Ever since the 49ers made their blockbuster trade to move up to the No. 3 slot in the 2021 NFL Draft, one question has tormented the fan base relentlessly.
Why would the 49ers take Mac Jones at No. 3 overall?
What seemed like seconds after the 49ers' pulled the trigger on the trade, whispers of Kyle Shanahan's apparent desire to draft Jones started to trickle through the always reliable interwebs. At first, it seemed ridiculous. An idea reserved for the Arthur Flecks of the world.
Why would the 49ers trade two future first-round picks to move up to No. 3 for Jones when they, in theory, could likely get him at No. 8 or he could even slip to them at No. 12? Why would coach Kyle Shanahan prefer Jones over the high upside of Trey Lance or the elite talent of Justin Fields? Sure, Jones is accurate and throws with good timing and anticipation, but he lacks top-level athleticism, and his arm talent is a notch below Lance, Fields and Zach Wilson.
Then, the absurd started feeling like a forgone conclusion when Shanahan and general manager John Lynch elected to attend Jones' second pro day over Fields' first. Of course, there was an obvious explanation for that, but this is no time to keep a level head. Shanahan and Jones both appeared to be singing the same tune when describing how to play the quarterback position.
With the 2021 NFL Draft a week away, it still appears that Jones is the favorite to be tabbed as the future of the 49ers. That Shanahan and Lynch won't be tempted by what Lance could become or seduced by Fields' star potential, and will instead put their faith and job security in the right arm of Mac Jones.
The answer to the question of "Why Mac Jones?" can be found in two evaluations of the 2021 QB class given to The Athletic's Bruce Feldman. Both anonymous NFL QB coaches give glowing reviews of Jones, with one saying the Alabama star is the "most advanced" QB in the class.
"In my mind, if I had to win right now, this year, he’s the most advanced quarterback of any of them," the coach told Feldman. "I think Trevor’s the best. I’m cosigning on him, but his system adjustment will be much bigger than Mac. Jones is gonna walk in Day One and just have to flip terminology because he’s gonna know pro football. He’s been coached by Sark (Steve Sarkisian). He understands run checks, understands moving protections — not that these others don’t, but he’s on a different level.
"The question is, are Mac Jones’ physical tools worthy of being a top-5 pick or even first-round? I don’t know that his physical abilities warrant that, but if you tell me that I have to win now, I think his physicals are good enough. How many guys in the history of football in 12 games against top college competition threw for 4,500 yards, throw 41 touchdowns and only four picks and completed 77 percent in a pro system? Some guys at pro days don’t do 77 percent on air."
The second NFL QB coach pointed to when Jones came in for an injured Tua Tagovailoa in 2019, and how Alabama's willingness to alter the offense for him showed he was the real deal.
"I noticed something last year after Tua Tagovailoa got hurt and Mac went in and they stopped running RPOs and started calling dropback stuff, I was like, ‘Oh, they trust him.’ But he’s more than just that. I think he is the best thrower of the football by a lot," the NFL QB coach told Feldman. "Zach Wilson is freaky; but he’s not hitting people in stride on time. Mac is processing. He’s accurate. He’s layering it. He has pinpoint accuracy and throws with anticipation. Those people who say all he did was throw to guys who were wide open and threw from a clean pocket, turn on the A&M, Georgia or the Michigan and Auburn games from last year where he got the s--t beat out of him. He’s getting hit and he’s getting moved.
"People say he’s not athletic, but what are we talking about? Just because he looks bad without a T-shirt doesn’t mean he’s a bad athlete because he has baby fat. I love him. He was substantially better in the interviews than all of the other quarterbacks."
Shanahan and Lynch believe the 49ers' Super Bowl window is now. They plan to have Jimmy Garoppolo be the starter this season before turning the keys over to the rookie in 2022. But that timeline can be accelerated or altered by several things. Garoppolo's injury history and sometimes shaky play could force the rookie into action much sooner than anticipated.
If that's the case, Shanahan and Lynch will want a quarterback who is NFL-ready and can step in and win if needed in 2021. That would appear to take Lance off the board as the North Dakota State star likely will need at least a year to sit and learn before leading an NFL team.
I'd say Fields is just as "NFL-ready" as Jones. The Ohio State star is my QB2 in this class and I think he should eventually become the obvious pick for the 49ers. He's got rare arm talent that allows him to place the ball anywhere on the field with accuracy and zip. Couple that with his athleticism and intelligence and you've got a prospect who I believe will be the best QB in the class when all is said and done.
But if NFL evaluators (of which I am not) see Jones as the "most advanced" and "best thrower" of a group that includes Trevor Lawrence, then you can begin to understand why Jones is leading the conversation and has a better than 50/50 chance to be the pick on April 29. To be fair, NFL evaluators have appeared to be behind the curve for a number of years, so this could be just the latest example of dinosaur brain in the league.
But if the evaluations are spot-on or close to it, the 49ers selecting Jones becomes defensible to all circles except the most ferocious naysayers.
Is it sexy? That depends on your definition. Jones will not get out into the open field and break tackles or make crazy off-platform throws. But if the arm talent, timing, precision and accuracy are that good, then that could be all Shanahan thinks he needs to take his already potent offense from Point A to Point B.
If Jones is what these evaluators are seeing, then he absolutely warrants being in the discussion at No. 3. Did he benefit from the immense amount of talent around him? Absolutely. But it's not like Fields was playing with a bottom-feeder Big Ten West team, and Lance dominated a lower level of competition.
In the end, this decision comes down to one man's view of the quarterback position and best fit for his offense. Jones very well could be the one who checks most of Shanahan's boxes. I don't think he will be. As much as I like Jones, I don't believe the trade value fits the level of prospect.
But if he is the pick, it's becoming clearer why the 49ers, and Shanahan in particular, might put their faith in him.
"The Joker," as Jones has been nicknamed, going at No. 3 no longer is an idea to cackle at.