SANTA CLARA, Calif. — These days, no matter where San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan goes, he’s sure to be inundated with opinions about which quarterback he should select with the No. 3 pick in this week’s NFL draft.
Whether it’s a restaurant or his kids’ soccer games, everyone from parents to referees weighs in on the draft’s biggest question. His closest friends have taken to texting Shanahan’s wife, Mandy, because their opinions have gone without a response from Shanahan himself.
“You do have to block that stuff out,” Shanahan said. “You can’t make decisions based off of that. … You might add a little pressure to that person, add a little pressure to the organization but whether it comes now or it comes later, there’s pressure for everyone in this sport and it doesn’t matter. I’m happy we’re going to get one that we like and that we’ve done it right.”
While the 49ers have put in the work to make an educated choice from a quarterback group that will likely include Alabama’s Mac Jones, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance and Ohio State’s Justin Fields, the result of their process will be hotly debated for years to come.
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For Shanahan and general manager John Lynch, the pick they submit Thursday night will serve as a tipping point for their tenures with the 49ers. Shanahan grimaces at the notion it’s the most important pick in franchise history, but it’s at least the biggest decision he and Lynch have made since they arrived in 2017. It’s not just because it’s for a quarterback, it’s the exorbitant price they paid — three first-round picks and a third-round pick.
With a ready-made roster, the Niners believe that if they hit on a quarterback, they could be set up for success for years to come.
“It’s a unique situation,” Lynch said. “We have the third pick and typically No. 3 picks at quarterback, they’re going to teams that aren’t that good. I think our roster’s pretty good. We need to stay healthy. There’s a lot of things that have to happen. But I think our roster’s pretty healthy in terms of talent. So I think it can be a really exciting environment for who we decide on to come in and play when they’re ready to play.”
The strong depth chart, talented coaching staff and innovative scheme don’t completely remove the potential for a bust, but they do significantly lower the possibility, especially if Jones, Lance or Fields doesn’t have to start right away.
That also puts the onus on Shanahan and Lynch to think beyond the safe pick and aim for a game-changer.
Shanahan has undoubtedly caught on to the mounting public opinion favoring Lance or Fields over Jones. But it’s not just fans who feel that way — many analysts don’t rank Jones ahead of Fields or Lance.
But it’s easy to understand why Shanahan might like Jones, who fits Shanahan’s preference for a passer who can win from the pocket. Jones has had success throwing outside the numbers (a 98.0 QBR on such throws is the highest of any qualified Power 5 passer over the past 10 seasons) and throwing deep (he had a perfect 100.0 QBR on throws traveling 20-plus yards in 2020), both areas the 49ers have not used much under Shanahan (26th in QBR outside the numbers and the fewest pass attempts of 20-plus yards).
Still, Lance and Fields undoubtedly possess more exciting physical traits as well as intangible qualities. Both might need time to become the pocket passers Shanahan wants, but the Niners claim to be a place offering just that kind of training.
The question isn’t so much which quarterback Shanahan likes, it’s whether his view on what he wants in a quarterback has evolved beyond the pocket passers he’s worked with previously.
“There’s lots of different ways you can do it,” Shanahan said. “I don’t look at it as trends of the league. I look at it as there’s some special players, there’s some special people. I don’t care when Drew Brees comes out, whether it’s 30 years from now, 30 years ago or today. Drew’s going to be pretty good. So is Philip Rivers, so are all these guys. So is Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, they would have been good 40 years ago also. … You got to take guys you believe are good enough to do it, whatever way that is.”
Although Shanahan and Lynch spoke at length about the process of soliciting opinions from within the building and coming to a consensus, there was no gray area left on who will make the call: Shanahan.
Shanahan and the Niners passed on all of the top quarterbacks in the 2017 NFL draft — including big-armed, mobile options such as Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes — with an eye toward landing Kirk Cousins after the season. That changed when they traded for Jimmy Garoppolo, who rattled off five consecutive wins to close 2017. San Francisco promptly paid Garoppolo what was, at the time, the biggest contract in the league.
That one goes on Shanahan’s ledger even though Garoppolo wasn’t necessarily his hand-picked option because he had to sign off on the contract. Beyond that, Shanahan’s track record with quarterbacks since his arrival has been dotted with names like C.J. Beathard, Nick Mullens and Brian Hoyer.
This is different. This is Shanahan’s first big swing at hand-selecting his franchise quarterback from a lofty draft perch. The price was high. The scrutiny will be, too.
None of it will matter if whoever it is wins big. It will if he doesn’t.
“I hope the fans are happy with it,” Shanahan said. “But the key is ultimately they’re going to be happy based off how we do in the future, not how they feel that night.
“And it’s up to us to live with the consequences.”