HOUSTON – When Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan says he has no idea how he would rank the quarterbacks in the upcoming draft, he is not playing some elaborate game of subterfuge.
Shanahan said he generally does not even know the names of the players who are finalists for the Heisman Trophy, let alone compile any kind of meaningful list of the quarterbacks under consideration at the top of the draft.
“I’ve never paid attention to college football during the season,” Shanahan said Thursday. “Come March, you know everyone and you catch up to the rest of the world.”
The 49ers have a lot to figure out when it comes to their quarterback situation. Shanahan, the presumptive head coach, will unquestionably have the most powerful voice in the conversation when it comes to determining the organization’s plan of attack for the offseason.
After all, Shanahan essentially picked 49ers general manager John Lynch for the job. The two men are expected to work in collaboration to restock the team’s roster. The talent level of the team eroded under the direction of former general manager Trent Baalke, who did not draft a quarterback who was able to stick on the team after Colin Kaepernick in 2011.
The 49ers do not have a quarterback assured of returning next season. Kaepernick could opt out of his contract or the 49ers could release him to avoid being on the hook for his scheduled $14.9 million pay. Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder and Thad Lewis are scheduled for unrestricted free agency.
Shanahan said he usually does not start looking at the draft until a month after the season ends. With the Falcons’ season lasting a month longer due to the team’s march through the playoffs, Shanahan will get to work as quickly as possible after his team wraps up the season Sunday against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl 51. The 49ers are not expected to waste much time in hiring Shanahan next week.
“You can’t evaluate people by watching ESPN,” Shanahan said. “You have to sit in a room and watch both copies. You got to cut it up and watch certain types of plays, certain gradable plays. It takes a long time. You don’t want to sit and evaluate 30 different guys randomly. You want to dedicate a few days to one guy, really lock in and then come back and watch it again.”
In 2014, Shanahan was new on the job as offensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns. He confirmed he had a high grade on Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
Instead, the Browns selected Johnny Manziel with the No. 22 overall pick, while the Patriots picked Garoppolo in the second round with the 62nd overall selection.
“Yeah, they had me look at every quarterback and evaluate every quarterback,” Shanahan said. “That’s pretty much how it is everywhere. They ask you to evaluate everyone and you give grades and you tell people who you want and you wait to see what happens.
“I think people heard me, but the results weren’t there. I think there were a lot of people who liked Garoppolo. There were other quarterbacks we liked, too. We put a board together. We rank every one. Then, the people who make the decisions, you have to wait and see what happens. As a coach, it’s like that at a lot of places. You have to deal with what happens.”
Garoppolo could be available in the offseason in a trade with the New England Patriots. At the end of the 2017 season, Garoppolo would be scheduled for unrestricted free agency. Therefore, the Patriots could look to deal Garoppolo this offseason. Shanahan described what he liked about Garoppolo in his evaluations three years ago.
“He was a very good thrower,” Shanahan said. “Tough guy, kept his eyes down the field, could get rid of the ball fast. Really liked the person. Had a chance to go out to dinner with him and stuff. He played at Eastern Illinois, and it was a different type of offense where you can’t always evaluate with how quick they get rid of the ball. But I really thought he was a very intelligent, tough player with a good throwing motion.”
In 2012, Shanahan was part of a Washington organization that drafted Kirk Cousins in the fourth round. Cousins remains unsigned for 2017, but Washington is expected to protect him with the franchise tag for a second consecutive season. Washington could place the exclusive franchise tag on Cousins to ensure he remains with the organization. Otherwise, the 49ers could make a play for him.
“Kirk’s a natural thrower who’s fearless,” Shanahan said. “He lets it rip. Guys who are processing can go fast in the pocket and Kirk’s as good as anybody at that.”
The 49ers own the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. All things being equal – and if the 49ers do not add a veteran prior to then – the quarterback position would top the list.
"Everyone wants a quarterback,” Shanahan said. “You just hope that there is one. You always take the guy who gives you the best chance to win. Usually that’s a quarterback, but it could be a D-lineman. Everybody wants to have a great quarterback right away, but if it’s easy to get one, everybody would have one. So you got to make sure to make smart decisions and do what’s best for the team.”
Shanahan said the first thing he wants to see from a quarterback prospect is the ability to throw the ball naturally. That eliminates a lot of prospects from the beginning, he said.
After that, there are a lot of other factors Shanahan said he considers.
“If you’re born to throw and it’s effortless, you can do it with ease and you don’t have to think about the throwing part because everything else is so hard,” Shanahan said. “And if you have that, you want a guy who’s fearless. If you sit and watch the rush in this league or you’re thinking about getting hit or have any hesitation, you don’t have much of a chance. The game moves too fast and you have to keep your eyes downfield.
“And you got to have a certain amount of intelligence so that you can handle everything. But it’s not just your IQ, it’s being able to handle it under pressure and think fast and react. Once the game starts, your mind has to shut off. It’s got to be a feel and you react, usually based off the preparation you did throughout the week and your natural feel of the game.”