Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports


Why the 49ers must draft Justin Fields

Apr 8, 2021 at 1:41 PM4


When Jimmy Garappolo arrived in San Francisco in a trade from the New England Patriots in 2017, he was a young, athletic, and skilled quarterback. However, a couple of season-ending injuries later, his value has plummeted. The perception of the quarterback is that of an older, immobile, and inaccurate passer who often makes questionable decisions.

Garoppolo's injury-riddled stint with the Niners has caused the entire team to suffer due to below-average backup play leading to mostly disappointing results. After head coach Kyle Shanahan's third losing season in four years, he has set his mind on using the third overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft to select a durable franchise quarterback who can execute his offensive playbook effectively and has the athletic skill set to lead a deadly offense, something Garoppolo could never seem to do. The answer to San Francisco's quarterback dilemma is former Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields.

Quarterback Report


Realistically, there are only three quarterbacks in the cards for the 49ers right now at the third slot in the draft. Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson to the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets, respectively, are a forgone conclusion, leaving Justin Fields, Mac Jones, and Trey Lance for Shanahan.

Mac Jones:

Many analysts have already prematurely linked Mac Jones to the 49ers because of Kyle Shanahan's traditional pocket passer offense. With the help of an exceptional supporting cast at Alabama, Jones threw for 4,500 yards and 41 touchdowns in a Steve Sarkisian pro-style offense.

Let's start with what Mac Jones does well. Jones had great command and accuracy, throwing anywhere from checkdowns to deep strikes down the field in college. He also had the ability to read defenses and simultaneously maintain pocket awareness and anticipation while going through his progressions, which a Shanahan offense could benefit from.

Though Jones flashed solid arm talent in college, his very limited physical ability and size are signs of significant concern. Shanahan has mentioned he would like to have a quarterback who moves and avoids the pressure of the pass rush well, and Mac Jones' lack of mobility in the pocket is not good enough for this aspiration. Combine this with the fact that he doesn't handle defenders in his face well, and alarms start ringing for Shanahan, as Jimmy Garappolo has had similar problems over his tenure with the Niners. Finally, Jones lacks the necessary experience to run a Shanahan offense, which even experienced NFL quarterbacks take a while to fully grasp.

Furthermore, Jones played just over one full season and had a dominant crew of receivers, backs, offensive line, and defense. The pure talent that the Alabama roster possesses makes it easy for Nick Saban to mask some of the major issues that Jones has in his game, and his star performances against relatively weak competition should be taken with a grain of salt. For example, it's easy for Jones to throw with anticipation and read defenses when he is throwing to two star wide receivers in Jaylen Waddle and Devonta Smith, who consistently create game-changing separation from defenders, and he sits behind a sturdy NFL-caliber offensive line that rarely lets defenders leak into the pocket.

By no means is Jones a bad pick, but trading three first-round picks and a third just for the opportunity to draft a quarterback with limitations and significantly less upside compared to other prospects seems a bit rich for the 49ers.

Trey Lance:

The decision not to draft Trey Lance seems a bit easier for a couple of reasons. First, the elephant in the room: Lance played for a D-I-AA school, North Dakota State (NDSU). NDSU did not participate in the 2020 college football season, and therefore, Lance did not showcase his skills as he only played one exhibition game during the year. When last seen, NDSU was a relatively dominant conference superpower playing against no-name schools in its division. Thus, Trey Lance faced minimal pressure and did not need to develop as a passer for his team to win games. Instead, he averaged just 18 passes a game, relying mostly on his run game and play-action throws to drive the ball down the field, an unaffordable crutch for the 49er offense.

Lance certainly does have some desirable qualities. The NDSU quarterback flashed signs of unique intelligence and independence at the college level by calling pass protections at the line of scrimmage, audibles to create better plays, and pre-snap motions to adjust receiver routes through a series of hand signals based on coverage. In addition, Lance is a phenomenal athlete with running back capabilities and a far larger arm than Mac Jones.

Though Lance seems to have the physical ability and upside of someone named Josh Allen, he doesn't yet have the same experience or passing development to allow him to succeed at the pro-level. Lance could certainly be a great quarterback in three to four years in the right system sitting behind a great quarterback, like Matt Ryan in Atlanta, for example. However, for the 49ers' win-now priority, choosing Lance would not be a step in a winning direction for the next couple of years, at least. Instead, the next quarterback can do everything Lance does, but at a higher level.

Justin Fields:

We finally come to the most appealing prospect: Justin Fields. Fields is surrounded by a ton of misconceptions about his game that seem to have contributed to his draft stock drop over the course of the year. The first of the knocks on Fields is his ability to read the field and go through his progressions quickly. The fact of the matter is Fields usually never even needed to look past his first option in Chris Olave or Garret Wilson, two elite receivers he clearly had confidence in with Ohio State's offensive playbook. Even if this proves to be a detriment on the NFL level, unlike raw talent, this is a quality that an offensive guru like Kyle Shanahan can coach up.

In terms of the type of offense Fields ran at Ohio State, it is very similar to Shanahan's system in that it uses the run-pass option (RPO) a ridiculous amount, meaning the quarterback would not need to learn a completely new offense right off the bat. However, Fields isn't necessarily a perfect fit. Some adjustment is bound to happen as the quarterback ran a spread offense in which he was relied on to be a playmaker rather than Shanahan's ideal quick-distribution philosophy.

Let's move on to the great parts of Justin Fields' game. He is a brilliantly accurate passer at all three levels of the field, something he showed off during his pro day and, more importantly, during his 2020 season. He maintained this level of accuracy against arguably the strongest sets of defenses out of all of the draft prospects, with stout squads like Northwestern and Indiana on the Ohio State schedule.

Furthermore, Ohio State's offensive line was criminally overrated and often collapsed, leaving Fields to escape the pocket and run earlier than expected. Fields' speed, the fastest in the class, and his running back-level athleticism allow him to turn to another option if the pressure compromises the pocket, a tool Shanahan hasn't really had since RG3 back in Washington. The Buckeye quarterback also possesses the strongest arm in the class by far, as evidenced by the number of air yards per attempt he gains, something that a developing deep threat like Brandon Aiyuk could stand to thrive with.

Surprisingly, one of Fields' most prized attributes is his intangibles. Coaches and teammates rave about his leadership, work ethic, and toughness, reflecting in his win percentage and his skills as a passer. Fields led the charge for the Big-10 Conference to host a season in 2020 when it seemed very unlikely due to the pandemic, and also played through a broken rib in the College Football Playoffs, all feats Kyle Shanahan would gravitate towards.

Closing Thoughts


Ultimately, the Niners made a boom or bust deal in which they gave up three first-round picks, a boatload of assets, and now need to make a decision that reflects what they lost. Jones simply does not have the upside of superstar potential that warrants trading all the way up to pick three in a generational quarterback draft. Trey Lance does not match the team's timeline, however athletically gifted he is. This leaves Justin Fields, a superstar-level prospect with all the tools and skills necessary to be the 49ers' next franchise quarterback.
The views within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


4 Comments

  • H. Street
    The 49ers will draft Zack Wilson with the 3rd pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Trevor Lawrence will be the first pick by Jacksonville. The Jets will select Justin Fields at no.. 2. Once the 49ers were assured that the Jets want Fields, they made the trade to move up into the 3rd pick. Zack will be the second coming of Joe Montana. Shanahan would not give up all those picks for Mac Jones. Jimmy G is better than Jones. Shanahan would not have made the trade unless he was assured that Zack Wilson would be there at no. 3. Everything else is just a smoke screen....
    Apr 16, 2021 at 4:40 AM
    1
  • Jim
    Mac Jones was the highest rated QB under pressure in the NCAA. He was excellent under pressure so that is just plain wrong. Go look at his under pressure stats on PfF or ESPN or watch him in blitz situation. On the other hand Justin Fields goes from 77 rating to a 23.6 rating under pressure. Furthermore, Mac measured 6’2” at his pro day and 218 pounds. Fields is only one inch taller.
    Apr 9, 2021 at 5:13 AM
    0
  • Guido
    Good article well said and well played . I agree Justin Fields is the pick for the future and has the most upside and he wants to get better which always isn't the case with many players these days.
    Apr 8, 2021 at 6:37 PM
    0
  • David
    100% While I would support any of the three, with Fields I would breathe a sigh of relief.
    Apr 8, 2021 at 5:28 PM
    0

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