For one team, the 2021 NFL draft feels like Mitchell Trubisky vs. Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson
In just over one month, the San Francisco 49ers' brain trust went from vacillating on the future of their $137 million quarterback, to trading three first-round draft picks for Jimmy Garoppolo’s eventual replacement, to arriving within 72 hours of making that decision and still not quite knowing what they are going to do.
Maybe that’s what is happening. Or maybe the 49ers are just screwing with everyone’s heads.
I wouldn’t put it past San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan to have figured out precisely who he was taking weeks ago, but letting the rest of the world lose its mind over the 49ers riding out the process. Logic suggests that’s exactly what is happening, that the 49ers are going to take the same player this week that they were taking at the end of March, when they executed their move to the No. 3 pick in the draft. Whether that’s Alabama’s Mac Jones or North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, it’s unlikely that the personnel department suddenly had a scouting revelation in the past 30 days, determining that, “Oh jeez, we identified the quarterback we always wanted and then suddenly realized who he was after trading all those picks.”
If that’s how this went down — if the 49ers mortgaged the future to take a guy and then suddenly realized he wasn’t the guy they wanted after all — then I’d be worried about the franchise's direction.
Considering the impressive Super Bowl build Shanahan and general manager John Lynch pulled off in only their first three seasons (from 2017 to 2019), it would be the most stunning gamble the two have made together, putting so many assets on the table for a player who still had a chance to be swapped out in only four weeks of a draft process.
No, I think the 49ers have known since late March who they were taking at No. 3 overall. I also think that player is going to be the same one selected Thursday, regardless of all the huffing and puffing of this week.
None of this changes the reality of what was set in motion four weeks ago: The future of the 49ers under Shanahan and Lynch is all riding on this moment. If it succeeds, they may be able to add a decade of runway — or more — to their stewardship of the franchise. If it fails, it’s starting to feel like it’s going to fail spectacularly because there is now too much attention on this pick. Too much last-minute smoke-screening at a time when it’s unnecessary. Too much frenzied debate being piled on top of a pick that will be a measurement of whichever quarterback the 49ers take versus whichever of the three they don’t.
49ers botched Round 1 of 2017 draft, but it wasn't a Mitchell Trubisky disaster
That’s a shaky way to introduce Jones, Lance or Ohio State’s Justin Fields — by allowing a boiling argument to develop over the No. 3 pick, a joust that raises the specter of when the choice was really decided and who is most responsible for pushing the decision over the finish line.
If it’s a success, then everyone can raise a glass and toast one another for the unified genius of making the right decision. If it’s a failure, this is going to turn into some version of Mitchell Trubisky and the Chicago Bears, with one giant anchor of a decision dragging the 49ers to the bottom of the bay.
The 49ers pulled a Houdini once and avoided being corralled into history’s favorite quarterback blunder of when the Bears took Trubisky over Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. If we’re going to be accurate about the overall state of blubbering in that draft, it’s hard to ignore that San Francisco had the No. 3 pick and chose to ride into the future by picking mediocre defensive tackle Solomon Thomas ahead of Mahomes and Watson, while leaving the quarterback depth chart to a dice roll between Brian Hoyer and 2017 third-round pick C.J. Beathard.
Those mistakes – and the selection of Reuben Foster as the team’s other first-round pick in 2017 – could have been more than enough to undercut the entire future of the franchise. Maybe even enough to have Shanahan and Lynch on the hot seat by now. But the pair won with a multitude of smart moves that ultimately and impressively kickstarted a roster into a Super Bowl contender, drowning out the reality that either Mahomes or Watson was the better long-term choice.
That kind of failure isn't afforded twice. And by ponying up a massive sum of draft picks to move from No. 12 to No. 3, the 49ers are essentially in the same place the Bears were in 2017, when Chicago was fleeced by San Francisco to move from No. 3 overall to No. 2. With Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and BYU’s Zach Wilson locks to come off the board at Nos. 1 and 2, San Francisco has known since late March that it would have the pick of the remaining three first-round quarterbacks.
49ers have 3 options to make best QB choice
In some ways, it’s reassuring to have three options but need to be right about only one of them. But being wrong may be more catastrophic than having the No. 1 pick and blowing it. In fact, it can be argued that the Jacksonville Jaguars at No. 1 or New York Jets at No. 2 are in a better position to recover from taking the wrong quarterback at their slots — since neither of those teams will have three first-round picks wrapped up in Lawrence or Wilson.
Failure for San Francisco officially counts as three blown first-round picks rather than just one. And even with three first-round quality quarterbacks to choose from, it’s hardly guaranteed. When five quarterbacks were taken in the first round in 2018, the Buffalo Bills had their choice of the final three. Imagine if they had looked at the trio and taken Josh Rosen, while leaving Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson on the board for someone else. If you really want to imagine torture, crack open a history book and go back to 1983, when six quarterbacks were taken in Round 1, and the Bills were selecting the third from the bunch, staring at Jim Kelly, Tony Eason, Ken O’Brien and Dan Marino. It was a debate between two Hall of Fame and era defining quarterbacks vs. two trivia answers.
What’s about to happen with the 49ers can go very badly this week. And it will look exponentially worse if people think the pick wasn’t clear a month ago, when Shanahan and Lynch pushed all-in on what we’re supposed to believe was still an unknown.
If San Francisco wasn’t 100 percent on its pick one month ago — and if that pick goes sideways — it’s going to look like the franchise had no idea what it was doing moving up in the first place. It would mean the franchise had a vague idea of a franchise quarterback being available at No. 3 overall, but no idea how to discern who that was after already committing to taking him. It’s like launching people into space and then hoping you can figure out how to bring them back later.
Shanahan and Lynch have to be smarter than that in 2021. Smarter than they were in 2017 when they passed on Mahomes and Watson. Smarter than they were when they took Thomas and Foster in the first round and then somehow coached and managed their way out of those blunders. Smarter than the Bears regime they fleeced in that same draft.
If they’re not, then this is going to turn on them hard. There is no coming back from passing on the wrong quarterback twice, especially when given a month to make the decision that should have been set in stone before committing to it.
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