After Friday's blockbuster trade, the San Francisco 49ers are both the most interesting and most important team in the 2021 NFL Draft. Moving up to No. 3 by way of the Miami Dolphins, the draft will really start with the Niners. Everybody knows the Jaguars are taking Trevor Lawrence and the Jets are now viewed as more likely than ever to go with BYU's Zach Wilson at No. 2 by virtue of the fact that they stood pat at that spot while the team right after them in Miami chose to move down. The third pick that will be made by John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan is the first where just about anything could happen.
"Anything" being relative, of course. San Francisco made this move to secure their quarterback of the future. There is no doubt about that. The unpredictability that drives draft season drama will come in the form of who, exactly, that quarterback will be. After the trade went through last week, the only two choices seemed either Ohio State stud Justin Fields and all of his noteworthy accolades or North Dakota's Trey Lance, the most physically impressive QB in the prospect pool.
Monday, however, has brought a wave of rumors that suggest San Francisco is strongly considering Door Number 3, behind which lies Alabama quarterback Mac Jones. Jones had a great season leading the Crimson Tide to another championship but has seen his stock rise dramatically in the months since he last took the field. When the Niners made their move on Friday, it was a widely-held belief that Jones would be the fifth QB taken behind the presumptive top four of Lawrence, Wilson, Fields, and Lance, an order that has been set in stone in NFL draft circles for weeks.
Then Peter King reported in his Football Morning in America column that Shanahan and Lynch were blowing off Fields' pro day to instead go check out Jones at his field day for Alabama, sending assistant GM Adam Peters to Ohio State instead:
"For QB-seekers, what to do when the Pro Days of Mac Jones at Alabama and Justin Fields at Ohio State both happen on Tuesday? I hear the Niners will split the baby, with Lynch and Shanahan expected to attend the Jones workout, while assistant GM Adam Peters likely will lead a small delegation in Columbus to scout Fields. Not sure I would infer huge meaning to that, but it could be significant. How I view it: Jones could be the leader, but it’s not over."
In the same column, King talked to fellow NBC football guru Chris Simms, who noted that Jones is exactly the type of quarterback Shanahan likes in his offense. Simms further defended that view in the public eye on Monday when the general public got wind of the Jones-Niners rumors.
To add fuel to the fire, draft expert Daniel Jeremiah went on The Athletic Football Show and said the widely-held consensus around the league is that the Niners made this move to go and get Jones (from the 4:40 mark):
"I think the majority of people around the league believe this is for Mac Jones... It's what you hear from a lot of people, and I would say this: Of the people you want to believe and put your faith in, the overwhelming majority of people believe this is going to be Mac Jones with that pick."
It is always important to keep in mind around this time of year that half the information leaked to the media is smokescreen stuff, rumors spread with the intention of masking any given organization's true draft plans. All info leading up to the draft should be taken with a grain of salt. For all we know, the Niners are going to take Lance but are quietly making all signs point to Jones just to throw teams off the scent.
But there can be truth found even in the most outrageous of draft season rumors. In this particular situation, San Francisco has no reason to try and pull the wool over everyone's eyes. They traded up to No. 3 in order to be in charge of their own destiny. The two teams in front of them aren't trading back, so San Francisco doesn't have to be paranoid about, say, the Panthers leaping ahead to take the same guy the Niners want. Lynch could announce to media this afternoon who the Niners will take at No. 3 and no other team would be able to do anything about it.
Then you take into account that Simms' point above holds quite a bit of water. Shanahan's best teams have come with pocket-centric quarterbacks under center who don't try to color between the lines of his offense. Out of the Fields/Lance/Jones combo, the Alabama quarterback is the one best suited to that role because that's what he did under Nick Saban. Lance and Fields both had the physical gifts to improvise, so they did when they could. That isn't a point against them by any regard, simply that Jones' consistency in that area makes him a better fit for Shanahan specifically.
It is still a little hard to believe that the Niners gave up so many draft assets to pick a quarterback who has rarely been projected to go in the top-10 to this point, much less the top-5. But a franchise QB is the most valuable asset in sports. Jones has the profile of a Shanahan quarterback and any team currently without one can tell you that there's no price too high to get a good quarterback. The Jones rumors could be just that. But the evidence indicates this might be more than just smoke.