The 49ers' decision to trade up for the No. 3 overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft wasn't made overnight.
Possibilities started to swirl in coach Kyle Shanahan’s head back in January, once the 49ers' disappointing 2020 season had ended. The 49ers had just gone 6-10, failing to make the NFL playoffs not even a year after appearing in Super Bowl LIV.
Shanahan started looking at draft prospects then, recognizing the caliber of quarterbacks that would be options at the end of April.
Since the 49ers rewarded Jimmy Garoppolo with a five-year contract worth up to $137.5 million, the QB has only appeared in 25 of 48 possible games over the last three seasons. It might be unfair to call Garoppolo injury-prone, but the truth is that the 49ers have needed to rely on his backups for significant stretches in two of the last three years.
The 2021 quarterback class is talented, but Shanahan and general manager John Lynch knew that they wouldn't get their man if they stayed at the No. 12 overall. The 49ers' front office had a decision to make, beginning to reach out to teams about moving up earlier this month.
“A lot of teams weren't ready because this is such a different year, so the process really hadn't happened,” Lynch said. “You know, imagine this time, typically, we would have been to a combine, started 30 visits and all those things. That hasn't transpired.”
Shanahan and Lynch shifted focus on re-signing their free agents. First, fullback Kyle Juszczyk agreed to return on a five-year deal, and then left tackle Trent Williams re-signed for six years. As the dominoes began to fall, the 49ers' endgame started to materialize.
“I believe the first one was Juice, and we were very excited,” Lynch said. “Trent was obviously a major priority, everything plays into it. That probably was influenced by our success in free agency in our mind.”
Undeterred, the 49ers front office kept in contact with the Miami Dolphins, who were the most receptive to their trade offers. Eventually, the two teams pulled off the blockbuster trade on March 26.
While Shanahan has been an advocate of Garoppolo since his arrival in Santa Clara, the head coach has long-term goals and a vision of how to get there. Shanahan needs his starting quarterback to remain available to play.
“We looked at how our four years have gone,” Shanahan said. “We looked at how we want the next four years to go, and we'll look to where we're at in the draft and the options that are there. We felt pretty strongly we were going to get left at the altar sitting there at 12.”
The 49ers' brain trust wanted to get their ducks in a row while working under a shroud of secrecy. Lynch and Shanahan limited their visits to pro days in order to not tip off anyone of their plans.
Careful negotiations and strategic appearances led to the biggest move in the Lynch and Shanahan era. Both hope the end product is multiple years of success, but they also know it carries incredible risk.
“This was made with a lot of deliberation, a lot of study, a lot of opinions from multiple people and we ultimately arrived that we thought was worth it,” Lynch said. “We also, I think, paid somewhat of a premium for doing it early.
“One thing I always remember Bill Walsh [saying] when I was at Stanford was you've got to beat your opponent to the punch. We felt like it was a matter of time before the first domino fell and we wanted to be a part of that. This was a priority for our football organization going forward.”