As the opening waves of NFL free agency die down, the focus of teams and fans alike is shifting to the 2021 draft beginning April 29 in Cleveland. And after last week's blockbuster trade that netted the San Francisco 49ers the third overall pick, it appears to be a virtual certainty that the top three picks will all be signal-callers.
It's just how the NFL works. You either have a franchise quarterback or desperately covet one.
Jaws dropped in recent days when there were reports that the Niners weren't necessarily targeting Justin Fields of Ohio State. Or Trey Lance of North Dakota State.
No, San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch were believed to be targeting Alabama's Mac Jones, who threw for 4,500 yards and 41 touchdowns while leading the Crimson Tide to a national championship in 2020. Shanahan and Lynch were both in attendance Tuesday at Alabama's second pro day.
What they saw in Tuscaloosa should give them serious pause about investing in Jones as the future of the franchise. Because while the 6'2½", 217-pounder is a promising prospect who had a fantastic collegiate career, he's not on the same level as BYU's Zach Wilson. Or Fields. Or even Lance.
Before the dust had even settled on San Francisco's trade with the Miami Dolphins last Friday (a trade that included San Francisco's first rounders in 2021, 2022 and 2023), Brian Costello of the New York Post reported that the Jets had all but zeroed in on Wilson at No. 2 overall. That same day, Wilson impressed in BYU's pro day in Provo, Utah.
Assuming that report is accurate, that leaves the 49ers with a classic Let's Make a Deal scenario. Three doors. Three young quarterbacks in Fields, Jones and Lance. And given what San Francisco sacrificed to trade up, the highest of stakes.
Then came a bombshell from NFL's Network's Daniel Jeremiah, who said on The Athletic's Football Show podcast Monday (via David Bonilla of 49ers Webzone) that the Niners were focused on Jones.
"Well, I think, the majority of people around the league believe this is for Mac Jones. ... Of the people that you would want to believe and put your faith in, the overwhelming majority of them believe this is going to be Mac Jones with that pick," Jeremiah said. "So that's what's so shocking."
When Lynch and Shanahan eschewed watching Fields in Columbus for the opportunity to view Jones in Tuscaloosa, it lent credence to Jeremiah's assertion. It looked like the San Francisco brain trust was searching for confirmation that Jones was the guy. One more performance to erase any lingering doubts.
Yeah, um…about that.
In fairness, one shaky outing at a pro day does not a draft evaluation make (or break). It may be that Jones read the same articles that the rest of us did and got a bit overanxious. Or that he's just tired of the predraft hoop-jumping. But by most objective measures, Tuesday's effort was iffy at best. He misfired on multiple throws, including at least one that drew a less than impressed countenance from Shanahan.
Now, before we go any further, an important note. This is in no way intended to be a hit piece on Jones. Or an inference that he can't be a successful starting quarterback in the pros. We're talking about a youngster who completed 77.4 percent of his passes, had just four interceptions and posted a passer rating north of 200 last season.
As I wrote in a piece about Jones a month ago, Chris Simms of NBC Sports has gone so far as to call the 22-year-old a superior prospect to Tua Tagovailoa, who was drafted fifth overall by the Miami Dolphins in 2020.
"Mac Jones is a better prospect than Tua," Simms said on The Dan Patrick Show, via Keith Farner of Saturday Down South. "… This Mac Jones guy, all he does is throw spirals, perfect throws, NFL-type throws. He can change his arm angle and do those type of things."
But my piece talked up Jones as a wild card. As potentially the fifth quarterback off the board.
Taking Jones ahead of Fields and Lance is another story altogether.
Jones' struggles Tuesday were amplified by what was happening 626 miles to the northwest. While Jones was sailing passes over receivers' heads, Fields was in Columbus peeling off a 4.44-second 40-yard dash and throwing lasers all over the field, including one that drew gasps from those in attendance.
It's worth noting that his feet weren't set on that bomb either.
Lance held his pro day all the way back on March 12, although it's worth noting that Matt Barrows of The Athletic reported the 49ers are trying to set up another look. Per Chase Goodbread of NFL.com, Lance's first workout drew comparisons to Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen while impressing Jeremiah.
"He'd like to have a couple throws back, but this was all about horsepower. When you watch this workout today, you saw him power the football," Jeremiah said. "… You saw it from under center, you saw it from play action, you saw it on the move, but to me, it all came down to once he put his back foot in the ground and that ball jumps."
The comparison to Allen is both complimentary and cautionary. The physical tools are as impressive as they are evident. The cannon arm. The mobility. But he competed at the FCS level and barely played in 2020.
The ceiling is sky-high. But there's work to be done. That's why when the 49ers stated this week that they weren't especially interested in trading veteran quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, many presumed that Lance was the team's target.
Fields is more polished after two years as the starter at Ohio State—a run that saw the Buckeyes twice advance to the College Football Playoff. And he has plenty of arm talent of his own after completing 68.4 percent of his passes as a starter for 5,373 yards with 63 touchdowns against nine picks. That 4.44 speed helped him run for 867 yards and 15 more scores as well.
Jones is certainly more refined as a quarterback than Lance. And a compelling argument can be made that the Alabama product has displayed better pocket presence than Fields. But Fields (6'3", 228 lbs) and Lance (6'3⅞", 224 lbs) are both bigger. Faster. Exponentially more athletic. And they have better arm talent.
Simply put, while the floor may be lower for Lance and Fields than Jones, the ceiling is also that much higher.
And that ceiling should be what matters.
It's possible that the Jones talk is predraft smoke, although given San Francisco's draft slot, the reason for it is puzzling.
Or maybe Lynch and Shanahan are willing to sacrifice upside for a more polished quarterback who fits their offense. It's a questionable call. Sacrificing three first-rounders to get a younger, (hopefully) more durable version of Garoppolo doesn't feel like a move that will vault the Niners past the Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Rams in the NFC West.
It's especially questionable when you consider that Jones probably could have been had for a lower cost from a Philadelphia Eagles franchise that flipped the sixth pick to the Dolphins for No. 12 moments after San Francisco traded up.
It's also possible that what Lynch and Shanahan saw Tuesday will spur a change in plans. That they will get that second pro day with Lance. Arrange one with Fields as well.
In any event, after mortgaging their future for the right to choose among this trio on April 29, the 49ers need to look long and hard at which of these signal-callers is truly the best prospect.
Because if they miss on this pick, that trip to Super Bowl LIV will be forgotten soon enough. Blowing this selection will define the Lynch/Shanahan era in the Bay Area.
And while Jones is a talented young quarterback who might offer the best short-term prospects, his long-term potential doesn't come close to that of Fields or Lance.