It's easy to think of Kyle Shanahan and automatically think he only likes pocket-passers. This is, after all, the guy who traded up in the third round to draft C.J. Beathard and has been open about his love for Kirk Cousins.
But the 49ers coach also was the architect of the offense that Robert Griffin III piloted during his Rookie of the Year season in 2012. Shanahan also has said that how he evaluates quarterbacks is always changing and he knows the direction the league is heading in after losing a Super Bowl to Patrick Mahomes and getting diced up by Josh Allen last season.
This brings us to the 49ers' great QB quest in the 2021 NFL Draft and Ohio State's Justin Fields. Fields, who entered the season as the No. 2 QB in the class, now finds himself, through no fault of his own, in the No. 3-to-No. 5 range behind Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson. The minute the 49ers acquired the No. 3 pick from the Miami Dolphins, whispers that Shanahan was targeting Alabama's Mac Jones, a prototypical pocket-passer, started to buzz around.
But anyone who labels Fields as an athlete playing quarterback just hasn't seen him in action, and those who think Shanahan won't take a dual-threat QB just haven't been listening. And, after Fields ripped off an unofficial 4.4 40-yard dash time and put on a show with his right arm on Tuesday at his pro day, you can see how the Ohio State star's skill set and Shanahan's view of the dual-threat signal-caller mesh well.
Here's Shanahan in 2018 discussing how defenses have yet to figure out how to properly defend the read-option game, something he helped popularize in the NFL with Griffin.
“It’s a very sound scheme," Shanahan said. "It’s how do you want to attack it? What do you want to do off it when they 100 percent commit to stop it? Which you can, but that opens up everything else, so what do you do to scare them out of everything else? Is your quarterback good enough to run with the football to make them commit to stop it? And once they do, is he good enough to make the passes that he has to that they just opened up. And if he is, that’s a huge issue. It’s tough to find that guy. And if you don’t protect him right, if you don’t do the right stuff, it is tough to stay healthy.”
That last part, about staying healthy, is important to highlight.
Not only did Fields run a 4.4 40, but he also has a prototypical NFL frame at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, which means he should be able to withstand the hits that will come his way when utilized in the quarterback run game.
Not only does Fields have the desired measurables to stay healthy and absorb hits, but he also has top-level arm talent which makes him not a running quarterback, but a quarterback who can run. As Shanahan noted, the most lethal version of the read-option comes when a quarterback can make a defense have to fear him beating them with his legs and then pick them apart when they commit to stopping the QB run game.
Any doubt about Fields' arm strength and accuracy should have been put to rest long before he donned shorts and a T-shirt on Tuesday, but he dazzled throwing the football for good measure.
Fields' draft critics are concerned about his decision-making quickness and ability to work through his progressions.
But if you watch Fields play for two seasons at Ohio State, it's clear that his issues mainly stem from being so confident in his elite arm strength and accuracy that he gets overzealous and tries to make the more difficult throw. Shanahan, who is one of the best quarterback coaches in the NFL, might be the perfect guy to take arguably the most talented quarterback in the draft, harness his rare skills and unleash him on the NFL.
It's fair to remember what Shanahan said after Allen ripped the 49ers apart in terms of how he evaluates quarterbacks.
"How I evaluate everything is always changing," Shanahan said. "Things change, people change, you start to see you can win football games with any type of quarterback as long as they are good enough, and you can be good enough in hundreds of different ways. So I evaluate quarterbacks in terms of trying to find people who can have a chance to be one of those elite-type guys, and there's lots of different ways to do it."
Now, pair that with what Shanahan told the media Monday about his ideal QB archetype.
"You want an elite player and, of course, if you can get a guy who is elite with his arm and can play in that pocket and do everything and still run around and make off-schedule plays. I mean, that's what you've seen with [Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick] Mahomes," Shanahan said before later noting his top criteria for a quarterback. " ... I do think there's more options coming into the league, but if you can't sit in that pocket and play the position, eventually it's not going to matter. So, they both go hand in hand."
The last part certainly could give Jones a leg up in the competition between him and Fields for the No. 3 pick. But Fields, who has the highest ceiling of the top five QB prospects in the class, would seem to check both boxes. Fields' athleticism is impressive, and having the ability to beat defenses with your legs, especially on third down, offers another dimension to an already lethal offense. But Fields is a great passer with the arm talent to hang in the pocket and deliver strikes on command.
He's been over-analyzed to the point where people have talked themselves out of a guy who was a no-doubt top-three pick six months ago. This is the same guy who rolled into the Sugar Bowl and threw six touchdowns in a mauling of Clemson.
It's lazy and naive to believe Fields' best asset is his legs, when, in fact, it's his arm that should get top billing. Labeling him as a running quarterback is a thought born out of old-school NFL draft racism.
Fields' talent is undeniable, and with the right coach, he could be a superstar. Thinking Shanahan isn't that coach because he has won with Cousins, Matt Ryan and Jimmy Garoppolo is equally lazy.
Shanahan has told us what he looks for in a quarterback, how he views the quarterback run game and the type of player that can make that attack deadly.
Fields would appear to check all those boxes, especially after his pro day show.
Mac Jones is firmly in the conversation for the No. 3 pick. He checks Shanahan's main box and the Alabama QB's ability to process quickly and make good anticipatory throws is exactly what the 49ers coach wants.
But Fields might offer even more of what Shanahan is looking for. Don't take my word for it, just listen to Shanahan.