Desperate for NFL content, football fans were given a treat last Thursday when the Miami Dolphins traded the #3 overall pick to the San Francisco 49ers for three first round picks, including pick #12 in next month’s draft.
In a quarterback-rich draft class, it doesn’t take a genius to know the 49ers didn’t move up nine spots (and trade two additional first round picks) to draft an offensive lineman or cornerback. They did it because they have plans of eventually moving on from Jimmy Garoppolo, and they must have figured it would be easier and more efficient to do it through this year’s draft than via trade or free agency.
The number three pick in the 2021 NFL Draft has quickly turned into the most interesting, not only because the 49ers are widely considered one of the best organizations in the league, but because the first pick is a lock to be Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence, and the second pick is almost certainly going to be BYU QB Zach Wilson. That leaves the 49ers with the decision of whether to go with Alabama QB Mac Jones, Ohio State QB Justin Fields, or who I think they will ultimately draft — North Dakota State QB Trey Lance.
I’ll get into that a bit later, but for now I’ll argue why it won’t be either Mac Jones or Justin Fields. For starters, moving up from pick #12 overall to #3 implies that the 49ers already know what’s going to happen with selections 1 and 2. They know because presumably every other organization in the NFL knows, and by now I think average fans like you and I know. If the Jets weren’t interested in drafting Zach Wilson second overall, they would have been more than happy moving down 10 spots and taking on two extra first round picks. That’s a helluva package.
It just doesn’t strike me as a type of seismic move the 49ers would be willing to make for a prospect such as Mac Jones — who has played with elite talent every snap of his college career at Alabama, thus calling into question if he can duplicate that success when his receivers aren’t open all the time — and while Justin Fields is mobile and has a good arm, he has played his collegiate career running a spread offense. The 49ers, meanwhile, are primarily a running team who don’t seem to care about their quarterback unless he’s throwing out of play action.
To be sure, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan could probably make a successful NFL quarterback out of either of those guys. He was the offensive coordinator for the best year of Robert Griffin III, and he was the offensive coordinator for Matt Ryan’s near-Super Bowl win. Shanahan is as good, and is as stable of an offensive play caller that exists in the NFL.
So then why, you ask, would he want to move up 9 spots to get just another guy? If he could make a good QB out of Jimmy G, or RG3, why not just be satisfied with who he already has? Or if he did move up in the draft, why not move up to 6 or 7 — where he could still procure a guy like Jones or Fields — rather than moving alllllll the way up to #3 overall?
That’s why North Dakota State QB Trey Lance has to be the guy. He has to be the guy for multiple reasons, but we’ll start with the most obvious: Lance is mobile. Kyle Shanahan comes from the offensive school that his dad — Mike — made famous. It revolves around an outside zone blocking scheme, such that pretty much any run of the mill running back can average 4 or 5 yards per carry, and the quarterback goes to work on play action bootlegs. Trey Lance would be the ideal play action QB for when plays break down and he can scramble to pick up yardage.
Secondly, Lance doesn’t need to play right away. The 49ers roster is in such a good position that even with Jimmy G starting they are probably good enough to win 10 or 11 games. San Francisco can do what the Chiefs did with Patrick Mahomes: just let him sit a year behind a veteran, let him figure out what the NFL is all about, and then in year two you cut bait with the veteran and give the keys to the franchise to the young buck.
Thirdly, Trey Lance offers upside that neither Mac Jones or Justin Fields have. It’s a bit of a gamble given that the other two played at prestigious football programs, but Lance is the better athlete and he is the one most comfortable playing in a run-first system. I mean, in two years as the starter at NDSU Trey only attempted 318 passes, completing 208 for a ridiculous 30:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He didn’t throw it much because he didn’t have to throw it much. But when he did, it was effective.
That is essentially what the 49ers want to do with their offense. They want to beat up the opposition by running the football, and yeah occasionally they’ll let the QB get to work and pick up 8 or 10 yards to open receivers whenever they feel like it. You don’t need a Patrick Mahomes or Tom Brady to do all the work when your offense is centered around zone runs and play action passing. You just need a dude who can deliver the ball to the open guy, and when that doesn’t work you just run around and chop up the defense with your legs.
What I will say is I have a lot of respect for the 49ers. As a Chiefs fan, seeing how they lost the Super Bowl to my guys was reminiscent of all the pain I experienced for so long in football. During Patrick Mahomes’s tenure at QB for my favorite team, I still argue that the 2019 49ers were the best team he has ever played against.
The next thing I’ll say is I’m a sucker for quarterbacks who come from non-power schools. I was a big Joe Flacco guy when he got drafted out of Delaware, and I was a big Carson Wentz guy when he came out of North Dakota State. Trey Lance may not get picked by the 49ers at #3 overall, and he may not even be a QB in the NFL five years from now, but I’ve seen what both Mac Jones and Justin Fields can do playing alongside the best WR and RB and OL talent in the business of college football, and I am willing to stake my claim with the dude who didn’t have all that.
So Trey Lance is my guy. I could be wrong about everything I said in this piece, but I am willing to bet that my gut instinct on this pick is correct. I am willing to make my best educated guess and say that the 49ers didn’t move up as far as they did to take a quarterback that everyone has already seen, and everyone already knows everything about. I’m betting that they take the low-key stud from a school no one has ever heard of, and I’m betting that Kyle Shanahan probably ends up winning a Super Bowl with him someday.
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