2021 NFL Draft: 49ers' QB choice defined by one clear question

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Josh Schrock
·5 min read
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49ers' QB decision comes down to one simple question originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

In one week's time (and some change), we'll have our answer to the question that has hung over the NFL world for the last month: What does Kyle Shanahan look for in a quarterback?

Ever since the 49ers made their blockbuster move up to the No. 3 spot in the 2021 NFL Draft, analysts and experts have gone about dissecting everything the 49ers coach has ever said about the quarterback position and the signal-callers he has worked with in order to try to get a window into his thought process.

By now, you all know the candidates. There's Mac Jones, the not-so-athletically gifted pocket-passer with the accuracy, anticipation and football IQ to be a good trigger man for the 49ers' offense. There's the top-level arm talent, pristine accuracy and rare athletic gifts of Justin Fields, and the raw and untapped potential of Trey Lance.

With seven days to go until the draft, Shanahan's decision has become more simple despite the amount of pre-draft smoke clouding the discussion. For Shanahan, his choice boils down to two paths and his comfort in traveling each of them.

In one corner, there's Jones, fresh off a season in which he completed 77.4 percent of his passes while tossing 41 touchdowns and only four interceptions while leading the Crimson Tide to a national championship. He throws with timing and anticipation and has, by all accounts, blown away teams in pre-draft meetings with his recall and football IQ.

Many see Jones as the most "NFL ready" quarterback of the three, but with Jones, what you see now, might be all you get.

"If you said, 'Take one of these guys to start in a game tomorrow in the NFL,' he's the most ready," an NFC quarterbacks coach told NFL Media's Tom Pelissero. "But he's right up against the ceiling to me, where these other guys, if they can progress -- you're talking about Justin Fields and Zach Wilson -- those are going to be dangerous dudes now."

Jones won't break out into the open field and outrun defenders. Nor will he make ridiculous off-platform throws from outside the pocket. But what he does have, and what NFL scouts and personnel see, is a guy with a very particular set of skills.

"The one thing about him that's different than the other [top QBs] is he can come up to the line of scrimmage and he can tell you where he's going with it pre-snap," an NFC scout told Pelissero. "He's smart enough to know where his outs are and what you're going to do with him based on where the safeties are at and what you're doing on defense.

"I felt like he was really, really sharp, and Sark says unbelievable things about him."

There is little gray area when it comes to Jones, his skill set, what he can bring to an offense and how a team will win with him. What you see is what you get. His best possible outcome is MVP-level Matt Ryan, a peak he might be able to reach if given the proper protection, playmakers and play calling.

If Shanahan is comfortable with the fit and a prospect who has a small range of potential outcomes, then Jones should be the pick.

But if Shanahan hears a different calling, one that whispers tales of an offensive guru paired with a superstar talent, then he'll have to look beyond Jones, beyond the evidence in front of his eyes, and trust what is not yet concrete.

Both Fields and Lance are much more athletically gifted than Jones. Their arm talent is greater. Their ceilings are higher. But the bet is on them, especially Lance, becoming who Shanahan sees in his mind, and not who he is now.

"If you're completely objective -- maybe it's in there, but it's not consistent enough. His accuracy's kind of all over the place. There's no question he's talented. But almost every game, they're the better team, and it's not even close. Their offense is a lot of one-read, find-the-checkdown -- there's not a lot of NFL-style progression offense.

"You're betting on the come with him completely," and AFC quarterbacks coach told Pelissero.

Of the three quarterbacks expected to be available to the 49ers, I'd argue Fields is the most talented, and most likely to become a star. He has been knocked down by the typical racist tropes that have followed Black quarterbacks for decades. Questions about his processing speed are mostly nonsense.

Can he get quicker through his progressions? Sure. But his ability to place the ball anywhere on the field with zip and precision should put him ahead of Jones and Lance. However, Fields still will require some molding, and there are many who view him as the boom-bust QB of the class. I'd argue he'll be the surest thing, but he doesn't come without risk.

But the payoff, if Fields becomes the peak version of himself, would be unlike any other prospect in this draft.

"Justin Fields is uber-talented," an NFC coordinator told Pelissero. "To me, he is probably a more pure quarterback than Kyler Murray, throws it better and he's bigger. I'd love to get my hands on that guy."

RELATED: Schrock's seven-round mock draft

The options have been laid out for Shanahan and general manager John Lynch. They know the players, their strengths, weaknesses and understand what will happen if they falter.

The 49ers' power brokers have bet their tenure in Santa Clara on their faith in the evaluation process that pushed them to move up. The belief that they indeed identified a future star, one they couldn't live without.

For Shanahan, the decision boils down to how he answers one choice: Who Mac Jones is vs. what Justin Fields or Trey Lance can become.

Two paths stretch before Shanahan. Which one he walks will determine the course of his and the 49ers' future.

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