Why did the 49ers draft Trey Lance over Mac Jones? Pre-draft process, rumors complicated plan

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From Bay Area to Trey Area, the 49ers have their passer of the future. Or so they believe.

The 49ers will be starting Jimmy Garoppolo once again on Sunday night as first-round pick Trey Lance recovers from a sprained knee, but Garoppolo may not be able to keep Lance off the field for much longer.

In his sole start, the rookie looked like, well, a rookie: While there were some flashes of his big arm and elite athleticism, Lance was being thrust into a very difficult situation, taking over for an injured Jimmy Garoppolo.

While the 49ers clearly believe they got the pick right, the road to get there was pretty long and winding.

Why did the 49ers pick Trey Lance over Mac Jones?

The 49ers finished the 2020 season with the 12th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, but GM John Lynch traded future draft capital to the Dolphins to move up to No. 3 overall in the queue, ostensibly to select a quarterback.

While there were three remaining first-round quarterback prospects after Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson went No. 1 and No. 2 — Ohio State’s Justin Fields, North Dakota’s Trey Lance and Alabama’s Mac Jones — reports and speculation indicated that the 49ers and Kyle Shanahan preferred Jones over Lance, and that the front office was debating the two players leading up to the draft.

The concept raised eyebrows: While Jones’ floor was likely higher than most other prospects in the draft, his ceiling wasn’t higher than other passers. At least, not on a pure athletic standpoints. 

Shanahan’s close friend, current NFL analyst Chris Simms took the position that the 49ers were actually angling for the Crimson Tide passer because of his “NFL-readiness.”

49ers-Dolphins…Kyle Shanahan trying to control his own fate. You trade up to 3 for a QB who is NFL-ready right now, not a project. And to me that says Mac Jones.

— Chris Simms (@CSimmsQB) March 26, 2021

More than athleticism or mobility, the Shanahan system is predicated on a strong run game, play action and quick processing. The general idea was: Despite not having the athletic attributes that the other passers possess, Jones’ ability to process quickly and get the ball out to receivers is something that was evident at his time in college (and apparently early on in the NFL). 

NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah also suggested that the 49ers moved up for Jones, saying as much on an episode of “The Rich Eisen Show” in March, following the 49ers trade up from No. 12 to No. 3.

“Then you talk to the people in the know around the league, Rich, and they’re like, ‘I’m telling you, this is for the ‘Bama quarterback. This is not Trey Lance or Justin Fields, this is for Mac — this is for Mac Jones,'” Jeremiah said.

Prior to the draft, the 49ers saw Jones throw twice and also saw Fields throw twice, once at a private workout for NFL teams. Niners brass seemingly opting to visit the Crimson Tide passer’s workouts over others indicated that they were likely more interested in Jones than other quarterbacks.

Through it all, one thing remained: While inexperienced, Lance had tremendous physical abilities that were, arguably, second to none in the draft. The North Dakota State Bison QB had a howitzer for an arm, an ideal frame and plus mobility that make things difficult for a defense.

Just days before the draft, reports indicated that the front office was split between Lance or Jones. The first round came and went, and Lance was selected with the No. 3 overall pick. Jones went to the Patriots at No. 15.

In the months that followed, Shanahan revealed why the team circled and settled on Lance with the third selection in the draft:

His natural ability to play the quarterback position, just in terms of how he plays in the pocket, how he can go through the progressions, how, when no one’s open, that he gives it a chance, that he recognizes it. And how quick he reacts to turning it into an off-schedule play. He plays on tape like he’s a very poised, smart person who’s been playing the position for a while.

Then you look into the other attributes, and you’re like “Oh, I haven’t even gotten to the running skill set.” I haven’t gotten to the upside of how much better he can get, the more he plays. That’s what made me like him so much right away.

The 49ers understood that Lance was going to be a bit of a project coming out, keeping Jimmy Garoppolo on the roster so Lance could sit and learn the ins and outs of the 49ers system early on.

Now, with Lance hampered with a knee issue, 49ers faithful are going to have to wait to get their next taste of the Trey Area. How long they’ll have to wait is anyone’s guess. 

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