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What Shanahan attending Jones' pro day over Fields' means for 49ers

/ by Josh Schrock
Presented By Big O Tires
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General manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan pushed their chips into the middle of the table Friday when the 49ers pulled off a blockbuster trade to acquire the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft from the Miami Dolphins.

Their motivation in doing so is clear: Lynch and Shanahan wanted their pick of the current crop of quarterbacks after Trevor Lawrence and probably Zach Wilson go No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. Now, the true work begins for the 49ers' brass, who will have a month to pore over tape and conduct Zoom interviews before deciding whether Mac Jones, Justin Fields or Trey Lance will be the next face of their franchise.

A big step in that evaluation will come Tuesday, when both Jones and Fields will throw at their pro days. (Jones already threw at Alabama's first pro day, but he wants to throw again.) With two of their three targets throwing on the same day, Shanahan and Lynch reportedly will attend Jones' pro day, according to NBC Sports' Peter King, while 49ers assistant general manager Adam Peters will head to Ohio State with a few others to watch Fields.

So, what do we make of Shanahan and Lynch, who have tied their future with the 49ers to whomever they select at No. 3, choosing to watch Jones throw instead of Fields?

 

There are two possible answers that both will lead us to the same conclusion.

The first is that Jones, an extremely accurate pocket passer who fits Shanahan's ideal archetype for a quarterback, is the leader in the clubhouse at the moment. The Alabama star just posted the highest-graded season by a Power Five quarterback in Pro Football Focus history, topping the mark set by Joe Burrow in the previous season.

Jones is a quick processor who throws an accurate ball in the short and intermediate area, possesses an impressive deep ball, and displays good pocket mobility that allows him to feel pressure and make subtle movements to extend plays. Now, Jones doesn't have elite athleticism and won't beat teams with his legs like Fields, Wilson or Lance. But he's more athletic than people give him credit for, and he does have the ability to make throws outside the pocket.

Jones also was outstanding when facing pressure last season, going 56-of-88 passing for 976 yards, 556 air yards and 13 touchdowns with two interceptions for a quarterback rating of 131.4 when facing under duress, per Sports Info Solutions.

However, a deeper dive into Jones' final season in Tuscaloosa shows he might not be the best 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 and three touchdowns with one interception and two sacks for a passer rating of 96.2. That's not ideal, but Alabama didn't need to roll Jones out a lot because of its wealth of talent and perhaps it's something he can improve on. He did make a good throw on a bootleg left in the Crimson Tide's semifinal win over Notre Dame.

If Jones is the leader in the clubhouse right now, Shanahan and Lynch should show up in person and make sure everything they believed they saw on tape was right and that they made the correct decision in trading up with him in mind.

This decision will define the Lynch-Shanahan era, so if Jones is atop their list, they have to be sure he's the guy they want and that he has the arm strength, football IQ and intangibles Shanahan desires in his franchise quarterback.

But there is another reason why the brain trust would head to Tuscaloosa instead of Columbus.

Anyone who has watched Fields over the last two seasons knows precisely what he's capable of doing when leading an offense. He has a rocket arm, great mobility and a knack for making clutch plays. Any knock against Fields appears to be the product of over-analysis, the same thing that plagued Oregon's Justin Herbert before last year's draft. Sometimes a player is in the spotlight for so long that their game is dissected to the nth degree, and that player slides for no reason.

Did Fields have some struggles against pressure in games against Indiana and Northwestern? He did. Against Northwestern, Fields went 12-of-27 passing for 114 yards with two interceptions. Northwestern played its backside cornerback 10 yards off, and Fields couldn't hit the backside receiver on curls and outs that were open.

 

But Fields came back in the next game and ripped Clemson apart, throwing as many touchdown passes (six) as he had incompletions.

Fields is a talented quarterback who might need to work on his processing speed -- as shown against Northwestern -- but he isn't a "one-read QB." Whatever that means.

Moreover, for the 49ers, Fields was excellent on play action last season, completing 57 of 77 play-action passes for 907 yards and nine touchdowns with one interception. While his pressure stats (20 of 48 for 279 yards and four touchdowns with four interceptions in 2020) leave something to be desired, Fields might have the highest upside of any quarterback in the class.

I say this to say: What can the 49ers learn from watching Fields throw in shorts against air that they couldn't learn in watching two years of tape at Ohio State?

From that perspective, there's probably more for Lynch and Shanahan to learn from watching Jones (who only started one full season at Alabama) throw live than there is in watching Fields.

RELATED: Could Jones be 49ers' target at No. 3 overall?

It says something that both Lynch and Shanahan are choosing to watch Jones instead of Fields. But what?

Does it mean Jones is their desired target at No. 3? Or that they have more question marks about him than Fields?

Either way, the 49ers are doing their due diligence in sending a delegation to each pro day because they can't miss on a pick that will define the next decade of the franchise.

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