No matter your feelings on Jimmy Garoppolo, one thing is certain: The 49ers have to survey all their options when it comes to improving the quarterback position this offseason.
The 49ers have been toiling in quarterback hell ever since Steve Young retired, searching unsuccessfully for their next Super Bowl signal-caller. This great quarterback expedition included the 49ers passing on the greatest quarterback in NFL history, not once but twice. Of course, the 49ers can hardly be blamed for selecting Giovanni Carmazzi in the third round of the 2000 NFL Draft, when Tom Brady's name wasn't called until pick No. 199 in the sixth round. Everyone passed on Brady. Multiple times.
But they passed on Brady again last offseason, when the then-six-time Super Bowl champion wanted to finish his career in the Bay and bring a Lombardi Trophy back to his hometown team. Head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch elected to pass on the 43-year-old, believing his 2019 dip was a sign the end was near. (Of course, Brady's 2019 stats can be attributed to a receiving corps that ranked dead last in the NFL in yards of separation per route run and had the fourth most drops, but I digress.)
Regardless, the 49ers elected to run it back with Brady's former protegee in Jimmy Garoppolo, believing he had more upside after just leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl. Brady, as you know, went on to win his seventh Super Bowl, beating the Kansas City Chiefs after putting together a season that saw him rank as Pro Football Focus' No. 2 quarterback.
That's twice the 49ers didn't put Brady in red and gold, and twice he made them regret it.
The brings us to this offseason and the 2021 NFL Draft where Alabama's Mac Jones, who is expected to be a first-round pick, has started getting numerous comparisons to Brady. Jones' former teammate and current Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa called him a "more mobile Tom Brady," and ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. says he sees comparisons between Jones and Brady both in their lack of superior athleticism but also with their accuracy, leadership, competitiveness and smarts.
To be clear, the comparisons are not projecting that Jones, who only started 17 games at Alabama, will go on to eclipse Brady as the GOAT, but that Jones' ability and physical limitations mirror Brady's when he came out of Michigan.
That Jones, a Heisman Trophy finalist, is expected to go in the top half of the first round when Brady had to wait until the sixth round shows how evaluations have changed, and how Brady's success has impacted the belief that imperfect prospects can be molded and developed into franchise stars.
It's well known that I am bullish on Jones' NFL prospects, and have discussed the idea of the 49ers drafting Jones at No. 12 and shifting/extending their championship window by building around a QB on a rookie deal.
Kiper has him mocked at No. 8 to the Carolina Panthers and NBC Sports' Chris Simms has him ranked as the third-best quarterback in the class behind Zach Wilson and Trevor Lawrence. So there are others who are high on Jones and for a multitude of reasons.
There are, however, also those who would label him a dinosaur, of which Brady is the last of a dying breed, and believe using a first-round pick on a quarterback with "unspectacular" physical traits would be akin to spending it on a high-floor, low-ceiling quarterback like Kirk Cousins.
Jones is the least athletic of the big five quarterbacks in this draft. The modern NFL asks their quarterbacks to be a threat with their legs, make off-schedule plays outside the pocket and move the sticks with their athleticism if needed. Jones might not wow you with his improvisation like Wilson, but he's not stuck in cement in the pocket either.
Jones, like Brady, has great pocket presence, an impressive feel for pressure and the savvy to make subtle movements to extend plays. Brady, of course, is the best in NFL history at feeling pressure, even when he can't see it, and making the minute movements that allow his receivers the time to get open. This isn't to say that Jones is on that level. Brady's ability is alien-like, but Jones isn't a statue in the pocket and can make plays off-schedule as he showed in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game against Ohio State.
The Crimson Tide signal-caller also is adept when facing pressure. Per Sports Info Solutions, Jones went 56 of 88 passes for 976 yards, 556 air yards, 13 touchdowns, two interceptions and a quarterback rating of 131.4 when facing pressure. Yes, you can point to the amount of talent around Jones at Alabama, but it was, ultimately up to him to make it all work in Tuscaloosa.
Jones is a quick processor, incredibly accurate in the short and intermediate game, has good pocket mobility and throws an impressive deep ball. His draft stock is skyrocketing despite his lack of elite physical traits. He just completed the highest-graded season by a Power Fiver quarterback in Pro Football Focus history, had the highest grade of any quarterback against Power Five competition and would appear to have a high floor with an NFL ceiling that will be determined by the system he is drafted into.
While the Brady comparisons are flashy, it's unfair for anyone to expect Jones to become the next GOAT. But what is described above does sound a lot like Matt Ryan, who won an MVP while running Kyle Shanahan's offense. If that's Jones' NFL destiny in the right system, that's pretty damn good.
Jones isn't without his flaws or knocks. It's impossible to separate him from the elite talent he played with at Alabama. As far as the 49ers are concerned, he might not be an ideal fit for Shanahan's offense. As USA TODAY's Doug Farrar noted, on bootleg plays, which are prevalent in the Shanahan offense, Jones completed 12 of 21 passes for 135 yards, three touchdowns, one interception, two sacks and a passer rating of 96.2. Of course, Alabama wasn't rolling Jones out a ton because, for the most part, he could just stand in the pocket and throw darts. In the College Football Playoffs against top defenses in Notre Dame and Ohio State, he showed the ability to make plays on the boot if asked.
Jones' critics will say his immobility, lack of elite athleticism and perceived low ceiling make him unworthy of a first-round pick. No, he's not going to be Deshaun Watson, Justin Herbert or Josh Allen. But there's no reason the 49ers have to go that route. You can win a Super Bowl with a traditional dropback passer. The Bucs just proved it. Yes, they did it with the greatest of all-time, but if the pieces fit and the system accentuates the quarterback's strengths, there's no reason a team can't win with a quarterback some would describe as a dinosaur.
Yes, the NFL is going the way of the dual-threat quarterback. Most teams want their quarterbacks to be able to beat teams in a variety of ways thus stressing the defense even further. While Shanahan has said he's open to a dual-threat quarterback, he has, to this point, been reticent to do just that in his time as an offensive coordinator and head coach. If Shanahan still prefers an old-school pocket-passer to run his offense quarterback, like Ryan, Brady or Garoppolo, Jones could offer the 49ers a solution to their nomadic search for a franchise signal-caller.
It's almost a certainty the 49ers will address a position other than quarterback in Round 1, and choose to run things back with Garoppolo, who at one point they believed to be Brady-like after Garoppolo studied under the legendary quarterback at 1 Patriot Place.
The Jones-Brady comps are getting out of hand. I'll admit that. But no one is saying Jones will become the next Tom Brady. They are simply saying he has the same tools Brady has had at his disposal while owning the NFL for two decades, and that, if given the right opportunity with the right coach and weapons, he can be a winning NFL quarterback with a Super Bowl ceiling.
The 49ers said no to Brady twice, 20 years apart. Jones might be gone by the time they go on the clock. But if he's not, and Shanahan sees what so many do in the Alabama signal-caller, can they afford to pass on Jones and kick the can on their great QB quest down the road yet again?