What the 49ers will do with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft will continue to be the hottest topic of conversation for the next month.
While most analysts believe coach Kyle Shanahan will tab Alabama star Mac Jones as the 49ers' QB of the future, former 49ers cornerback and current NFL free agent Richard Sherman believes Shanahan will go a different route.
"I think people are missing out on the big picture," Sherman said on the latest episode of The Cris Collinsworth Podcast featuring Richard Sherman. "They’ve had this huge discussion about black quarterbacks, and how they’re kinda stereotyped in. They’re not the hard worker. They’re athletic. They’re this. They’re that. And that’s where they’re pigeonholing Justin Fields.
"He is literally the most efficient, if not one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the draft. He was completing I think 70 percent of his passes. He has similarities to what Jimmy [Garoppolo] does. Jimmy G is a very efficient quarterback. He’s going to have a high completion percentage. He’s going to get the ball to his spots. He’s going to move the ball down the field. He’s really smart. He has great command of Kyle’s offense. It’s really awesome to see."
Sherman thinks Garoppolo still will be the starter in 2021, something Shanahan and general manager John Lynch alluded to. But he believes Fields will make Shanahan's offense exponentially more dynamic, and thinks the Ohio State signal-caller belongs in the conversation with the presumptive top-two picks in Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson.
"But I think Justin Fields is the one, even without his athleticism," Sherman continued. "If you just took him as a standalone pocket passer. His efficiency and completion percentage and what he’s able to do week in and week out. He’s a winner. He’s been at a program that competes at a high level year in and year out. Always in the championships and always in the big games. And he’s played well.
"I think his athleticism adds another layer of elite ability that makes him a difference-maker. It’s also pigeonholed him as you’re not talking about him as the No. 1 pick. Nothing against Trevor Lawrence or Zach Wilson, but I think there’s some implicit bias there that’s holding him back."
While a number of analysts point to pocket-passers like Kirk Cousins and Matt Ryan as the ideal Shanahan quarterback, Sherman was quick to point out what Shanahan's offense looked like when Robert Griffin III was running it during his rookie season in Washington. He thinks Fields could have a similar impact on the offense in San Francisco.
"You didn’t know where the ball was going," Sherman said. "He’s making quick passes. He was running. He was keeping. But, it’s the in the pocket, when the play breaks down, when the play isn’t there. And, if you’re not spying him, it’s going to be crazy.
"And the offensive line is great, but now you have to add that element of pause in that division. The NFC West is just a mobile quarterback division. If you draft Justin Fields, and he ever gets on the field and plays after Jimmy plays another 10 years or whatever he does, I think it changes the dynamic and adds a dynamic to Kyle’s offense that’s necessary. The pass rush now has to pause. The blitzes have to slow down. Now, you have to get there. Because if you don’t get there, he’ll dice through your defense in a way that’s going to get ugly.”
During the pre-draft process, Fields has been labeled as a "slow processor" and had his work ethic questioned, two racist tropes that Black quarterbacks have faced for decades.
Of course, that couldn't be further from the truth. Turn on the tape and you'll see Fields quickly move through his reads and make quick decisions with the ball. Ohio State's passing game features a lot of option routes, so it's expected that Fields would have to hold onto the ball a tick longer before seeing which route his receiver elects to run.
Fields is an elite athlete with top-level arm talent who was incredibly efficient from inside the pocket during his time at Ohio State. One throw, in particular, demonstrates how impressive Fields' arm strength and accuracy are.
The 15 to 20-yard out route is a key throw on the NFL level, and Fields was elite on those throws over his last 13 games, per ESPN Stats and Info. Fields completed 64.4 percent of his passes on 15-20 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.
Fields might have the highest ceiling of any quarterback in this class. His arm talent paired with the ability to get outside the pocket and make second-reaction throws would make the 49ers' offense incredibly hard to defend.
Sherman sees that. Perhaps Shanahan does as well.