The 49ers are looking for the quarterback of the future. One of the NFL’s top QB gurus may cause waves with his choice on Thursday.
Kyle Shanahan’s predraft press conference on Monday ranged from tired smokescreen banalities, like he is comfortable with any of five quarterbacks at pick No. 3, to macabre, nihilistic smokescreen banalities when he suggested—correctly, we might add—that he cannot guarantee any single person in the world would be alive on Sunday. If this whole NFL thing doesn’t work out, he has a wonderful future as an actuary.
Left unsaid were two things about the entire process that should both fascinate and excite 49ers fans, and possibly terrify them. By extension, Jets fans should be either thrilled or frightened. We waited until there were only three days left to bring this to your attention.
First, the good: The 49ers’ strategically leaking that they are down to two quarterbacks with markedly different skill sets is brilliant. On one hand, as my colleague Jenny Vrentas noted on the latest episode of the Weak-Side Podcast, this could just be creating a scenario where no one goes into Thursday comfortable. Teams can pre-bake deals, but there will be Mac Jones teams and Justin Fields teams and Trey Lance teams and, inevitably, someone who needs a quarterback is going to be left facing a postdraft press conference in which they have to paste on a fake smile and explain that the top cornerback on their board was really their guy all along. Maybe this is a slender competitive advantage, but it’s a competitive advantage nonetheless. They are actively edging someone out of the process.
But it’s not outside the realm of possibility to imagine that this is also bothering the 49ers’ divisional opponents in particular. If you’re the Seahawks, Cardinals or Rams, even the potential threat of another mobile quarterback in the division running Shanahan’s system has to alter your consideration for defensive players in the mid-to-late rounds, especially with two others (Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson) already in the NFC West. While teams don’t draft players specifically to stop certain opponents, their ability to come in handy against teams with particular skill sets can certainly break ties. A Lance selection, adding a powerful runner and dynamic downfield passer to that offense, would assuredly make defensive coordinators wish they had specific ancillary pieces. A more pragmatic, quick-release thrower with elite accuracy would make them wish they had other ones.
Now, the bad (or at least the part that should worry a sizable portion of the Jets’ or 49ers’ fan base): If the pick, like most experts believe, is Jones, and if Jones was picked specifically because of the things he does that do not involve his legs (accuracy, pocket presence, recall, progressing through reads), then why wasn’t he at all involved in the conversation at No. 2? And to which team does this represent a massive shortcoming?
The Jets and Zach Wilson have been paired together for weeks now and, outside of Trevor Lawrence to the Jaguars, represents the only other truly known variable in this equation. If you’re a Jets fan, for example, are you worried that Shanahan, creator of the offense that is so good your team hired one of his assistants to install it, probably knew who you were picking at No. 2 and then quickly traded up to No. 3 to get a quarterback with a similar “prototypical, drop-back passer” skill set?
And if you’re a 49ers fan who believes that the Jets are making the correct choice in drafting Wilson out of BYU, is there any concern that your team is drafting the third-best “prototypical” (again, not my favorite word choice here but it is the only dated scouting platitude that describes a quarterback who isn’t going to rush for more than 500 yards this season) quarterback instead of pouring that energy into developing a quarterback that your coach, admittedly, has said could add an explosive wrinkle to his scheme and force coordinators to completely change the way they play the 49ers?
Over the last two years, and especially in the last two weeks, Shanahan has left breadcrumbs leading us to believe that they’re taking anyone from Lance to Jones to Alijah Vera-Tucker with the No. 3 pick. Like an episode of Lost, there are enough clues to fit whatever narrative you’ve created in your head.
Around this time next year, though, one of these teams might look foolish. A draft this saturated with good-to-great quarterbacks is going to make and break the careers of at least a handful of general managers. The question is which. If you’re the team picking in front of Shanahan, or the team taking the next quarterback off the board behind him, how do you feel?
And if you’re Shanahan, after playing with everyone else’s minds for the last few weeks with great success, how do you feel about what’s happening inside your own?
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