Kyle Shanahan said a funny thing last week.
Following the 49ers’ trade up to the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the head coach said he finally felt he could openly attend quarterback prospects’ pro days. Shanahan was asked about his (then-forthcoming) attendance at Alabama QB Mac Jones’ workout, and his lack thereof at others prior to the 49ers’ blockbuster deal, saying he usually likes to keep his cards close to the vest.
“I normally don't like to go to them a bunch unless I have to for some reason, but I also have been kind of grown up in the idea that you don't like to go everywhere and show people things.” Shanahan told reporters in a video conference a week ago. “When you're sitting at 12 and stuff, I don't want to go to a bunch of quarterback pro days and things like that. Now that you move up to three, you don't have to hide as much. It's not as big of a deal to me as it might've been when we were sitting at 12.”
What was “not as big of a deal” was a Big Deal to just about everyone else, considering Jones’ comparable skill set to other quarterbacks Shanahan has coached. The whispers about the 49ers’ interest in Jones practically became full-on shouts by the end of last week, as if the draft had suddenly been moved up four weeks.
That doesn’t mean Jones is definitely the 49ers’ guy. You can’t trust that smoke will become fire during NFL draft season, as it’s just as -- if not more -- likely it will become a smokescreen. With that in mind, we’re going to monitor the Niners’ links to the draft’s top five QB prospects over the next four weeks, and try to separate fact from fiction.
Here, then, is the first iteration of NBC Sports Bay Area’s Smokescreen SZN QB Rankings.
5. Trevor Lawrence, Clemson
Trevor Lawrence is almost assuredly going to be Jacksonville Jaguar, as he was practically anointed the No. 1 pick in this draft after supplanting Kelly Bryant on the Clemson depth chart. Hell, Urban Meyer might as well be walking around Duval County, Fla. with a neon sign proclaiming he will draft Lawrence.
4. Zach Wilson, BYU
The 49ers had quite a bit of success with a mobile quarterback from BYU. Of course, that mobile quarterback from BYU doesn’t think the 49ers are going to get a chance to select this mobile quarterback from BYU.
"There's no question in my mind that if they can figure out how to get Zach, that's their No. 1 first choice," Steve Young told KNBR's "Tolbert, Krueger & Brooks" last Wednesday. "I just don't know how they get it done. The [New York] Jets have committed to Zach and recruited the family. I just don't know how that gets undone, but look, a lot can happen."
Unless the Jets have a change of heart about Sam Darnold, it sure seems like Robert Saleh is going to beat his old team to the punch with the No. 2 pick. General manager John Lynch’s attendance at Wilson’s pro day -- on the day the 49ers agreed to the trade, no less -- seems like a key indicator of their thoughts on Wilson, but it doesn’t look likely the Niners will get the chance to take him.
3. Trey Lance, North Dakota State
If you buy what the 49ers are selling about keeping Jimmy Garoppolo next season, Lance makes a whole lot of sense. He really only has one full NCAA season under his belt -- at FCS North Dakota State, no less -- and he can’t legally buy a drink in the United States until after the draft.
Lance’s physical tools are well-suited for Shanahan’s offense and the modern NFL, and both The Ringer’s Danny Kelly and The Athletic’s Matt Barrows projected last week that Lance is going to be the pick. ESPN’s Dan Graziano even said last Friday he “can’t rule out” Lance “as a possibility,” and it’s worth noting Lance had his first pro day before the 49ers traded up.
Shanahan is seen as a molder of QBs, and Lance is the closest thing to an unshaped piece of clay among the 2021 draft’s top signal-callers. Developing Lance seems like the kind of project Shanahan would enjoy, but it’s also fair to wonder if the 49ers truly traded all of that draft capital for their next franchise QB to sit for one of four inexpensive years on his rookie deal.
2. Mac Jones, Alabama
Yes, the 49ers met with Jones. Yes, my distinguished colleagues Matt Maiocco and Josh Schrock both believe the QB would be a strong fit with Shanahan-led San Francisco. Yes, the conversation around Jones is starting to feel like a foregone conclusion.
But if Shanahan truly was raised under “the idea that you don’t like to go everywhere and show people things,” would he really tip his hand this much, even if he feels like he doesn’t have anything left to hide?
The timing of Jones’ links to the 49ers, as substantial as they are, feels all too convenient. He’s the most recent QB they’ve met with, sure, but it feels like we skipped a few steps between that visit and the sheer tonnage of NFL sources saying Jones might as well have picked out his locker stall at Levi’s Stadium.
The 49ers’ trade up to No. 3, and the deal to acquire Garoppolo in the first place in 2017, didn’t exactly follow weeks of breathless speculation. Jones certainly could be Shanahan’s preferred option and the 49ers’ eventual choice, but Jones’ links to San Francisco feel, more than anything else, like a case study in how there are simply too many hours of coverage to fill between the Super Bowl and the draft.
1. Justin Fields, Ohio State
Fields widely was the draft’s second-best QB prospect behind Lawrence entering the 2020 season, and all he did to back that up was … lead his team to a national championship appearance, outplay the presumptive No. 1 pick head to head and complete over 70 percent of his passes? Yet, Fields “fell” out of the top 10 of Todd McShay’s most recent mock draft with ESPN, and some teams reportedly are starting to question Fields’ dedication and ability to make progressive reads.
As McShay’s colleague Domonique Foxworth noted last week, though, that sounds a lot like what Black QB prospects hear every year before the draft. It doesn’t match the evidence, either, as Pro Football Focus determined that Fields had the nation’s best passer rating beyond his first read last season.
Fields’ apparent “slip” down draft boards feels a lot like Tua Tagovailoa’s “fall” to the Miami Dolphins at No. 5 in the 2020 draft, when the team most consistently linked to him -- one alleged, at various points in the previous season, to be “Tanking for Tua” -- to select him. The 49ers didn’t have a “Yields for Fields” campaign or anything last year, but Shanahan did coach Fields at a QB camp when he was younger, and the 22-year-old has an ideal skill set for the modern game.
If the 49ers still agree with the preseason consensus that Fields is the draft’s second-best quarterback, it makes a hell of a lot of sense they’d trade up to No. 3 as the Jets seem to zero in on a different quarterback. The 49ers’ rumored interest in Fields meets the Goldilocks standard, just subtle enough to where he's "just right" at No. 3.