SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Of the many decisions general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan have made since they took over the San Francisco 49ers none are bigger than the one that awaits April 29.
After trading up in the draft, the Niners will use the No. 3 overall pick to choose their next franchise quarterback. The question now is which one?
“San Francisco had to make the decision to move up from 12 to 3 with the mindset that Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson were gone,” Todd McShay, ESPN senior NFL draft analyst, said. “Maybe something changes but if you’re John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan you have to make the decision to move up with that assumption. We’re really talking about North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, Alabama’s Mac Jones and Ohio State’s Justin Fields.”
With that in mind, we surveyed six evaluators to get a breakdown on what will go into San Francisco’s decision.
Ranking the QBs
Matt Bowen, ESPN NFL analyst/former NFL defensive back:
1. Fields, 2. Lance, 3. Jones
“If I’m drafting in the top five, I want a prospect with high-end traits and high-end physical tools,” Bowen said. “[Fields’] best fit is an intermediate based pass game that attacks the middle of the field and utilizes his movement ability off play action and quarterback designed runs with schemed vertical throws. Now, who does that sound like? He’d be a very good fit there.”
June Jones, former NFL coach/CoachTube.com instructor:
1. Jones 2. Fields 3. Lance
“The young kid at Alabama might be the best one in the whole draft,” said June Jones of Mac Jones. “Everybody is going to say ‘Well, he’s only played one year.’ Well, guess what? Go look at him play that one year and what you’re seeing is what you’re going to get.”
Mel Kiper Jr., ESPN senior NFL draft analyst:
1. Fields 2. Jones 3. Lance
“Traits, I think Fields is the most gifted,” Kiper said. “On traits, you could make the argument he is as good a quarterback as there is in this draft.”
Greg McElroy, ESPN college football analyst/former NFL quarterback:
1. Jones 2. Lance 3. Fields
“I’d have the three all kind of relatively close,” McElroy said. “The distance between Zach [Wilson] and Mac is further than the distance between Mac and Justin Fields.”
1. Lance 2. Fields 3. Jones
“When you study Lance’s tape, a lot of it is pro-style stuff and he processes things quickly,” McShay said. “He’s just the kind of guy you want at the quarterback position in terms of showing up every day and giving everything that he has.”
J.T. O’Sullivan, former NFL quarterback/creator of Youtube’s “QB School” channel:
1. Fields 2. Lance 3. Jones
“They would all be good fits,” O’Sullivan said. “I would guesstimate that it would be Fields. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Trey Lance. If it’s Mac Jones, they just have a different understanding of what that organization needs than I do as an outsider.”
Breaking down each QB
Damien Woody praises Justin Fields’ ability on the gridiron and suggests he would be a great fit for the 49ers.
Justin Fields, Ohio State
6-foot-3 | 227 pounds | 22 college starts
Key stat: Over the past two seasons, 52% of Fields’ passes resulted in a first down, the highest in the FBS among quarterbacks to play at least 10 games. His total QBR on third down was 90.0, best among the top five quarterback prospects in the draft.
Bowen: “He’s an accurate, decisive thrower who has the ability to threaten deep with ball placement. That’s one thing that stands out watching him on tape is deep ball accuracy. He has upper tier athletic traits, both inside and outside the pocket. He’s super competitive and tough. He battles.”
McElroy: “He has a tendency sometimes to lock on to a wide receiver and doesn’t have the same type of anticipation that I’d like to see from him. Now, he’s got a big enough arm to overcompensate for it in college but I’m not convinced he’ll be able to overcompensate for it, at least early in his career in the NFL.”
O’Sullivan: “He’s the prototypical what the league has evolved into with a great athlete playing the most important position. He can create, can extend, can run, can make all the throws inside and outside the pocket, outside the numbers, down the field. … Some of the turnovers they looked like they were him maybe trying to do too much. Those types of things that will get you in trouble on Sundays. Things that are certainly fixable. But the playmaking ability, the dynamic athlete, what he’s able to do at his size is just special.”
McShay: “He tends to lock on to that primary target. And part of it is he just likes to see the receiver come open, so I think he’s going to have to adapt to an NFL system processing from progression one to two to three quicker and also anticipating throws where he doesn’t have to see the receiver come open. It’s going to be an adjustment but of those three he’s the most physically gifted.”
Todd McShay breaks down the potential fit of quarterback Mac Jones with the 49ers.
Mac Jones, Alabama
6-3 | 214 pounds | 17 college starts
Key stat: Jones’ total QBR of 96.1 in 2020 was the highest of any quarterback in the 17 seasons the metric has been tracked, surpassing the mark previously held by Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray (95.4) in 2018.
Jones: “His deep ball accuracy might be the best that I’ve graded in 30 years. I don’t think anybody has completed the percentages down the field over 25 yards that this kid has. … The type of passes Mac throws to those receivers, they can be running drag routes, crossing routes, deep balls, the ball is always about 18 inches out front of the receiver and they don’t have to work to catch the ball. That’s where the accuracy is different.”
• Mock drafts: Kiper | McShay | GM
• Rankings: Kiper | McShay
• QBs: Key stats | Best traits | Questions
• Kiper/McShay draft dueling superteams
• Pro day notes | Top playmakers
• Full ranking | Pick order | More
Bowen: “Here’s the thing we miss and I do it too: we focus so much on second reaction ability and movement traits, which I think are so important, I really do, I think you have to have that in today’s NFL but if you can’t make the routine throws consistently, it does not matter. If you can’t read the field and make the consistent throws in the pocket, all that other stuff, it’s just hard to win football games when you can’t throw and win from the pocket. Mac Jones can do that. Mac Jones can throw from the pocket, he can throw with anticipation, location, I think he processes well. He doesn’t have a huge arm but he can anticipate those windows and throw with location and be a timing and rhythm thrower which you’re gonna have to be in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Off of play action, that back foot hits the ground, the ball has got to come out. You have to be able to anticipate where you’re throwing that football to find that window that Kyle is creating for you within the scheme of the route.”
McShay: “Just sitting down talking to him a couple times and talking to [then Alabama offensive coordinator] Steve Sarkisian three different times this year preparing for games, Sark told me that he installed more for Mac Jones than he ever has for a college quarterback. Given Sark’s background, that says a lot. … I think Kyle would love to have that mind at quarterback. Kind of an extension of the coaching staff and all the things that he can install. They’re built to win pretty soon and there won’t be that learning curve or adjustment as much with him. Now, the physical limitations are there so you’re not getting the athleticism. You’ve got to be able to scheme him into success.”
O’Sullivan: “I think when I generalize here, teams are trying to project your performance on Sundays and I don’t know how you can look at a prospect like Justin Fields and think ‘Well, his ceiling is the same as Mac Jones’ ceiling.’ We might disagree but my opinion is that I think Justin Fields has the ability to be a little bit more consistent in the playmaking and be able to do things that Mac Jones just can’t do.”
Louis Riddick breaks down what he liked from Trey Lance’s pro day ahead of the NFL draft.
Trey Lance, North Dakota State
6-4 | 226 pounds | 17 college starts
Key stat: In 2019, Lance threw 287 passes without an interception. Since 2000, he’s the only Division I QB to attempt more than 200 passes in a season without an interception.
McShay: “Lance is probably the biggest projection of the three because it’s coming from the FCS level and only 17 starts and only one game this past year. But all three have areas they can improve upon. With Lance, it’s his accuracy. That’s not always easy to correct. But we’ve seen with a guy like Josh Allen, when you have the mobility to extend plays and create with your feet, that adds a whole other element to the offense. … We’ve seen some improvement, certainly with Josh Allen, but he’s got to improve the consistency of his footwork in order to be more consistent with his ball placement.”
Kiper: “If you’re looking for the dual-threat, I would take Fields over Lance. I don’t understand the fascination with Lance. I get the fact that he put up big numbers but he did it against bad competition. I think he’s deserving of being in the top 10 but if you’re talking about ahead of a guy who played at Ohio State and played against elite competition, played in a semifinal game against Lawrence and outplayed him, this guy played against Central Arkansas and didn’t play well throwing the ball. I get Lance in the top 10 but I don’t get him ahead of Fields.”
McElroy: “I think Trey Lance has some Josh Allen in him and that’s part of the reason I’m intrigued by him as a prospect. I like Trey Lance, I just think he’s really raw. But you can make the case that he could have as high of a ceiling as anybody in this draft if things work out. That’s kind of how I felt about Josh Allen but I didn’t think Josh Allen was as athletic as he is. … I think he was such a man amongst boys at the level that he was playing at and granted he was doing it on a bit of an all-star team but you could make the same argument for Jones and Fields. … His upside is really intriguing. He can move and has a lot of fluidity to his game. He obviously has raw horsepower that few guys have. … Some of the progression stuff, I didn’t see as much of the progression issue with him as I saw with Fields.”
Jones: “I like him as an athlete. Until he gets in a pass system, he can make some plays now, he can run, he can throw, his completion percentage was not very high because of the type of offense he was in but I think he’s one of those guys that you used to take in the third to fifth round and he could develop and he may develop.”