The 49ers aren't preparing for a playoff opponent or enjoying a bye week right now. Instead, they're watching their coaching staff and front office possibly get gutted ahead of what is to be a vital offseason.
It also already is draft season in Santa Clara.
Following a frustrating season full of injuries and disappointing losses, the 49ers are sure to have a few dates circled on their fresh 2021 calendars. Two of those dates are Jan. 11 and April 29. Why those two? The former is the upcoming College Football Playoff National Championship, and the latter marks the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
The 49ers wound up with the No. 12 pick in the 2021 draft. General manager John Lynch, coach Kyle Shanahan and many other important decision-makers will be watching Monday's national championship game with that first-round pick in mind. Alabama and Ohio State are loaded with talent. When it comes to the 49ers, this is all about Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields.
Coming into the 2020 college season, Fields was the consensus No. 2 QB behind Clemson's Trevor Lawrence. Then, through Ohio State's first three games -- Nebraska, Penn State and Rutgers -- Fields looked like he could give Lawrence a real challenge as the top pick in the draft. Fields threw 11 touchdowns without being intercepted in that three-game stretch and also added two rushing TDs. But then came Indiana.
Fields struggled mightily against a surprisingly undefeated Indiana team and was intercepted three times. He looked lost when pressured, made some seriously head-scratching throws and refused to look past his first read. The same issues showed up against Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game, when he completed just 44.4 percent of his passes and was picked off twice as Ohio State barely escaped an upset.
Going into the Sugar Bowl, many experts penciled Fields in as the draft's third-best QB behind BYU's Zach Wilson. Fields went full Jordan meme and took that personally. He completed 22 of his 28 pass attempts for 385 yards and six touchdowns to take down Lawrence and the Clemson Tigers, all while dealing with undiagnosed rib injuries and damage to his internal organs. Another wink and a win for college football doctors.
After that historic performance, Fields has nearly solidified himself as a top-five draft pick. It seems almost impossible that he would fall to the 49ers. But what if Shanahan and those making the most important decisions fall in love with the idea of adding Fields to a healthy 49ers squad? Pro Football Focus' Michael Renner believes that very well could happen. In his latest mock draft following the conclusion of the 2020 NFL regular season, Renner has the 49ers trading up from No. 12 to No. 4 with the Atlanta Falcons and selecting Fields.
"There are a few reasons why I strongly believe the 49ers will be the team most likely to sell the farm for one of these quarterbacks," Renner wrote. "The first is that quarterback classes like this don’t come around every year. The 49ers are too good to truly bottom-out, and they end up in a position to take one here."
The 49ers, once again, have stated they "expect" Jimmy Garoppolo to be their starting quarterback next season. Lynch recently went as far as saying, "Jimmy is our quarterback." But the 49ers flirted with the idea of signing a then 42-year-old Tom Brady last offseason after Garoppolo led them to Super Bowl LIV, and Jimmy G didn't exactly help his case even when healthy this season. The best asset to a roster is a skilled quarterback on a rookie contract, and QBs like Fields don't come around too often.
Renner didn't add hypothetical trade details to his mock draft, but know it would cost a hefty price for the 49ers to move up eight spots. In 2016, the Los Angeles Rams traded two first-round picks (2016, 17), two second-round picks (2016) and two third-round picks (2016, 17) to move up from No. 15 to No. 1 to select Jared Goff. Washington traded three first-round picks (2012, 13 and 14) plus a second-round pick (2012) to move up from No. 6 to No. 2 in 2012 to select Robert Griffin III when Shanahan still was the team's offensive coordinator.
The Goff trade looks worse as it ages, but he did help lead the Rams to the Super Bowl in his third season, his second as a starter. We all know the RG3 trade didn't work out in the long run, but he was nothing short of spectacular when healthy under Shanahan.
"Shanahan created magic with RG3 as a rookie, and I believe he could do something similar with Fields," Renner wrote.
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Trading up to go get Fields likely would cost the 49ers two first-round picks and a second-rounder. That's a lot for a team that doesn't want to give away draft capital as it heads into salary-cap hell. So, should San Francisco make such a move? If the 49ers truly believe Fields is the guy, absolutely.
Garoppolo is scheduled to count $26.9 million against next year’s cap, including $25.5 million in salary and bonuses. It would be a cost-effective decision to move on from him. The 49ers have a CVS receipt-style list of upcoming free agents and they have to lock Fred Warner into a long-term contract ASAP. Getting rid of Garoppolo would free up plenty of money, and adding Fields would bring a different dimension to Shanahan's offense.
Since becoming the 49ers' head coach ahead of the 2017 season, Shanahan hasn't had a quarterback like Fields. Not even close. Fields has a cannon for an arm and finally would give Shanahan a QB who can take the top off a defense and let Brandon Aiyuk run free down the sidelines. His speed would bring a whole new element to San Francisco, too. Fields told the media in August 2019 that he ran a 4.38 40-yard dash hand-time and 4.43 laser-time, which would have placed him with the fastest running backs and wide receivers in the draft last year. Defenses wouldn't be able to key on running backs Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson in a run-pass option, as they also would have to keep their eyes on Fields, who has ideal NFL size at 6-foot-3 and 228 pounds.
By taking Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel in the draft the past two years, the 49ers have added explosive and dynamic receivers to go along with tight end George Kittle. The QB question remains with Garoppolo. It wouldn't with a natural talent like Fields, who can make all the throws and scare a team with his legs. This is a win-now 49ers team, whose only missing piece might be the most important position in the game.
The 49ers have shown a willingness to trade up for prospects they love. They did it last year with Aiyuk. Hell, they did it with players like C.J. Beathard, Dante Pettis and Joe Williams. Should they view Fields as the missing ingredient to a sixth Super Bowl ring, there's no reason they shouldn't go all-in on the Ohio State star.