Opinion: 49ers show they're not afraid to be bold with quarterback play at top of NFL draft
Beat your opponent to the punch.
That’s what coach Bill Walsh used to preach when John Lynch played for the Hall of Famer at Stanford a generation ago, and it’s pretty evident that the message stuck. And fitting that Lynch, now the shot caller with the 49ers, would invoke the name of San Francisco's legendary coach Monday while explaining the philosophy behind the decision to deal away first-round picks in the next two NFL drafts in order to snag the presumed next franchise quarterback with the third pick in the upcoming one.
“Once we decided this was something we wanted to do and might we pay a little bit of a premium for that?” Lynch said. “Yeah, but we felt like this was a priority.”
Make that a lot of premium.
Never mind that it has been just three years since San Francisco signed Jimmy Garoppolo to a five-year, $137.5 million extension. They can’t trust Jimmy G. to stay healthy, while the young arms in this draft — five are projected as early first-rounders — apparently offer potential they think they can’t afford to pass up.
They won’t get a shot at Trevor Lawrence, who's seemingly headed to Jacksonville. And many expect that BYU quarterback Zach Wilson will be gone, too. That likely leaves the 49ers, moving from up from the 12th slot in the first round, with a choice of either Ohio State's Justin Fields, North Dakota State's Trey Lance or Alabama's Mac Jones.
“We felt pretty strongly we were going to get left at the altar sitting there at 12,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said, "the way we think this draft is going to go and the way all these candidates are, and the way a lot of teams are in a position to take a risk to fill that need."
A quick, public-service announcement: This is the NFL draft. There are no guarantees here. It wasn’t too long ago (2016) when the Rams traded a boatload of picks to move up to draft Jared Goff with the top pick overall. Goff helped L.A. get to a Super Bowl, but he was such a franchise quarterback that he was traded to Detroit this year. And the other part of the the 1-2 quarterback draw at the top of that draft, Carson Wentz, also was traded this offseason, while a fourth-round pick from that class (Dak Prescott) just landed a deal paying $40 million per year. Shanahan said the magic word: risk.
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I’m not sure that a GM-coach combo without the long-term security the 49ers granted Shanahan and Lynch — signed through 2025 and 2024, respectively — are making this move.
Then again, you can’t knock their aggressiveness. That’s been the Shanahan-Lynch identity when it comes to building this team. Their bold move to deal for Garoppolo in 2017 (giving New England just a second-round pick), along with a bevy of other moves, paid off with a Super Bowl berth. But banking on Garoppolo has been so frustrating, given that he has missed more games (25) than he has played (23) the past three years. It would be a bonus, considering the history, if Garoppolo can keep the next quarterback on ice for an extended time. Thus, the homegrown route to try to solidity the future of the position for a longer haul.
“This is a risk we were willing to take,” Shanahan said. “We looked at how our four years have gone. We looked at how we want the next four years to go.”
We’ll see about the next four years, but after a disastrous, injury-marred plummet to a last-place, 4-12 finish, the 49ers have had an impressive start to 2021. They kept left tackle Trent Williams by making him the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history (six years, $138.06 million), protecting Garoppolo’s (and ultimately his successor’s) blind side while getting their nerves tested when he strongly considered bolting to the Chiefs. Williams, too, is an example of the 49ers' identity with personnel moves, coming over from Washington in last year's trade that reunited him with Shanahan and cost the 49ers just third- and fifth-round picks.
The 49ers also kept fullback Kyle Juszczyk as a key cog to the running game, brought in savvy veteran center Alex Mack (also reuniting with Shanahan) and added a budding pass-rusher in Samson Ebukam. And a big chunk of the cap room needed for the free agency moves came with the roughly $10 million created in restructuring Dee Ford’s contract. Sure, they lost young wideout Kendrick Bourne to the New England Patriots, and they won’t return cornerback Richard Sherman, weighing his free agent options.
Yet all told, the 49ers have done much to seemingly change the vibe after last year’s disaster.
That they faced up to the reality check of Garoppolo’s injury history was bold in its own right. They paid Jimmy G. — who has sparkled when healthy — then demonstrated that no one is sacred. Besides, if the young quarterback of the future works out, he’ll play for several years on a rookie contract.
“It’s hard to succeed when your starting quarterback doesn’t stay healthy or it you don’t have one of those true starting quarterbacks,” said Shanahan, mindful that the 49ers were 17-8 the past three years with Garoppolo and 6-17 without him. “We’ve gotten that with Jimmy. He’s played at a very high level when he’s played. It’s been tough, the two years he’s missed. It’s been hard to compete the same way.”
Maybe that will change for the 49ers, who have beaten a few other quarterback-needy teams to the punch…if they pick the right one.
Follow USA TODAY Sports NFL columnist Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.
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