Justin Fields Is the Only Correct Choice for San Francisco 49ers at No. 3

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystMarch 30, 2021

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields throws during the first half of the Big Ten championship NCAA college football game against Northwestern, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
AJ Mast/Associated Press

Don't overthink this, San Francisco 49ers. Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields is the obvious choice after you traded up for the third overall pick in April's NFL draft. 

As soon as the 49ers completed the deal with the Miami Dolphins, speculation ran amok about the possibility of head coach Kyle Shanahan preferring Alabama's Mac Jones over Fields, despite the Ohio State quarterback being considered an elite prospect throughout the predraft process. 

The difference between Jones and Fields couldn't have been more apparent during the nationally televised back-to-back throwing sessions at their respective schools Tuesday. 

Shanahan and 49ers general manager John Lynch attended the Crimson Tide pro day and missed a fantastic showing by Fields. 

"That was the best QB workout I've seen in a while," a scout told The Draft Scout's Matt Miller

Obviously, a pro-day performance shouldn't make or break any evaluation. Both Fields and Jones are legitimate first-round talents. However, the staggering difference in their physical tools became apparent from the moment Fields toed the line at the 40-yard dash to the time he threw a ridiculous, off-balance fadeaway bomb

Everyone saw the two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year rip off a 4.44-second runwhich would have ranked fourth among recorded quarterbacks at the combine since 2000—and put on a show while throwing the ball with accuracy and easy velocity. Meanwhile, Jones missed multiple throws and tried too hard to show he could drive the ball down the field with consistency. 

Paul Vernon/Associated Press

Typically, Shanahan has leaned on signal-callers who operate within the structure of his offensive scheme, from Matt Schaub to Jimmy Garoppolo. From a traditional standpoint, Jones makes sense as a passer who throws with timing, anticipation and touch. He will execute the offense and produce, much like he did leading Alabama's loaded unit. 

But the game continues to change, and Shanahan may see the writing on the wall. And an outlier exists in the coach's history. 

Robert Griffin III took the league by storm as the 2012 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Shanahan catered his offense to the 2012 second overall draft pick and saw immediate success. But Washington was a poorly run organization in which the ownership gave its newfound star too much latitude, and he didn't necessarily eye-to-eye with the coaching staff, particularly then-head coach Mike Shanahan.  

Kyle Shanahan, who was Washington's offensive coordinator from 2010 to '13, discussed Griffin with CSN Mid-Atlantic in 2017 (h/t Sportsnaut):

"We felt like we did as good as we could to give him a chance to be successful. And the hard thing about that, that I really don't blame Robert for, is that the way we felt gave him a chance to be successful, the organization didn't back. And they allowed Robert to choose what he wanted to do. Do you blame a 23-year-old for that, or do you blame the people that allowed him?"

The eventual falling out seemingly had nothing to do with Griffin's skill set and how it fit into the famed Shanahan outside-zone scheme, and the coach knows how valuable a more athletic quarterback can be in the right circumstances. 

"Is your quarterback good enough at running with the football to make them commit to stop it? And once they do, is he good enough to make the passes that he has to that they just opened up?" Shanahan told reporters in June 2018. "If he is, that's a huge issue. It's tough to find that guy."

Shanahan made similar comments to reporters after Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen torched the 49ers for 375 passing yards in a Week 13 contest: 

“How I evaluate everything is always changing. Things change, people change. You start to see you can win football games with any type of quarterback as long as they are good enough and you can be good enough in hundreds of different ways.

"So, I evaluate quarterbacks in terms of trying to find people who can have a chance to be one of those elite-type guys and there's lots of different ways to do it. You can see now there's plenty of different ways, so I don't think that'll ever change. I don't think you have one certain thing you're looking for. You're just trying to find a guy who is better than about 98 percent of the people on this planet or in this country and when you find that, you get him and you adjust to him."

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Fields fits the mold as a legitimate athletic standout under center. His combination of escapability from the pocket, lower-body strength, toughness and raw speed makes him difficult to handle as a runner. In fact, Pro Football Focus stamped Fields with the highest rushing grade of any non-running back in this year's draft class. He runs through contact and creates in space. These traits accentuate who Fields is as a passer. 

As stated earlier, the ball explodes out of the Fields' hand. He can easily drive the rock to all levels of the field, though there's a slight hitch in his throwing motion. The former 5-star recruit consistently and efficiently operates the system. He delivers the ball with good placement to allow his receivers to create after the catch. 

In San Francisco, Shanahan can put Fields in a system that emphasizes defined throws and forces quick decisions. Last year, Fields didn't lean heavily on predetermined passes at or near the line scrimmage, as PFF's Mike Renner noted.

Some misread the 22-year-old as a one-read quarterback who held the ball too long in Ohio State's vertical passing game, but tape study regularly shows him working through the progression asked of him. Yes, there are times when he can be quicker working from one to two to three with the confidence to let it fly once he finds an open target. 

But the idea of Fields not being fully developed should be viewed as a positive. He's clearly an elite athlete, and he already excels working from the pocket yet brings so much upside for coaches to mold. 

"It's scary because I think he's just learning how to really be good," Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson told Pro Football Network

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

Shanahan should have some inkling of how good Fields can become. After all, the two already worked together as part of the QB Collective

"Just going back to the QB Collective, I remember Coach Shanahan being a great coach, a great quarterback coach in terms of emphasizing keeping that base in the pocket," Fields told reporters after Ohio State's pro day.

Now, sprinkle in the pocket movement and bootleg action that Shanahan heavily employs in the 49ers' base scheme. Imagine someone as gifted as Fields is as both a passer and a runner in those favorable situations, especially with San Francisco's play-action passing attack. His skill set will greatly expand the team's offensive approach. 

Tuesday's effort served as a microcosm of why the 49ers don't have any other choice if the Jacksonville Jaguars draft Clemson's Trevor Lawrence with the first overall pick and the New York Jets select BYU's Zach Wilson at No. 2.

The organization traded up to control its fate. The 49ers want to "find a guy" who's "better than about 98 percent of the people on this planet." Fields is that guy. 


Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.


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