The San Francisco 49ers are betting big on getting their franchise quarterbacking the 2021 NFL Draft. History says it’s a very dangerous decision.
The old saying of fortune favoring the bold? When talking quarterbacks in the NFL Draft, that’s a filthy lie.
The San Francisco 49ers are hoping to buck recent history. On March 26, they traded two future first-round picks and a 2022 third-round choice to the Miami Dolphins in order to move from No. 12 overall to No. 3 in the upcoming NFL Draft.
San Francisco will be taking a quarterback to replace its incumbent starter, Jimmy Garoppolo. If the 49ers pick the wrong player, general manager John Lynch may eventually pay for the mistake with his job. Head coach Kyle Shanahan could suffer the same fate.
And while the 49ers are generally being lauded for their aggressiveness, the past 15 years says they’re fighting against trend lines.
Since 2006, 29 quarterbacks have been selected in the top 10 picks of their respective drafts:
*Draft position in parenthesis next to their names
2006 – Vince Young (3), Matt Leinart (10)
2007 – JaMarcus Russell (1)
2008 – Matt Ryan (1)
2009 – Matthew Stafford (1), Mark Sanchez (5)
2010 – Sam Bradford (1)
2011 – Cam Newton (1), Jake Locker (8), Blaine Gabbert (10)
2012 – Andrew Luck (1), Robert Griffin III (2), Ryan Tannehill (8)
2013 – NONE
2014 – Blake Bortles (3)
2015 – Jameis Winston (1), Marcus Mariota (2)
2016 – Jared Goff (1), Carson Wentz (2)
2017 – Mitchell Trubisky (2), Patrick Mahomes (10)
2018 – Baker Mayfield (1), Sam Darnold (3), Josh Allen (7), Josh Rosen (10)
2019 – Kyler Murray (1), Daniel Jones (6)
2020 – Joe Burrow (1), Tua Tagovailoa (5), Justin Herbert (6)
Of this group, only 13 have at least reached a single Pro Bowl. Of them, Ryan, Luck, Newton, Mahomes, Goff and Young are the only ones to enjoy multiple Pro Bowl campaigns.
Distilling it further, Mahomes, Ryan and Newton are the only First-Team All-Pros, while they also represent the three MVPs of the group. Incredibly, only Mahomes started in and won the Super Bowl.
In short, how many of these quarterbacks are worth the draft capital San Francisco sent to Miami, even factoring in potential of the younger aforementioned names?
Mahomes, Allen, Newton, Ryan, Herbert and Luck — even with the shortened career — are worth the picks. Depending on perspective, Stafford, Mayfield, Murray and Burrow might be. The other 19 are inarguably not worth three top-100 choices, let alone two first-rounders.
Lastly, look at each of those classes. With the admitted caveat we don’t know enough about the last few classes, it appears there’s not a pair of franchise quarterbacks in any of those years found in the top 10 picks. The last time it happened is arguably 2004 with Eli Manning and Philip Rivers. Before that, travel back to 1971 with Jim Plunkett and Archie Manning. Even then, shaky.
Going into the 2021 Draft, there’s five seemingly sure-fire top 10 quarterbacks on the board. Barring the miraculous, Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson will go to the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets, respectively, to start things off. Then there’s Alabama’s Mac Jones, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance and Justin Fields of Ohio State. One of them will play for San Francisco, while the others likely don’t get past No. 9 overall and the Denver Broncos.
Historically speaking, at least three of these five youngsters will range from middling starter to outright bust. If Lawrence, who is the best prospect since Luck, doesn’t miss the mark, that leaves San Francisco with approximately 25 percent odds to have its trade work out.
While being bold makes sense, the logic seems faulty in another regard. The 49ers are trading years of their best picks — which also means theoretically their top young, cheap talent — for the crop’s third-best quarterback. And while each team has its own scheme and evaluation, it would be difficult to find anybody in the league who believes Lawrence and Wilson aren’t the top two prospects at the position.
No team, under any circumstance, would ever trade so much for the third-best player at any other position. Yet because the NFL is such a passing league, the gamble isn’t outrageous, even if it does carry significant risk.
For the Niners, the calculation is understandable. They aren’t ready to admit reality in public terms, but Garoppolo is both oft-injured and average. He’s played one full season and although San Francisco reached the Super Bowl, that was more about a suffocating defense and incredible run concepts than it was his right arm.
In said campaign, Garoppolo won a playoff game attempting eight passes. In the Super Bowl, he was a caretaker until asked to be more in the fourth quarter. The enduring image for he, the fans and likely his front office have is an overthrow to a streaking Emmanuel Sanders in the final minutes.
The 49ers understand they have a terrific roster. They also have one of the most innovative offensive minds in the league. With a top-tier quarterback who can effectively use play-action and hit on deep shots, San Francisco is a lethal team even in the loaded NFC West.
In this regard, Lynch and Shanahan don’t want a retread to replace Garoppolo, nor do they want to travel the same road repeatedly with No. 10, hoping for different results. They should be commended for their willingness to go all-in.
Still, the facts of recent drafts can’t be ignored. The 49ers fighting history in a robust manner.
If they land a franchise-level player, their investment will be worth it and then some.
If not, their boldness will have gone bust, just like their pick.