The 49ers have a franchise-defining choice to make Thursday night.
With the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, San Francisco will -- in all likelihood -- select its next franchise quarterback. The 49ers should have plenty of choices, considering Clemson's Trevor Lawrence has been anointed the No. 1 pick in this draft since he was in high school.
Although BYU's Zach Wilson seems to be a lock to be a New York Jet, the 49ers truly can't truly rule him out until Robert Saleh's new team steps to the podium with the No. 2 overall selection and announces the pick. Between Wilson, Alabama's Mac Jones, North Dakota State's Trey Lance and Ohio State's Justin Fields, the 49ers have a lot to consider.
They haven't asked for my opinion, but I'm going to help coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch out by offering some unsolicited advice. Here, then, are the three QBs they should avoid -- and one they shouldn't -- with the No. 3 overall pick.
Jones has everything Shanahan wants in a passer. He's calm, collected and has a will to win. The 22-year-old set an NCAA record with a 77.4 percent completion percentage last season, and he doesn't need much time to make every throw an NFL quarterback needs in his arsenal.
Of course, Fields can make every throw as well.
Fields completed 70.2 percent of his passes during his junior season. ESPN Stats and Info determined he was off target on only 4.4 percent of his throws on 11-to-20-yard out routes (NCAA Division I average is 22 percent). Fields led the QBs in his draft class in throws past his first read, Pro Football Focus grades from a clean pocket and grades on throws past his first read.
Jones is considered an elite processor of on-field information, and that makes him -- in the eyes of draftniks -- NFL-ready from Day 1. Yet Jones' tape -- read Steven Ruiz's excellent breakdown on For The Win -- and statistical measures, don't line up with that profile as much as Fields' do.
Lance, like Jones, doesn't have all that much college experience under his belt. He started for FCS power North Dakota State and didn't exactly play against SEC speed each week, but Lance's ceiling is considerably higher than his Alabama counterpart, due to his high football IQ and athleticism nearly unmatched among QBs in this class.
I say nearly unmatched, because Fields comes damn close with decidedly more experience under his belt.
Fields is an inch shorter (6-foot-3) and three pounds heavier (227 pounds) than Lance, with an inch longer arms (32.5). Lance didn't run the 40-yard dash, whereas Fields had an unofficial time of 4.44 seconds.
While Lance rushed for 1,100 yards in his lone season as a starter in 2019, Fields rushed for "just" 484 that season for a career high. He also did so against decidedly tougher competition, averaging 4.7 yards per carry last season while rushing for five touchdowns. Lance will have to make quite a leap from FCS to the NFL, while Fields faces a more gradual learning curve.
Shanahan said Monday the 49ers traded up to select a starting quarterback. Fields, in all likelihood, can be one sooner than Lance, and the cap-strapped 49ers can't necessarily afford to burn a year -- or more -- off a rookie contract during their contending window.
The 49ers had a pretty good run in the 1990s with a mobile quarterback from BYU. If Wilson slides past the Jets, why not tap into that well again?
San Francisco shouldn't hesitate to do so ... provided Fields is off the board.
Wilson, a lot like former BYU Cougars star turned eventual 49ers legend Steve Young, is great at improvising and extending plays with his legs. So, too, is Fields. Although Wilson rushed for fewer yards on designed runs than Fields did in his career, Fields spent almost the entirety of his first collegiate season as a run-first -- and, often, a run-only -- option.
Fields had more rushing attempts (42) than passes (39) in his lone season with the Georgia Bulldogs, serving as a change-of-pace backup to a more "traditional" starter in Jake Fromm. Despite all of that context, just over 64 percent of Fields' 1,133 career rushing yards came on designed runs. Over 80 percent of Wilson's 642 career rushing yards were on designed runs.
Wilson was slightly more accurate overall and averaged more yards per attempt than Fields last season, but Fields bested Wilson in the same metrics in which he topped Jones. Fields has similar improvisational qualities, and he honed them against better competition.
49ers have a clear choice
You might've sensed a not-so-subtle trend in these blurbs, but I'll spell it out for you in case you didn't. In a draft loaded with strong QB options, Fields is comparable to -- and, in many cases, better than -- his peers in a lot of important areas. Yet Fields seems to be the one sliding past the 49ers.
Perhaps we should've seen this coming when anonymous evaluators laundered the same criticisms about work ethic, character and football IQ we've heard for years about Black QBs. But Fields has always had a résumé that could easily dispute such claims, considering he was the consensus No. 2 QB coming out of high school behind Lawrence and his collegiate career didn't exactly do anything to disprove that notion.
As he did before he transferred from Georgia, Fields seems to be playing against others' perceptions of him more than anything else. The Bulldogs used him as little more than a wildcat QB, opting instead to rely on Fromm, a white signal-caller considered a "pro style" quarterback whose career-high 67.3 completion percentage in college only slightly edged Fields' career-worst 67.2 collegiate completion percentage.
A smart team Thursday will recognize that Fields doesn't need to be pigeonholed, and that his unique blend of his peers' best traits makes him the draft's most complete quarterback behind Lawrence. The Jets have the first chance to be that team.
The 49ers shouldn't hesitate taking theirs if Fields is, as expected, available at No. 3.