The 49ers are coming to a crossroads this offseason as they try to decipher what their future at quarterback looks like.
Jimmy Garoppolo, when healthy, has been a solid quarterback. He helped lead them to Super Bowl LIV and is 24-8 as a starter. But he's been inconsistent, has struggled with turnovers and his limitations have forced coach Kyle Shanahan to alter the system he runs.
The 49ers can move on from Garoppolo this offseason with little penalty. On the surface, it appears like an easy decision. Fans and pundits will say: "Hey, just cut Jimmy G and go get your guy. Draft your franchise quarterback. Easy peasy."
It, of course, is never that easy.
The 49ers (5-8) currently would have the No. 12 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, per Tankathon. That doesn't put them anywhere near the driver's seat for one of the top quarterback prospects in the draft. Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields will have already done their media tour by the time the 49ers go on the clock.
That leaves them hoping Zach Wilson or Trey Lance falls to them, or that Mac Jones or Kyle Trask is good enough to warrant a top-12 pick. That's a risky proposition, especially for a team one year removed from a Super Bowl that will face several tough roster decisions.
Making the 49ers' QB dilemma even tougher is that none of the prospects after Lawrence are seen as home-run picks. Wilson, Lance, Jones and Trask all have their champions and doubters. Some scouts rave about them while others doubt their long-term staying power in the NFL.
Let's start with Wilson. The BYU signal-caller has soared up draft boards as he's led the Cougars to a 10-1 record. The 6-foot-3 junior is a good athlete who excels at extending plays with his legs and making subtle movements in the pocket to avoid the rush. He's excellent on boots and read-options and would give the 49ers a quarterback that fits with the current wave of athletic passers who can beat teams in multiple ways.
While Wilson has desirable traits, there are questions about when he could start for an NFL team.
"He fits where the league is headed -- playmaker with a big arm who makes a lot of wow throws and can win with his legs. I have no idea how ready to play he is because the scheme is backyard football and he hasn't played anyone," an NFL college scouting director told Bleacher Report's Matt Miller.
Compare that to ESPN's Todd McShay, who has loved what he has seen from Wilson this season.
"He has navigated his Cougars to 10-1 by completing 73.2 percent of his passes for 3,267 yards (fifth in the country), 30 touchdowns (second) and three interceptions. If that weren't impressive enough, Wilson also has eight rushing TDs. I love his competitiveness and toughness in the pocket, and he has a high-end ability to extend plays. His deep-ball accuracy is also outstanding," McShay wrote of Wilson.
Wilson certainly fits the mold of quarterback the 49ers are looking for after getting a front-row seat to what guys like Kyler Murray, Josh Allen and Russell Wilson can do to a defense.
Lance is another guy who can beat you with both his arms and his legs. The North Dakota State quarterback only played in one game in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but he was near flawless in 2019 when he threw for 28 touchdowns and rushed for 14 more without being intercepted. He's raw as a passer, but it's easy to see why he's expected to be a top-10 pick.
"Playing in that one game [against Central Arkansas] was a mistake, but he has such nice traits that someone will fall in love with his game. Even if he doesn't become a great passer, he's so dangerous with his legs that he can start in this league," an AFC area scout told Miller.
Lance checks the size, toughness and athleticism boxes. While some might be turned away from the fact that Lance only started one season for the Bison, NFL Media's Daniel Jeremiah gushed about Lance and compared him to Andrew Luck.
"When I evaluate quarterbacks, I try to narrow my focus to these five key areas: poise, accuracy, decision-making, play-making ability and toughness. After studying the aforementioned three games, I can confidently state that Lance is off the charts in all five areas," Jeremiah wrote in July.
"I know Luck is a little bit bigger, but they are similar athletes and they both played with a maturity beyond their age at the collegiate level. I remember watching Luck run over defenders. I also remember being so impressed with his ability to execute on key plays in every game. I see the same things when I study Lance."
The issues the 49ers will run into with Wilson and Lance is that they might have already won too many games to draft them. There are at least five teams (New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and Detroit Lions) who currently are ahead of the 49ers in the draft order and could draft a quarterback.
That brings us to Jones and Trask.
Jones, the current Heisman Trophy front runner, has dazzled this season. While he's not the mobile threat that Wilson and Lance are, he is super accurate on short and intermediate passes and might throw the best deep ball in the class.
According to McShay, Jones is a "fast-riser" on NFL draft boards and someone whose traits translate to the NFL game.
"He just processes everything so quickly and has really fast eyes in getting through progressions, especially considering he has only 10 starts over two seasons. It's evident that he is in total command of that offense. Sarkisian told us that Jones 'wants to know the why' in everything that happens on the football field, and he likened him to Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan in that regard," McShay wrote.
Jones feels like the ideal quarterback for Shanahan's system. He's a high-IQ pocket passer who can make subtle movements in the pocket to extend plays and is excellent in the short and intermediate game.
Scouts do have some concerns about whether or not Jones' production at Alabama is due to the amount of stars surrounding him.
"You have to worry about the talent around him, especially last year, but he throws a beautiful deep ball and I love his toughness and moxie," an NFL quarterbacks coach told Miller.
As for Trask, the Florida quarterback is very accurate and is seen as NFL ready. But his average arm strength and lack of mobility could hamper his long-term NFL staying power.
"Very scheme-specific player. Can win from the pocket and has a good arm. Best asset is his vision and putting the ball in a spot his guys can make a play on it. Lack of mobility is going to be the biggest knock," an NFL general manager told Miller.
Trask likely will be available on Day 2 of the draft. Is he someone the 49ers could look to snag in Round 2 after filling a more-pressing need in Round 1? It's a possibility. But using a second-round pick on a quarterback is not a decision that should be taken lightly. In doing so you're signaling that this is your future franchise quarterback.
If he turns out not to be who you believed him to be, it's a whiff that can set a franchise back five years.
So, the dilemma facing the 49ers is this: Do they stick with Garoppolo, who is a proven commodity and can lead them to wins but has a lower ceiling than they would like? Or, do they view one of the top prospects as a franchise guy and are willing to gamble on a quarterback not seen as a sure thing?
In fairness, guys like Justin Herbert, Josh Allen, Deshaun Watson and even Patrick Mahomes were seen as "fringe" NFL quarterbacks by some scouts. Herbert and Allen were all traits and no production. Watson's game "wouldn't translate," and Mahomes was a big arm with not much to show for it.
All four of those have worked out splendidly if you ask me.
Finding a franchise quarterback isn't an exact science unless you're picking a guy like Lawrence or Luck. There's innate risk involved.
What the 49ers face this offseason is weighing that risk against bringing back Garoppolo for another season and attempting to find their franchise quarterback at a later date.
It's a delicate decision. One that, if botched, can undo all the hard work done by Shanahan and general manager John Lynch.