims Mac will be the pick, then details the 49ers plans pic.twitter.com/zRNUaCLak4
— Anthony Amico (@amicsta) April 6, 2021
So if you’re on the Jones train, there’s plenty of reasons to feel confident that Jones is the pick. The “smoke” is coming from some of the more reliable reporters around, he projects to fit Shanahan’s system from Day 1, and there’s really no reason, at this juncture, for the 49ers to be throwing out smokescreens. Trevor Lawrence is going No. 1. Zach Wilson is going No. 2. They are on the clock, and know it.
Why Mac Jones won’t be the pick
Logic, reason. This is the first time the since C.J. Beathard and the Kirk Cousins debacle (when the 49ers eschewed scouting Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes properly because they believed they were going to sign Cousins) that Kyle Shanahan has been able to choose his quarterback of the future. Beathard was his guy, but he wasn’t the guy, nor was he expected to be. Garoppolo was not and clearly has never been his choice.
My belief is that Shanahan has evolved and that his evaluation process of quarterbacks has changed. We’ve seen the 49ers improve drastically at the top of the draft, especially in identifying wide receivers and seek more the purely aggressive football dudes like Javon Kinlaw than players like Solomon Thomas.
What I go back to with quarterbacks is that the 49ers haven’t often been stunned over the last two years. In most losses, they played poorly, or it was a close game where a possession went against them at the wrong time (like Atlanta and Baltimore in 2019).
But there are two games that stand out, when they were simply outclassed from wire to wire, or in key moments. That was the Super Bowl, when their quarterback collapsed into himself and Patrick Mahomes made that throw and came up clutch in the fourth quarter, and against the Buffalo Bills, when Josh Allen torched them.
There was no point last season when the 49ers were as down on themselves as they were after the Bills game. They fully believed they would stun Buffalo and ride the high of a win over the Rams into a run towards the playoffs. Shanahan admitted after the game that there was a real sense of shock and disappointment as the 49ers were just outplayed and simultaneously realized their playoff hopes were a pipe dream.
A red-hot Josh Allen went 32-for-40 with 375 yards and 4 touchdowns. Shanahan credited him after the game.
“When we did blitz, he got away from it and made some big plays with some receivers running across the field,” Shanahan said after the game. When we didn’t, he just dinked and dunked it and got after us, too.
He continued two days after the game, pointing out what made Allen and the Bills’ offense so difficult to stop.
“He’s been doing it all year. He’s big, can run, has a big arm, plays the position well, got a good scheme and he’s got some good people around him,” Shanahan said two days later. “When you make a few mistakes, especially versus a team like that and the way they were on offense and how hot they were and their quarterback, that’s the stuff that happens.”
Shanahan’s priority has always been to throw from the pocket and deliver the ball on time. But he’s also recognized that the league is evolving.
Before the 49ers’ Week 8 game against the Seattle Seahawks, Shanahan was asked about his preference for quarterbacks. He said what he reaffirmed this offseason which is that his ideal quarterback, though he may love him, is not Kirk Cousins. He wants a player who stands in the pocket like Cousins with elite athletic upside.
“It gives you a huge advantage when the quarterback’s a threat to run,” Shanahan said. “Teams are gonna make you sit in that pocket and make you make some big throws to win a game. So you have to have that ability. But anyone who has both always has the chance to exceed everybody…
I think there are a lot more coming up guys who have seen guys run around and make plays and have stayed at the quarterback position their entire career starting at Pop Warner to high school to college, I think more offenses have incorporated a bunch of things that allow guys to develop this pocket passers, even though they’re unbelievable athletes and can make plays…
I think there’s more and more guys coming out who have been doing both forever. And when you have that, then you got a chance to do both and that’s why you can see that the league is finding more and more of those guys.”
I explained here why I believe the pick should be Justin Fields, who has done nothing to dissuade the notion that he should be a top-two pick, just as has been the projection for the last two years from most analysts. Fields is a pocket passer. When I watched him last year in person at the Big House in Ann Arbor, what stood out to me immediately was how patient he was in the pocket, how selective he was in choosing when to run.
Here’s what it comes down to with Fields, as addressed in our first mock:
“Fields is, and has been since high school, an elite talent. His legitimate concerns are anticipation and hesitation. He can identify when his receivers are going to come open, but he must improve at throwing those players open the moment he identifies it. That half-second of hesitation can be the difference in the NFL. But when you see everything else that’s stellar about Fields and think about Kyle Shanahan coaching him up and fixing those issues, well, that’s just too enticing to pass up.”
And those concerns are why Trey Lance also makes sense. Lance has displayed better anticipation running a closer scheme to the 49ers than what Ohio State ran, and tends to deliver the ball quicker. The nebulous part of the Lance equation is that you have such limited tape on him against limited competition with such limited snaps that it’s hard to know how long he’ll take to develop,.
Fields has done it on the biggest stage time and time and time again against the most difficult defenses in college football for the last two seasons. Like, the guy threw six touchdowns against Clemson with an iffy rib in the national semifinal and then was stellar in the national championship (with no help from his defense). What are we doing here?
If Justin Fields actually does fall…some team could get the steal of the draft. pic.twitter.com/BaLntvTwO5
— Mina Kimes (@minakimes) March 30, 2021
Jones, meanwhile, will be just fine. Hey, maybe he’ll be better than fine. But you don’t bet your career on just fine. And if you do, well, you deserve whatever consequences come with it.