The 49ers will enter the offseason with a host of important decisions in front of them, one of which has to do with the most crucial position in sports.
Following a season that was derailed by horrible injury luck, the 49ers will have a top-15 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Depending on what happens in the Week 17 games Sunday, they actually could finish with the No. 10 selection. That has many thinking the 49ers should use that high pick to draft a franchise quarterback.
It's becoming increasingly clear that both coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch view Jimmy Garoppolo as the most reasonable and most likely option to return as the 49ers' starting QB in 2021. That's a decision I believe the 49ers will make, freeing them to use the top pick on a different position of need.
However, the great thing about the NFL draft is that it makes hope spring eternal. Until a team makes a pick, fans can dream about Player X or Y becoming their next star.
That is never more prevalent than with each year's crop of quarterbacks. With the 49ers having a top-15 pick, the topic of trading up to select one of the top four QBs in the class has been broached by many.
There's no need to think about Clemson star Trevor Lawrence, who's set to be a Jacksonville Jaguar with the No. 1 overall pick. I wouldn't be surprised if they already were selling teal No. 16 jerseys.
The next two quarterbacks in the class are Ohio State's Justin Fields and BYU's Zach Wilson. NBC Sports Bay Area's Donte Whitner, an Ohio State alum, already has said he believes the 49ers should sell it all to go up and grab Fields.
But Wilson is the guy the 49ers should target if trading up is on the board.
(Let's be clear: Trading into the top 10 to pick a QB will command a hefty price -- one the 49ers likely won't want to pay. 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.)
This is no knock against Fields. He's a talented thrower of the football who can beat you with his legs. But he's struggled mightily against the blitz this season, and he had two sub-par games against Indiana and Northwestern, the two best teams Ohio State played during the Big Ten season. He might be more of a project than a team that is primed to win now is seeking.
Wilson has been incredible all season, and his rise up draft boards mirrors that of Joe Burrow last season. Prior to the year, Burrow was seen as a Day 3 prospect, but he put together arguably the best season in college football history for LSU, and was taken No. 1 by the Cincinnati Bengals.
Now, if you're into advanced metrics and analytics, they will tell you that Wilson, prior to carving up Central Florida (425 yards, three touchdowns) in the Boca Raton Bowl, had the exact same PFF grade (94.9) as Burrow did last season. While Wilson's overall season wasn't as prolific as Burrow's -- he also wasn't surrounded by a host of first-round talent -- an argument can be made that if Wilson was entering the draft in any other year, he would be the No. 1 pick.
Let's start with Wilson's arm strength. The 21-year-old throws from a 3/4 arm slot but can legitimately put the ball wherever he wants.
Wilson's athleticism and mobility also should make him an intriguing prospect for the 49ers. San Francisco was carved up by Josh Allen this season. They've had a front-row seat to Kyler Murray's unique abilities for two seasons, and have spent almost a decade battling Russell Wilson.
The NFL is headed the way of dual-threat quarterback who can extend plays outside the pocket while keeping his eyes up field and make big throws for explosive plays.
Wilson is great at using his legs to extend plays outside the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield and putting the ball on the money. He's shown great adeptness at running bootlegs, and does well to flip his hips when rolling left to deliver an accurate ball.
He also is good at moving at extending plays while inside the pocket and deliver strikes on the run.
Wilson is the ideal quarterback for the way the NFL is headed. Shanahan always has been partial to pocket passers, but the way BYU's offense was structured should give the 49ers reason to believe he would be a seamless fit.
The 49ers' run game is predicated on the outside zone run and using play-action boots off that. A majority of college offenses have the quarterback primarily in shotgun, if not exclusively. But, per PFF's Seth Galina, BYU ran outside zone on 52 percent of its plays this season, and Wilson took 18 percent of his snaps under center. That means Wilson, unlike some quarterbacks entering the NFL, would feel comfortable running outside zone play-action and bootlegs. This season, Wilson used play-action on 38 percent of his dropbacks and recorded a passing grade of 92.9.
Wilson isn't a finished product, but there is reason to believe he could enter into the NFL and perform well immediately, given his familiarity with the offensive structure that a number of NFL teams use.
To top it off, Wilson's rocket of an arm is exactly what NFL general managers want. Per PFF, Wilson threw 38 passes from the left hash to within 10 yards of the right sideline with a grade of 96.4. Flip that -- throwing right to left -- and he had a grade of 90.5 on 29 throws.
Plain and simple, Wilson was a stud in 2020. He'd almost certainly be the No. 1 pick in a draft that didn't have a transcendent talent like Lawrence, and I expect he'll pass Fields as the No. 2 QB by the time the draft rolls around.
Garoppolo almost certainly will be back as the 49ers' starter in 2021. They've won a lot when he's been healthy and can use what is likely to be a top-12 pick to bolster the secondary or get another edge rusher. That's the smart thing to do when you have a roster that's built to win now.
But we know the 49ers have sent scouts to watch Wilson. They had to have liked what they saw. He's out of their draft range now, though, and it would take a kingly sum to move up into the top five, perhaps to No. 2, to grab him.
It's not a decision I expect the 49ers to make. They want to stockpile and replenish draft capital. But can you put a price on drafting a franchise QB?
Yes, you can. And Wilson just might be worth it for the 49ers.