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NFL draft makeover: Can 49ers find an upgrade over Jimmy Garoppolo?

Eric Edholm
·9-min read

Every week during the 2020 NFL season, we’re going to — just being honest here — overreact to what we’ve seen on the field the previous Sunday and start projecting NFL draft prospects to teams that might need help at certain spots.

Think of it as a mini one-team mock draft, with early (Rounds 1-2), middle (Rounds 3-4) and late (Round 5 and later) prospects at each team’s respective position of concern.

This week’s NFL draft makeover is the San Francisco 49ers. Are Jimmy Garoppolo’s days as a 49ers starter over — and is the draft the right place to find his successor?

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

In early February, the 49ers held a 10-point lead in Super Bowl LIV with the ball and with less than 10 minutes remaining. Jimmy Garoppolo at one point was 18-of-21 passing for 195 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

In March, the team entertained the possibility of replacing its 28-year-old QB — whom they’d signed to a massive extension two years earlier — with 43-year-old Tom Brady.

How Garoppolo finished the Super Bowl (2-of-13, 24 yards, with an interception) might have been the tipping point. Perhaps general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan knew even before losing to the Kansas City Chiefs that night that Garoppolo’s limitations were a concern because rarely does one 10-minute stretch of football define any quarterback’s future.

Now, amid a mostly lost season in which injuries (including to Garoppolo) have derailed the 49ers’ quest to make amends for their Super Bowl loss, they sit at 4-6, in last place in the NFC West. And the quarterback concerns are much louder.

Garoppolo’s six-game passing totals (1,096 yards passing, seven TDs and five INTs) in 2020 for the banged-up Niners have been underwhelming. He’s currently on the injured list with a sprained ankle that is expected to keep him out for the next few weeks at the least. And there’s the slim possibility that he has taken his final snap with the 49ers.

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, right, and general manager John Lynch have big QB decisions coming this offseason. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, right, and general manager John Lynch have big QB decisions coming this offseason. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

Lynch recently told KNBR that the 49ers are “a better football team when [Garoppolo is] out there” and that the team has “a lot of belief in Jimmy." Lynch couched that by adding: “Jimmy probably hasn't played up to his standard.”

It was, at best, a tepid endorsement.

Our bottom-line belief: If the 49ers feel they can upgrade over Garoppolo, they will not hesitate to do so.

Financially speaking, the team could move on quite easily. His 2021 dead-money hit of $2.8 million would be a pittance in today’s league, even with next year’s reduced salary cap a concern for many teams. Cutting or trading Garoppolo next year could save the team $24 million or more in cap space.

It’s possible that Shanahan would want a veteran to take over for a roster that still appears built to compete for a Super Bowl title. There would be a few candidates, including Matt Ryan (whom Shanahan coached in his MVP season of 2016), Kirk Cousins (whom Shanahan coached in Washington), Sam Darnold and others.

The team absolutely is doing its due diligence on the 2021 NFL draft class as well. It would be foolish to overlook the 49ers’ consideration of a quarterback in Round 1 or elsewhere. They’re currently slated to pick 12th overall.

Lynch recently acknowledged that Adam Peters, the 49ers’ vice president of player personnel, has been on the road looking at some of the top college QB candidates. And while it’s not unusual for high-level scouts to do that type of reconnaissance work, it gives a clear picture of the 49ers’ situation: If the right QB veteran isn’t out there to consider, the draft might be the route the Niners take.

Early-round prospect

Mac Jones, Alabama

We start by trying to determine what exactly a “Kyle Shanahan quarterback” entails. Although Shanahan has worked with several different types of passers over the years, some of the common traits include clean mechanics, a quick release and a razor-sharp mind to handle the volume of what he throws at his passers in the 49ers’ system.

There might not be one prototype, but those are non-starters if a QB doesn’t have some of those elements. I once asked Shanahan what was critical for him in terms of mechanics. A shortened version of his answer:

“If a guy throws a certain way and you think, ‘We’re going to teach him at 23 [years old] to throw it differently,’ he might do it in practice and might do it in drills, but you throw him into an NFL game in the heat of a battle and he’s going to resort to who he is and what he’s always done.

“If they’re not one of the 32 best throwers on the planet, they’d better be extremely fast, they better be able to run, they better be extremely ... something, because [throwing] is something you really can’t teach.”

Alabama QB Mac Jones is having a great final season. (Photo by Andrew Ferguson/Collegiate Images/Getty Images)
Alabama QB Mac Jones is having a great final season. (Photo by Andrew Ferguson/Collegiate Images/Getty Images)

There are three, maybe four options for the 49ers in Rounds 1 or 2. Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields are out of the picture now, barring a total collapse of the 49ers’ season. BYU’s Zach Wilson also could join the untouchables list, depending how the rest of his and the 49ers’ seasons go.

Assuming Wilson — who would be a good fit for the 49ers — is out of the picture, we’re likely down to North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, Florida’s Kyle Trask and Jones.

It would be fascinating to see what Lance could do in Shanahan’s hands. But I come back to what Shanahan said at his first NFL scouting combine on analyzing players: “The less tape, the harder it is. You have to go off what you have.” Lance has 17 starts at the FCS level; it feels like he’d be too big a risk where the Niners are likely to pick.

Trask has experience issue too, even if he has played in the SEC. He has 16 college starts after not starting a single game in high school as D’Eriq King’s backup. Trask checks off some boxes that Shanahan might seek.

Jones feels like a bit more of Shanahan QB. His deep-ball touch is impeccable. His short and intermediate precision is also impressive. Jones is a very natural thrower — and he just feels like the perfect mix of what Shanahan had with Cousins and Ryan when they had their career seasons under him.

Like Lance, Jones’ lack of experience (10 starts and counting) will be a concern. That number could be north of 15 by the time the season ends, and the high-level of competition he has faced — plus four years of experience with great coaching at Bama — can offset that worry.

Can they get Jones in Round 2? Maybe. But the always-aggressive Lynch will be ready to move around to land the right QB, either down from their Round 1 pick or up from Round 2, at the right spot.

Mid-round prospect

Sam Ehlinger, Texas

The only way the 49ers draft a quarterback in this range is if they keep Garoppolo or land an veteran who is set to step in right away. Any QB drafted outside the top 50 isn’t likely to come in and contribute heavily right away.

Ehlinger’s style is similar to the 49ers’ current backup, C.J. Beathard, which would make this connection clear. Even still, if you were to ask most 49ers fans what they’re seeking in a new quarterback, a “Beathard clone” likely wouldn’t appear very high on the list of options. After all, he has been mediocre when he’s had a chance to play.

Texas' Sam Ehlinger could be a 49ers option if they go the veteran QB route in the offseason. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File)
Texas' Sam Ehlinger could be a 49ers option if they go the veteran QB route in the offseason. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File)

That pairing could still work. Ehlinger has more natural physical ability than Beathard, throws a nice deep ball and would bring a QB running element to Shanahan’s offense that he hasn’t had the past several years. With a veteran starter in place, Ehlinger could be given the proper time to develop — while possibly being used as a change-up package threat.

Ehlinger’s senior season hasn’t gone as planned, as he has been banged up and the passing progress he displayed over the course of his first three years in college has stalled. Still, there’s a competitiveness to him that can’t be overlooked.

Could Shanahan go back to his alma mater for a quarterback? Maybe. But it would not be with his 2021 starter in mind.

Late-round prospect

Jack Coan, Wisconsin

We don’t yet know Coan’s 2021 plans. Following a foot injury he suffered in August, Coan might not play this season and would be able to take a redshirt. He then could transfer to get the year of starting he missed by getting hurt and watching phenom Graham Mertz take his place. Plenty of QB-needy schools would be interested.

Entering the season, Coan was earning Day 3 buzz — and one Midwest scout compared him to “Matt Ryan lite,” in terms of his build and playing style. Had Coan played this year, his chances of getting drafted on Day 3 were very solid.

Coan was very efficient last season running a ball-control offense; he’s not a big-armed passer but was effective spraying the ball around the short and intermediate parts of the field and occasionally popping a nice deep ball where it needed to go.

This is the kind of timing and ball placement Shanahan would like to see, as Coan rips a sideline pass on third-and-5 last year against Michigan State, delivering a pass before his receiver is out of his break:

Wisconsin QB Jack Coan places this ball perfectly on time for a first down against Michigan State last year.
Wisconsin QB Jack Coan places this ball perfectly on time for a first down against Michigan State last year.

Again, Coan might not end up being in the 2021 draft class, and the chances of the 49ers taking a QB this late are low if they’ve not figured out their starting plans heading into draft season. But he is someone with the kind of skills Shanahan might be interested in.

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