Entering the offseason, Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers' quarterback conundrum got all the headlines, but it was clear that was low on the list of priorities for general manager John Lynch.
The 49ers needed to keep Trent Williams in red and gold, address the secondary, add a durable pass rusher opposite Nick Bosa, retain Kyle Juszczyk and then, maybe, they could think about how to manage the quarterback position.
With the offensive line rebuilt, the defensive line getting a needed jolt of athleticism with the addition of Samson Ebukam and cornerback mostly secure with Emmanuel Moseley and Jason Verrett, the 49ers have opened up a path that previously seemed unlikely -- drafting a quarterback in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
Yes, the 49ers would love to re-sign nickelback K'Waun Williams. But for all intents and purposes, Lynch ran through his to-do list without missing a beat, and, in doing so, gave the 49ers more than one path to walk as it pertains to their 2021 starting quarterback.
Lynch has been clear that he expects Garoppolo, if healthy, to be the 49ers' starting quarterback. He said he wants to address the depth behind Garoppolo who has missed 23 games in the last three seasons.
Prior to the 49ers' free agency success, it seemed probable that Lynch and Shanahan would have to use the No. 12 pick on whatever hole they were unable to fill, whether that be the offensive line, cornerback or edge rusher. With Garoppolo likely to return, quarterback wasn't expected to be the 49ers' first draft priority.
But now, should Lynch and Shanahan decide it is the best course of action, it can be.
The 49ers don't expect to be drafting this high again for some time. They've built a roster they believe can compete for Super Bowls on an annual basis. They need to find another cornerback for depth given Verrett's injury history, but, by in large, the roster is sound.
Their biggest question mark now appears to be under center.
We know Trevor Lawrence isn't an option, and it's unlikely Zach Wilson will be within the 49ers' reach. But the 49ers now can sit back at No. 12, watch the dominoes in the draft fall and decide if they want to move up for Justin Fields, Mac Jones or Trey Lance, or see if QB No. 5, likely Jones, slides to them at No. 12.
Expect Lawrence and Wilson to go one and two. The Miami Dolphins aren't in the QB market, and after restructuring Matt Ryan's contract to pay him more money later, it's now likely the Atlanta Falcons are out as well.
The Carolina Panthers (No. 8) have a need and the Denver Broncos (No. 9) and Detroit Lions (No. 7) could choose to upgrade, although it's likely both look to address different positions. The Chicago Bears (No. 20) and Washington Football Team (No. 19) and New England Patriots (No. 15), who all sit behind the 49ers, could look to move up and secure a top quarterback but that will cost them a pretty penny.
I say all this to illustrate that what once looked like a difficult path to a top quarterback for the 49ers, now looks easier to navigate, and could be a more appealing option after their free-agent flurry.
This isn't to say that the 49ers will look to draft a quarterback in Round 1, only that the option now is more realistic since they didn't whiff in free agency. Could they still look at Northwestern's Rashawn Slater? Absolutely. I expect South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn to be in consideration as well. This edge rushing class is rather weak in terms of elite talent, so I'd expect the 49ers to wait and look to add one in Round 2 where Penn State's Jayson Oweh, Texas' Joseph Ossai and others still could be available.
Building around a quarterback on a rookie contract is the best way to construct an Super Bowl-caliber roster. If Shanahan sees a quarterback he likes in Round 1, one he believes is perfect for running his system, the 49ers now should have the freedom to pull the trigger, knowing they won't be ignoring another clear in the process.
They could, in theory, even have the rookie sit for a season behind Garoppolo before turning the offense over to him in 2022 when they are expected to have another cap crunch.
I've long been a proponent of Mac Jones' NFL potential, especially in the right system. He's incredibly accurate in the short and intermediate area, throws a good deep ball, has a high football IQ and has the in-pocket mobility to extend plays. Yes, his athletic limitations lead some to view him as a dinosaur rather than a throwback, but he's the Matt Ryan comparison that should lead a lot of people to see how a Jones-Shanahan pairing could be the perfect concoction for long-term success.
It remains likely Garoppolo will enter the season as the 49ers' starter. But their free-agency success has given them another path.
One they now might be more willing to traverse.