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Fields should be clear 49ers choice, even if not known yet

/ by Josh Schrock
Presented By Big O Tires
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Justin Fields

My dad once told me: "If you're truly honest with yourself about what you want, life will, for the most part, give it to you."

Now, I don't know if that pearl of wisdom fits every situation, but I think it does apply to teams picking near the top of the NFL draft, and, in particular, Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers.

Ever since the 49ers made the blockbuster trade to acquire the No. 3 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the analysts and experts have been trying to decipher which of the top quarterbacks the 49ers have targeted. To do this, the psychoanalyzing of Shanahan has gone into overdrive trying to discern what the 49ers coach truly wants in a quarterback. Based on his history, most believe that is a quarterback in the Kirk Cousins mold, and therefore, have decided the 49ers are locked in on Mac Jones.

Now, maybe they are and maybe they aren't. I think Jones has the potential to be a good NFL quarterback and have no doubt he'd be successful throwing to George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel with Shanahan pulling the strings.

But if Shanahan is being honest about what he wants in a quarterback and what the 49ers need, he surely knew it the moment he saw it on tape and had that reaffirmed Wednesday when he, general manager John Lynch and quarterbacks coach Rich Scangarello watched Justin Fields throw at his second pro day.

 

There is little the teams can learn from watching a guy throw against air while wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Fields ran some of Shanahan's favored drills in an attempt to show the offensive maestro that he has all the tools to execute the 49ers' attack at a high level. But what impresses you on tape can wow you in person.

Fields' draft stock has tumbled in recent months through no fault of his own. He was the No. 2 recruit coming out of high school in Kennesaw, Ga., (per 247's composite rankings) behind only Trevor Lawrence. Fields spent his first season at Georgia before transferring to Ohio State where he became every bit the star people expected.

In two seasons in Columbus, Fields completed 68.4 percent of his passes for 5,373 yards, averaged 9.3 yards per attempt, tossed 63 touchdowns and only nine interceptions while rushing for 969 yards and 15 touchdowns. At 6-foot-3, 228 pounds, Fields was one of college football's most accurate pocket passers with the elite athleticism to extend plays outside the pocket, make second reaction throws and move the chains with his legs.

Over the past two seasons, 52 percent of Fields' passes resulted in a first down which was the highest by any FBS QB who played at least 10 games, per ESPN Stats & Info. He also had a total QB of 90.0 on third down, which leads all quarterbacks in this draft class.

Heading into the start of the college football season, he was viewed as the unquestioned No. 2 quarterback in the class and was thought to be a 1B to Lawrence's 1A. He was set to be a prize for whichever team came in second in the Lose for Lawrence sweepstakes.

Fields did everything NFL evaluators could want in a franchise quarterback. He was a blue-chip prospect coming out of high school, mastered Ohio State's complex offense, led his team to the College Football Playoff National Championship and did so while gutting through a serious rib injury he suffered while eviscerating Clemson in the semifinals.

Fields' draft drop has a lot to do with the racist tropes Black quarterbacks have fought against for decades, and very little to do with his ability or NFL projection.

He's been labeled a "one-read QB," a distinction that's been quickly dismissed by just about every prominent draft analyst. In fact, per The Draft Network's Benjamin Solak, Fields threw past his first read 19.09 percent of the time, which is higher than Lawrence, Jones, Zach Wilson and Trey Lance. He was also the most accurate quarterback in the class on second-read throws, per PFF.

The questions about his processing speed are debunked when you understand the complexity of Ohio State's offense, the prevalence of option routes in their passing attack, and how that would lead Fields to hold onto the ball longer as his receivers choose their break. The brilliance with which Fields ran Ohio State's offense speaks to his high football IQ and work ethic. Mastering that offense takes hours upon hours of work and a brilliant football mind to do so at such a young age.

 

Fields is the second-best quarterback in this class. Full stop. If you wanted to tell me he was No. 1, I wouldn't fight you. He's got that high of a ceiling if everything pans. He can be MVP-level Cam Newton with a stronger and more accurate arm or just a bigger version of Russell Wilson.

It's been easy for people to pigeon-hole Shanahan as a guy who prefers a quarterback like Cousins, Matt Ryan or Jimmy Garoppolo, because, for the most part, that's what he's had to work with.

He's told us how he views the QB talent in the NFL, that he thinks there's only a handful of truly elite arms and the rest are guys you have to try to win with despite their deficiencies.

“You’re always looking for one of those seven throwers on the planet, whatever that number is," Shanahan said back in 2017. "I’m guessing there’s only around seven. So you better not only be set on that, saying, ‘Hey, I need one of those seven guys.’ I hope to get one of those seven guys, but if you don’t, you got to find other ways to win.”

He wasn't set on winning with one of those elite throwers, so he did what he could to make his offense successful around Garoppolo's limitations.

But his offense would be elevated to the next level with a guy with Fields' abilities as the trigger man.

Shanahan's offense asks quarterbacks to be effective on the move, especially on bootlegs, great in play-action, throw across the middle of the field accurately and be quick and decisive in his reads without hesitating to pull the trigger on what Shanahan has drawn up.

Fields was exceptional on play-action, completing 57 of 77 play-action passes last season for 907 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception. He's a great thrower on the move and was brilliant on bootlegs, picking up a first down or a touchdown on 27 of 50 rollouts or sprintouts, per Solak.

What about intermediate throws to the middle of the field? Yeah, Fields excelled there as well.

Per ESPN Stats and Info, Fields completed 64.4 percent of his passes on 11-20 yard out routes with an off-target percentage of only 4.4 percent on such throws. The average off-target percentage at the Division 1 level is 22 percent on those throws.

The speaks to both Fields' arm strength and his ability to put throw an accurate pass with zip. The 15-yard out route is a key throw at the NFL level because of the precision it takes to make those throws. An underthrow can lead to a game-changing mistake and a high arching throw won't work with the sideline.

Couple all that with the 4.5 speed and you have the recipe for the NFL's next big star.

RELATED: 49ers send maximum attendees to watch Fields

 

Put simply, Fields has it all.

He's a big, strong, smart quarterback with a powerful arm and great athleticism. He can shred the middle of the field, get outside the pocket and attack defense vertically. He's accurate. He's decisive. He throws an incredible deep ball and is tough as hell.

Read the description above. What Shanahan wants is a quarterback who can trust his offense within the framework of the play and make smart, decisive decisions from inside the pocket. Someone who can rip it accurately to all three levels. But also someone with the rare arm talent and athleticism to allow him to take his offense to the next level. Having a quarterback with top-level arm talent and elite athleticism would open up Shanahan's offense in a way quarterbacks like Garoppolo, Cousins, Ryan and Jones couldn't.

Shanahan will tell you he likes Cousins. There's nothing wrong with that.

But he's been searching for one of those rare arms. The kind of arm that only comes around once or twice a decade.

If Shanahan is honest with himself, the NFL will hand him the quarterback he's been searching for.

That search should end with the 49ers calling Justin Fields' name on April 29.

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