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49ers' Draft Gamble Will Likely Make or Break the Current Team and Regime

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistApril 27, 2021

FILE- In this Jan. 24, 2020, file photo, San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch, right, and head coach Kyle Shanahan, left, watch as players practice at the team's NFL football training facility in Santa Clara, Calif. The San Francisco 49ers have agreed on a one-year contract with free agent tight end Jordan Reed,  Lynch announced Monday, Aug. 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar, File)
Tony Avelar/Associated Press

The 2021 NFL Draft is three days out now, and the San Francisco 49ers are a national focal point as reports continue to emerge regarding their plans for the No. 3 overall pick. 

That's where the drama starts in this draft, mainly because the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets appear to be set to select Trevor Lawrence from Clemson and Zach Wilson from BYU, respectively, in the top two spots. But also because, for all intents and purposes, whoever the 49ers select will cost them three first-round picks as well as a third-round selection. 

That's what general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan paid the Miami Dolphins for the right to be on the clock after the Jaguars and Jets.

Winslow Townson/Associated Press

There's no question they traded up for a quarterback—nobody would sacrifice that much for any other position and they haven't attempted to suggest this wasn't a move for a signal-caller—but now the question is which quarterback they'll ultimately choose. 

     

What we know

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Barring a dramatic turn of events, either Justin Fields from Ohio State, Mac Jones from Alabama or Trey Lance from North Dakota State will be on San Francisco's roster by the end of the day Thursday. 

     

What we're pretty sure we know

It's down to Jones and Lance. 

That's according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, who reported Sunday night that "several sources say the focus does appear to have shifted" away from Fields and on to those two quarterback prospects, despite the fact they're polar opposites in many ways. 

Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

ESPN's Todd McShay reported Monday that "many in the 49ers' personnel department" are pushing for Lance, while Peter King of NBC Sports—who also believes it's a "two-horse race"—wrote that "Shanahan believes Jones is the accurate coach-on-the-field type he craves."

At one point, Fields was the betting favorite to land in San Francisco. Now? At DraftKings, Jones is the overwhelming fave at -305, Lance is the clear No. 2 at +225 and Fields' odds of being selected third have plummeted to +700.

     

What remains confusing

Shanahan told the media Monday that while they traded up with "one candidate in mind," there were five quarterbacks he was "OK with taking." 

"I feel good about five guys at three," he said, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, while adding that "all have gotten better since" the trade-up. 

What in the god of football's name is that supposed to mean? Shanahan is likely being deliberately and arguably unnecessarily vague. If I had to guess, I'd imagine he did indeed make the move with a clear favorite in mind, but now the question is whether the organization has become legitimately confused by pre-draft developments, or if they're just trolling us. 

There's a scenario in which they foolishly traded up in hopes of landing Wilson and then realized he wasn't likely to fall to them and recalibrated. That would seem unlikely, but Sam Darnold was still on the Jets roster when the 49ers made that deal with the Dolphins. 

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

There's another scenario in which they've loved either Fields, Jones or Lance from the get-go and just refuse to come out and say it just in case the Jaguars or Jets do something wildly unexpected. 

And then there's a scenario in which they traded up simply to ensure they'd get one of the top quarterbacks but have yet to come to a consensus on how they rank those top five guys. 

That last scenario seems like the most plausible of the three. It should also be terrifying if you're a 49ers fan.

     

The ultimate gamble

Regardless of which quarterback they take, the 49ers are putting all of their eggs in this basket.

Two extra first-round picks and a third-rounder just to move up nine spots? Knowing it's possible either Lance or Jones could have fallen to them in the No. 12 spot, or at least within that range?

Knowing that more first-round picks become busts than success stories?

Knowing (presumably) that eight of the past 10 quarterbacks drafted in the top 10 following trade-ups have failed to deliver? (Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Mitchell Trubisky, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Robert Griffin III, Blaine Gabbert and Mark Sanchez versus Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen.)

Knowing (if they did their research) that in modern NFL history, a team has never traded into the top five and landed a quarterback who became its primary starter for more than six years?

Knowing that Jones is not the type of athlete NFL teams typically value when scouting quarterbacks in this era? 

Knowing that Lance is one of the most mysterious first-round-caliber quarterback prospects of this era because he threw just 319 passes at the Football Championship Subdivision level and 113 in high school, barely played football in 2020 and didn't benefit from a Scouting Combine or private workouts this spring?

Knowing that Jimmy Garoppolo remains on the roster, and that they nearly won the Super Bowl with Garoppolo under center just 15 months ago? 

Scott Eklund/Associated Press

It's really hard to believe they'd make this large a gamble for anyone except maybe Lawrence. We're not talking about a move for the clear-cut No. 1 quarterback in this class. This isn't landing them Lawrence or Joe Burrow or Kyler Murray, or Andrew Luck or Michael Vick or Peyton Manning

This is a lottery ticket. It's a move for a quarterback (regardless of which one it is) who history indicates is more likely to be a Darnold, a Trubisky or a Marcus Mariota than a Matt Ryan or a Philip Rivers. 

Those last two are the only quarterbacks drafted second, third, fourth or fifth overall this century who have become quality long-term starters for the teams that drafted them. The other 10 top-five-but-not-first-overall picks at quarterback? Blake Bortles, Darnold, Griffin, Joey Harrington, Mariota, Sanchez, Tua Tagovailoa, Trubisky, Vince Young and Wentz.

But here the 49ers are, set to roll the dice with a move that very well could work but is statistically likely to backfire. 

If it does pan out, Lynch and Shanahan will look like geniuses and the 49ers will likely contend for years to come with a franchise quarterback, a strong offensive line, a top-notch offensive system and a defense that features superstars Nick Bosa and Fred Warner and standouts Arik Armstead, Jimmie Ward and Javon Kinlaw. 

Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

But if it doesn't? If they take Jones and he hits a wall and can't become more than a game manager at the NFL level? If they take Lance and he fails to blossom beyond the raw prospect he is today? There's almost no way this regime will survive without those three consecutive first-round picks along with that 2021 third-rounder. 

If that happens, the margin for error will become far too tiny for San Francisco to compete in the stacked NFC West. Not only will those picks have gone down the drain, but the time and resources dedicated to making that quarterback work would take another toll entirely. 

Plus, think of how many prime years would be wasted for guys like Bosa, Warner, Armstead, George Kittle, Trent Williams, Mike McGlinchey, Kyle Juszczyk and Deebo Samuel.

The 49ers' window is open right now, but they're a veteran team and the roster will only become more expensive. If this pick goes bust, the only alternative will be to jeopardize the roster by paying to keep Garoppolo or pursuing a veteran quarterback elsewhere.

It's a hole from which there's no escape. 

That doesn't make this a bad move until it officially fails, and there's something admirable about going all in. But if indeed the 49ers lose this hand, they're such a talented team that we'll likely spend another decade wondering what could have been had they simply checked or folded.

     

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Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.

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