Note: As with any article that I write, the following represents what I would do if I were in position of making the decision, NOT what I necessarily think that Shanahan/Lynch will do.
Fair Warning: This content is a bit complicated and therefore my diatribe somewhat convoluted. It might make sense to grab a cup of coffee or an alcoholic beverage before you begin reading.
First, I believe this to be a valid axiom: The most viable path to attaining consistent winning performance in the NFL is having a top-tier QB. He certainly can't do it alone (witness Green Bay, Seattle, Houston), but a good team cannot do it consistently without one (witness Chicago, Indianapolis, and, in the end, the Niners in 2019). Unfortunately, the Niners have refused to accept that premise ... apparently believing, for the past 15 years at least, that somehow they'll prevail even without a top-tier guy at the most important position on the roster. It should be obvious to everyone that that approach doesn't yield consistent winning, but people delude themselves into believing that they are somehow different. I think that it is time to accept reality ... if you want to win consistently you need a top-tier QB! If you don't have one you MUST keep trying until you do. Initially I had thought that Jimmy might have that potential if given the opportunity to develop; but two things have become apparent: (1) availability is an issue ... he has only played in 50% of the games for which he has been paid handsomely; (2) his skill limitations don't allow Kyle to use the full offensive scheme. We had no way of knowing that when he came over from New England ... but now we know! His issues have caused significant team inconsistency.
Second, let me restate my position on the Niners possibly acquiring Matt Stafford in the trade with Detroit: I supported the idea of acquiring Stafford because it offered the prospect of giving Kyle a less-limited QB to operate the offense ... not ideal, but better. However, given Stafford's age and likely duration, I was supportive conditioned on acquisition at a reasonable cost. The compensation packages apparently offered by some bidders went well beyond my definition of "reasonable" for Stafford's skill-set; thus, I think that Shanahan/Lynch were absolutely right in pulling back when the bidding exceeded an appropriate threshold. Successful executives know how to exercise discipline in their decision-making. Clearly some teams are more desperate than others and/or have GMs that lack such discipline.
Since Stafford is no longer an alternative to upgrade the QB position, where do the Niners go from here? It would seem that there are five most-likely strategies:
1. Wait to see what happens in Houston: If Watson does decide to force his way out of there, compete with a myriad of others trying to construct a winning trade package; whatever that is it will be the single most expensive alternative and will likely tax the Niners more than competitors because they have less trade currency.
2. Wait for the possible fallout from a Watson (and/or other) trade: See what other QB possibilities fall out of the Watson trade IF it even happens ... Darnold, Tua or Bridgewater possibly being available in trade IF they weren't included in a trade for Watson.
3. Consider potential free agent QBs: There are 33 available free agent QBs likely on the market and more will be added when cap-hit cuts occur.
4. Look to the draft for the QBOTF: Either passively (hoping that a viable prospect will fall to Pick #12) or aggressively (trading up to wherever necessary to potentially get "your guy").
5. Be content with Jimmy: Hope that he can stay healthy ... and productive. Maybe, even with his obvious limitations, he'll get better over time. In other words, we'll worry about tomorrow (and thereafter) tomorrow ... commonly called "kicking the can down the road".
EVALUATING ALTERNATIVES AND MAKING A SELECTION
1. Wait to get a possible shot at acquiring Watson
First, Houston is NOT going to trade Watson unless he forces them to do so by simply refusing to report or play for them again. That could cost him several million dollars in fines (no longer forgivable) but he's got cash in the bank to afford that ... if he is serious enough about leaving to go that far. Next, IF it gets that far, there are at least two additional obstacles:
Timing: This possibility could drag out into the beginning of the regular season; so, by doing this, by default, we have essentially adopted alternative #5 (be content with Jimmy);
Competition: We would be very hard pressed to present a competitive offer without decimating our roster and drafting future. We would probably only win the auction if Caserio insisted in trading Watson outside of the AFC ... simply because teams like the Jets and Dolphins have far greater trade capital than we do ... and Watson would have to agree to be traded to the Niners.
Unless you are absolutely desperate (we aren't), this alternative doesn't seem like a viable approach. Said another way, getting into the Rams' precarious position doesn't excite ... particularly if you believe that you can acquire the "next Watson equivalent" for dramatically less cost / damage through the draft (i.e., Watson wasn't always what he is now).
All that said, it would be foolish to ignore any potential for acquiring Watson IF it should ever come to that and IF the compensation package was somehow less onerous than expected. I just don't think that that will happen and it's equally foolish to put all your eggs in the Watson-trade basket and ignore other avenues for upgrading the QB position.
2. Wait for Watson-trade fallout (and other possible vet-trades)
To me, the Watson-fallout possibilities (Darnold, Tua, Bridgewater) aren't viable for the very same reasons presented in 1. above; and, it isn't clear that any of them would be any better than Jimmy. However, in addition to the fallout group there are a few other trade-for-a-vet possibilities, but none of them would make much sense either IMO:
Matt Ryan: Huge dead-money hit to Atlanta; IMO he will be their bridge to a QBOTF who they select in the upcoming draft; too old / too short duration; too costly in compensation as a bridge; a stop-gap, not a solution.
Kirk Cousins: Again, huge dead-money hit to the Vikings; why in the world would we want to pay more (draft capital and both short- and long-term compensation) for the same thing? Kirk's faults are different than Jimmy's but they're nonetheless significant.
Carson Wentz: Once again, huge dead-money hit to Philly; future performance is a complete unknown ... could be substantially better than Jimmy but could also be a complete bust; IF you make that trade you could end up being in a far worse situation than now; too much risk and not enough potential upside for the Niners IMO ... if you're going to take a big risk on a guy make it a guy that doesn't cost you this much! I think it more likely that Chicago or Indianapolis, who are in a for worse situation than we are, might we willing to take that risk in trading for Wentz.
3. Consider free agent QBs and/or cap-cost cuts
While there may be nearly 40 choices here, if we're being honest, there is only one guy, maybe two, to consider ... but neither will/should happen. Dak Prescott is not getting out of Dallas. Jameis Winston would drive Kyle insane. Nobody else would represent an appreciable, if any, upgrade over Jimmy.
That leaves alternatives #4 (draft a QBOTF) and #5 (stay with Jimmy) ... to which I say, YES, LET'S DO BOTH!
DECIDING UPON THE BEST DRAFT STRATEGY
First, let's just accept the probability that there are only four QB prospects in the 2021 draft who have the potential to become a top-tier NFL QB; they may not , but they at least have the talent and potential to become that IF they are given the right circumstances ... a solid organization and culture, excellent coaching, time to develop, strong work ethic, and a decent supporting cast around them. There are no guarantees, but it takes at least those conditions in addition to having the talent and physical skills. Is there the possibility of an outlier like Tom Brady or Russell Wilson? Sure, but how often does that happen? It isn't worth the sucker bet to try IMO (and we've come up short a number of times before); I can come up with dozens and dozens of examples (including Beathard) why looking to later rounds of the draft to find even a decent prospect rarely pays off; there are reasons why those guys are ranked where they are. Sometimes there is no other choice ... but that's not the case here.
Trevor Lawrence (Clemson) will be drafted #1 by Jacksonville. That immediately narrows the field to three guys ... alphabetically, Justin Fields (Ohio State), Trey Lance (North Dakota State), and Zach Wilson (BYU). (Selecting Mac Jones (Alabama) at #12 would be a gross reach; although he could fit into Kyle's QB specs, taking him would require a trade-down ... not probably desirable given the wealth of other higher-impact talent available at #12.)
IF we chose the passive approach, how likely is it that any one of the three will fall to Pick #12 in the draft? Obviously that depends upon the demand side of the equation. Ignoring Jacksonville, here's how I see that for the remaining 10 teams who will select before the Niners:
WILL draft a QB (1 team): #4 Atlanta
COULD draft a QB (5 teams): #2 NY Jets* / #6 Philadelphia / #7 Detroit / #8 Carolina /
WON'T draft a QB (4 teams): #3 Miami* / #5 Cincinnati / #10 Dallas / #11 NY Giants
* Could conceivably make a trade to acquire Watson from Houston. If Miami, there would be no draft impact; if the Jets, they would move to the "won't" group, improving our situation.
Any way you cut it the battle for the "non-Lawrence-3" is going to be very competitive. I don't know about you, but I don't like the odds of getting one of those three prospects by simply waiting to see what happens, hoping that one will fall to #12. Could one of the three fall to #12? Yes ... but that would seem a pretty remote possibility to me, especially with the number of teams drafting ahead of us that "could" take a QB. Accordingly, scrap the passive approach to the draft.
IF you want to get the QBOTF you have to trade up to have a realistic shot at doing so IMO. But how far up? We'd need to get in front of Philadelphia, Detroit, Carolina, and Denver for sure; that means that the target range is between #2 (Jets) and #5 (Cincinnati). I'd rule out both the #2 Jets (they will use that pick as part of the acquisition price in a Watson trade or to draft QB Wilson) and #3 Miami simply because the cost to trade up that high would be exorbitant ... the difference in cost to trade to #3 versus #5 from #12 is at least one additional future first-round draft choice. And, you still couldn't be sure that you were going to get "your guy". (How would you feel trading up to #3 only to have the Jets select Wilson right in front of you?) #4 Atlanta is not going to make a trade ... they'd like to select Wilson IF the Jets don't but otherwise will select either Fields or Lance. (Ryan's 40-year-old backup Matt Schaub is a free agent this year and the only other QB on their roster is a UDFA with far less experience than our Mullens; they've got to get a QBOTF/backup and now's the time.)
So, the target becomes Pick #5 (Cincinnati). They need pretty much everything other than QB but will likely focus on OL / WR / DL; their draft analysts, expecting that they will want to do a better job of protecting Burrow, think that they will either trade up to try to get OT Sewell (Oregon) or down to get OT Slater (Northwestern) or Darrisaw (Virginia Tech); but, if both the Jets and Atlanta go QB and Miami takes a WR, Sewell would fall to Cinci at #5. They'd need motivation to forego that possibility. And, we'd likely have competition from Detroit, Carolina and/or Denver in wanting to trade up to #5 ... and the trade-up would be less costly for all of our competitors; those three would have to give Cincinnati both 3rd- and 4th-round picks (+/-) to trade up. To win the battle I would offer Cincinnati the following for Pick $5 (value 1,700):
2021 Pick #1/12 (1,200) + 2022 first-round pick (~500) + choice of one:
WR James / WR Hurd / DL Givens
"When I evaluate quarterbacks, I try to narrow my focus to these five key areas: poise, accuracy, decision-making, play-making ability, and toughness. Lance is off the charts in all five areas.
Poise: Lance never looks rattled. He excels on third downs and in the red zone, always making the proper decision.
Accuracy: Ball placement is excellent. Throws with anticipation, which allows his receivers better opportunities to run after the catch. (how convenient, given our receivers!) Excels on bucket throws (deep balls over the top).
Decision-making: Makes full-field reads. Very quick to get to his third option before delivering the ball to the proper location.
Play-making ability: Has outstanding instincts to avoid and create from the pocket; excels on designed quarterback options/runs. Very athletic and generates big plays because of it. (sounds a little bit like Russell Wilson and Murray, except that Lance is much bigger)
Toughness: Very strong / sturdy, and he doesn't shy away from contact.
Where he needs to improve: More than anything else, Lance needs to play more snaps.
Biggest takeaway: I was shocked at the maturity in Lance's game. It's uncommon to see a redshirt senior demonstrate this type of control and mastery of a system. Lance was a redshirt freshman! I didn't expect to see such a polished player at this stage of his development.
He reminds me of: Andrew Luck. Luck is a little bigger, but they are similar athletes and they both played with a maturity beyond their age at the collegiate level. They are fearless, but they avoid being reckless.
Re: evaluation grade versus Luck: I don't have quite the same grade on Lance, but he could get there with continued growth and development."