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Coming into the 2021 offseason, the San Francisco 49ers had a crucial, franchise-defining decision to make: Would they hold on to quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who they signed to a five-year, $137.5 million contract in 2018 after trading their 2018 second-round pick to the Patriots in October 2017 to acquire him in the first place. Over four seasons with the 49ers, he’s played in just 31 of a possible 64 regular-season games, and he’s generally been average to below-average when on the field. The 2021 kicker for that contract had Garoppolo costing the team $26.4 million in cap space if he remained with the team, and a dead cap hit of just $2.8 million if he was released. Garoppolo’s contract also has a no-trade clause for the 2021 season, so even if any other team was interested in that double albatross of imposing cap expense and uninspiring performance, it was less likely to happen.
I wondered aloud why the 49ers hadn’t just released Garoppolo as the new league year began in order to avail themselves of more free-agent talent, and the only answer I could come up with was, “Well, maybe they still believe that Garoppolo is their guy.” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, who I believe to be the best offensive play-designer in the game, has forgotten far more about football than I’ll ever know, so I was willing to listen to that particular reason.
Then, Friday happened, and everything went right out the window. When the 49ers traded their 2021 12th overall pick, a 2021 third-round pick, and first-round picks in 2022 and 2023 to the Dolphins for the right to move up nine spots to the third overall pick this year, it indicated that for Shanahan and general manager John Lynch, everything possible was in play.
Well, maybe not Trevor Lawrence, but pretty much everything else. Unless the 49ers are completely besotted with LSU receiver Ja’Marr Chase, or Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell, or some other non-quarterback they don’t think will be there at 12 and they just have to have, this is a very bold move to get the team’s next franchise quarterback, and it’s clear that after four seasons, Shanahan is convinced that Garoppolo isn’t going to be that guy. Perhaps Garoppolo sticks around for another season to help the next quarterback develop, but that’s an awful lot of money for an ad hoc quarterback coach in shoulder pads. Now, San Francisco waits to see what Garoppolo might net in a trade, or they can cut loose altogether, depending on how the new guy fits what Shanahan prefers to do.
So, what are the tentpole tenets of the Shanahan offense? Traditionally, he has wanted his quarterbacks to be on the move, and effective in doing so. Whether it’s bootleg throws with or without play-action, or second-reaction throws in which his quarterback is able to make plays even after things break down, that’s a crucial part of things. The 49ers under Shanahan are also tremendous proponents of pre-snap motion. They led the league in their Super Bowl season of 2019 with pre-snap motion on 66% of their passes. Last year, with the unimpressive triumvirate of Garoppolo, Nick Mullens, and C.J. Beathard, Shanahan upped the ante in 2020 with a league-high 73% of plays that included pre-snap motion.
Not only does motion create a clearer coverage picture for a quarterback — if a defender follows a receiver in motion, it’s man coverage; if not, it’s generally zone — but it also eliminates key defenders from the play. Shanahan put up a brilliant example of this in Week 17 of the 2019 season against the Seahawks on a 49-yard pass from Garoppolo to tight end George Kittle.
Garoppolo was able to spot a weakness in Seattle’s defense that he could exploit — Juszczyk covered by linebacker Mychal Kendricks, who was preoccupied to a point by Kittle’s presence aligned to the right side of the formation. Because of that preoccupation, Juszczyk had a free release to head upfield, and though he certainly wasn’t going to challenge Tyreek Hill in any footraces, he was able to run free against a defense that had been forced to react late as a result of Shanahan’s ability to design and implement motion and displacement concepts to the detriment of every defense he faces. Kendricks followed Juszczyk outside, but it looks as if the intention was for Kendricks to cover the flat, while the 49ers extended Juszczyk downfield. Kittle motioning back to the left side also took linebacker Bobby Wagner out of the picture — as a hook/curl defender, he had nothing to defend. Whenever you can remove your opponent’s best defensive player from the equation, you have an obvious advantage.
Play-action by itself is also a key part of how Shanahan beats defense. Last season, even with a quarterback group that was a flaming ball of “meh,” the 49ers completed 115 of 163 play-action passes from the pocket for 1,151 yards, 400 yards after the catch, eight touchdowns, and three interceptions. Without play-action from the pocket? 244 completions of 373 attempts for 2,745 yards, 1,333 yards after the catch, 12 touchdowns, and 14 picks. Enough said.
Nobody in the NFL makes things clearer, easier, and more potentially explosive for his quarterbacks than Shanahan, and it’s time to give Shanahan a quarterback who will match that playbook brilliance with his own on-field abilities. Here’s how well the top quarterbacks in the 2021 draft class would align with Shanahan’s preferences.
Mac Jones, Alabama
(Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)
We've already covered what Jones is and what he isn't in this space. In 2020. Jones took the eventual national champs to that elevated height with a season in which he completed 311 of 402 passes for 4.500 yards, 41 touchdowns, and four interceptions. When under pressure, per Sports Info Solutions, Jones completed 56 of 88 passes for 976 yards, 556 air yards, 13 touchdowns, two interceptions, and a quarterback rating of 131.4. No quarterback in a major program had more touchdown passes or had a higher quarterback rating under pressure. On throws of 20 or more air yards, per Pro Football Focus, Jones completed 33 of 56 passes for 1.355 yards, 17 touchdowns, two interceptions, and a passer rating of 128.0. No other quarterback had more deep touchdown passes than Jones. Jones was dominant in every possible way but one -- throwing on the move. https://twitter.com/CSimmsQB/status/1375504136905580545 Now, I have a great deal of respect for Simms' quarterback acumen, even when I don't agree with what he's saying. And in this instance, I really don't agree with it. When you see the term "pro-ready," keep in mind that it became a big deal about 15 years ago, when NFL teams were struggling with the transition for college quarterbacks in spread-style, shotgun-heavy offenses to the professional level. That issue doesn't exist anymore; the league has long since made that transition, and when you say "pro-ready" these days, you could be referring to any one of five or six radically different schematic strains. The value of a quarterback who played under center and primarily in the pocket has plummeted in recent years. Now, NFL teams are looking for quarterbacks that can make downfield throws from second-reaction and out-of-pocket situations. Against today's defenses, if you're sitting in the pocket all day, you're a sitting duck -- no matter how great your protection is. And that's where Jones is left out of the discussion. I've seen a lot of comparisons to Kirk Cousins, and with all due respect, I have absolutely no idea what Mac Jones tape these people are watching. Last season, Cousins ranked fourth in the NFL with 62 dropbacks in boot-action with 61 attempts, completing 38 passes for 472 yards, four touchdowns, and two interceptions. In 2020, Mac Jones ranked 23rd in the NCAA with 23 boot-action dropbacks, completing 10 of 17 passes for 123 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. As we've said, boot-action is a fundamental part of Shanahan's offense no matter where he is, and that's not what Jones does. He's a pocket passer. A great pocket passer, but as I wrote in my analysis of Jones back in February, "It also limits Jones’ landing spots if he can’t run boot; there’s no way you wind up in a McVay/Shanahan/LaFleur offense if you can’t. And if you can’t effectively make plays on second-reaction throws… well, your real estate options just narrowed even further." So... yeah. I'm just saying that the 49ers didn't move up to the third overall pick to take a guy who doesn't fit what their offensive play-designer wants to do. And a quarterback who implodes the second he leaves the pocket doesn't fit what their offensive play-designer wants to do. Shanahan Index: LOW TO NONEXISTENT.
Justin Fields, Ohio State
(Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC)
This would be highly interesting. One 49ers observer, who's clearly taken a few After Effects lessons, has this reality edited to perfection, with Fields hitting San Francisco receiver Brandon Aiyuk on a deep bomb. https://twitter.com/MrRoscoes/status/1375586912535072773 Were Fields to become the 49ers' next quarterback, the reality wouldn't look much different. Against top-tier competition in 2020, Fields completed 158 of 225 passes for 2,100 yards, 22 touchdowns, and six interceptions. This one year after the Georgia transfer completed 238 of 354 passes for 3,273 yards, 41 touchdowns, and three interceptions for the Buckeyes in 2019. Your last memory of Fields is probably how he gutted his way through injuries in a CFP National Championship loss to Alabama, completing 17 of 33 passes for 194 yards and a touchdown against the Crimson Tide. But this was the same quarterback who, with questions about his processing speed still rampant after an iffy outing against Northwestern in the Big 12 Championship game, nuked Clemson's defense for 22 completions in 28 attempts for 385 yards, six touchdowns, and one interception. Fields was a different quarterback against the Tigers — calm, cool, decisive, and totally in rhythm with the passing game. Not only did Fields throw six touchdown passes in the game, but four of those came after he was poleaxed by Clemson linebacker James Skalski — a hit that got Skalski ejected from the game for targeting, whether one thinks it’s a valid call or not. https://twitter.com/espn/status/1345196674105233409 Wincing in pain whether running or passing after that hit, Fields nonetheless went back to work. His six touchdown passes set a school record, and matched as it was with his six incompletions, and given the level of competition, it’s fair to say that this was one of the most impressive postseason performance any college quarterback has ever enjoyed. Fields, who completed 12 of 20 passes of 20 or more air yards in the regular season for 449 yards, 385 air yards, six touchdowns and one interception, threw some absolute dimes in this game when it was time to make the big play through the air. This 56-yarder to Chris Olave was the most striking example. https://twitter.com/thecheckdown/status/1345215809933570049 “We were just talking about all week how this game can make an everlasting impact,” Fields said of the Olave throw. “And this game controls our legacy. So we stayed out at practice and threw routes on that one roll‑out touchdown. We probably went over that about 20 times in practice one day. So we knew that was a call that we were going to get into the red zone. And we executed it well.” Fields also showed outstanding ball placement in tight windows, especially in the red zone. https://twitter.com/espn/status/1345202881926893568 Tough? Absolutely. Talented? For sure. A one-read quarterback, as some would have you believe? Absolutely not, but here's where the difference between being a "one-read" guy and having processing speed issues comes into play. There were times, especially against a Northwestern defense that ranked first in the NCAA in Football Outsiders' F+ ratings, that he just looked out of sorts.
Still, Fields checks most of the boxes. He completed 57 of 77 play-action passes last season for 907 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception. He's a good thrower on the move, and while you'd like to see better stats under pressure (20 of 48 for 279 yards, four touchdowns, and four interceptions in 2020), there's a lot to like overall. And it's not that Shanahan couldn't change his quarterback ideal to meet Fields' athletic gifts; it's more that I wonder how much a player with this much randomness in performance would suit a coach who has a specific profile of what he wants in the position. SHAHAHAN INDEX: FASCINATING, IF THE FIT IS RIGHT.
Trey Lance, North Dakota State
(AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)
In 2019. Lance worked the Bison's offense to near-perfection, completing 192 of 288 passes on 335 dropbacks for 2,788 yards, 28 touchdowns, and no interceptions. He was great when in play-action (73 of 114 for 1,156 yards, 17 touchdowns, and no picks), great without it, less so under pressure (17 of 39 for 365 yards and six touchdowns), and above average as a deep thrower, completing 20 of 53 passes of 20 or more air yards for 807 yards and 12 touchdowns. Lance also ran 169 times for 1,100 yards and 14 touchdowns. He ranked fifth in the NCAA in passing yards per attempt, third behind only Joe Burrow and Jalen Hurts in Adjusted Passing Yards per Attempt, fourth in passer rating, third in total yards per play behind Burrow and Hurts, and sixth in total touchdowns. I've compared Lance to the late, great Steve McNair as a quarterback who had to ply his trade at a smaller school when the bigger programs wanted him to change positions; Lance proved that he was wise to bet on himself. There are few quarterbacks in this class who match everything we've ever seen what Shanahan wants in a quarterback to this degree, at least from a developmental and tools perspective. Had Lance opted out of the 2020 season as so many other college players did, I might have stuck to my original view of him as a possible first-year NFL starter. But in his one 2020 game, a 39-28 win over Central Arkansas, Lance showed how far he has yet to go. While he has the traits and attributes to make the wait well worth it, the Bears turned Lance into a relative pumpkin with intelligent blitzes and coverage switches that displayed his limitations at this point in time. He completed just 15 of 30 passes for 149 yards, two touchdowns, his lone collegiate interception, and he had three or four throws by my count that could have been picked off but weren't. Lance was 0-for-6 on passes of 20 or more air yards, but he did complete 10 of 16 passes for both touchdowns when pressured. The interception came from a clean pocket.
“The pick? It was play-action, and I was just late," Lance recently told me of the play during his pro day media availability. "It was slap seam, with a tight end wheel coming behind it, and I was just late on it. That’s all that happened. I saw the safety and tried to pull the trigger just one or two seconds too late.” It was a mystifying decision, because there are other examples of Lance not only discerning safety placement, but looking safeties off to get the look he wants.
Lance did have the Bison ahead 32-28 late in the game; he threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to fullback Hunter Luepke with 7:35 remaining off a coverage bust, and then, with just over three minutes left in the game, he made his most crucial throw — a great 15-yard out to receiver Braylon Henderson that preserved the drive and eventually led to a 13-yard Luepke touchdown run which put the game away with a 39-28 final. As much as he struggled at times to get his game together, it was impressive to see him with the right kind of short-term amnesia, and the ability to make the tough throw at the end of a difficult outing.
“As far as the deep out — we call that a “circus” route, and [Henderson] got free access with one-on-one man coverage, and I’m betting on my guy to win every single time,” Lance recalled. “He made a great catch on that, as well.” So, a mixed bag, which is likely what Lance will provide at first when he hits the next level, because the next level has a tendency to hit back. There’s no question that Lance has all the attributes you want in a modern NFL quarterback, but as this game showed, there are also things he needs to develop before we go about crowning him to any significant degree. Lance may be similar to Josh Allen in this scenario as a quarterback whose abilities and potential make him a project in the short term, and a wrecker of buildings in a couple seasons under a coach who will bring out every bit of that potential. And as my Touchdown Wire colleague Mark Schofield points out, if you want to see "Y-Throwback" -- a staple concept (perhaps THE staple concept) in Shanahan's passing game, Trey Lance is here for you. https://twitter.com/DataNiner/status/1375589618758864900 SHANAHAN INDEX: EXCELLENT, IF YOU DON'T MIND WAITING.
Zach Wilson, BYU
(Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)
In 2020, Wilson completed 247 of 336 passes for 3,692 yards, 33 touchdowns, and just three interceptions. He didn't face a whole lot of top-level competition, but against his most stalwart opponents -- Boise State in the regular season, and Central Florida in the Boca Raton Bowl -- he completed 48 of 62 passes for 785 yards and six touchdowns. So, before we start the whole "he didn't play anybody" argument, let's remember that it's important to isolate the quarterback in a relative vacuum to discern his attributes, and then, you drill down to determine how much a relatively easy schedule masked his liabilities. Based on what I've seen, there are all kinds of reasons the Jets, who hold the second overall pick in the 2020 draft, were all over Wilson's pro day on Friday. Wilson did all he could to impress. Can he make bang-on deep throws on the move? I'd say so. https://twitter.com/SportsCenter/status/1375516132799520769 If this is where you denigrate pro days and bring up the fact that Jamarcus Russell's pro day was the stuff of legend, fair enough. Okay, how about this?
Generally speaking, Wilson was pretty good in 2020. Where he was especially good was with any of the -actions -- play-action, boot-action, what have you. Wilson completed 89 of 123 play-action passes for 1,548 yards, 20 touchdowns (tied with Ole Miss's Matt Corral for the NCAA lead) and no interceptions (Corral threw eight). And in boot-action, Wilson used his mobility and downfold ability to complete 13 of 18 passes for 174 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. You want deep throws? This guy's got them. Wilson completed 35 of 56 passes of 20 or more air yards for 1,286 yards, 12 touchdowns, and two interceptions. And in what may be his superpower, play-action passes of 20 or more air yards, Wilson completed 19 passes in 30 attempts for 730 yards, 562 air yards, eight touchdowns, and no interceptions. There are several NFL teams for whom Wilson's ability in this category alone would radically redefine their playbooks in an alarmingly positive sense. This two-play sequence against UCF shows how Wilson can create explosive plays out of play-action to both sides of the field, and his movement skills set the tone. When I think of what Wilson could do in San Francisco, it gets kind of ridiculous in my head.
There are times when Wilson will put too much faith in his arm and will turn YOLO throws loose, but given the tape library, I'll accept it in his case, and I'd bet Shanahan would, too. From what I can see, the only thing standing in the way of Zach Wilson becoming Kyle Shanahan's ideal quarterback is the fact that Wilson might not be there at 3. Then again, maybe the Jets and new offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, who worked under Shanahan in Cleveland, Atlanta, and San Francisco, and head coach Robert Saleh, who was Shanahan's defensive coordinator from 2017 through 2020, are sticking with Sam Darnold or going in another direction, and maybe Shanahan knows it? To quote the late John Facenda, "No man can say." SHAHAHAN INDEX: IF HE'S THERE, WE HAVE METALLICA.