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QB rankings: Breaking down four of the top draft QBs by trait to see who best fits the 49ers

From arm strength to improv, we figure out which of the four “available” QBs in this draft is best-suited for the No. 3 overall pick.

CFP National Championship Presented by AT&T - Ohio State v Alabama Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

When we’re evaluating and watching NFL Draft prospects in a vacuum, it’s tough to project players as one player might fit better in a specific offense than another. Since we’re dealing with Kyle Shanahan and the San Francisco 49ers, life is a lot easier.

When discussing quarterbacks, everyone ever will tell you, “he’s a great fit for a Shanahan offense.” Who isn’t that true for, though? Kyle has the most QB-friendly scheme you’ll find. That’s a cop-out and doesn’t give us any tangible info we can build off.

It’s vital to hold analysts accountable, as that builds credibility over time. In 2016, I thought Jared Goff was a late second-round pick, and Carson Wentz was a fifth-rounder. In 2017, I had Patrick Mahomes as QB1 and Deshaun Watson as QB2, both separated by one slot.

The 2018 rankings don’t look as hot, with Josh Allen earning a high third-round grade. Lamar Jackson was in the mid-first, followed by Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen in the early second round. I felt that Baker Mayfield was a late second-rounder.

I only share those, so you have an idea where I’m coming from and know that I don’t pretend to be right 100% of the time and learn from past mistakes.

Today, we’ll go through each of the top four quarterbacks projected to go in the top half of the NFL Draft sans Trevor Lawrence since he’s believed to be locked into the top spot. We’ll discuss Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, Trey Lance, and Mac Jones to determine which QB is the best fit for Kyle Shanahan.

Many expect Wilson to go to the Jets at No. 2 overall. A week ago, nobody thought the 49ers would trade up to No. 3. We shouldn’t rule out anything, so we’ll include Wilson today.

For the first time in a long time, each quarterback possesses enough traits to warrant where they’re projected. Jones is the biggest “reach” for a first-round QB, but you understand why a team would select him on the first day of the draft. Now at No. 3? I wouldn’t go that far. But, again, we have to expect the unexpected.

We’ll rank each player from the most accurate to the best player in the pocket. We also have to acknowledge — this will be pure projection — the human side. Which player would Shanahan gravitate towards simply because he likes his style of play the most? Fair or not, if an evaluator in charge falls in love with the players’ style, he’s going to give him the benefit of the doubt for a mistake he otherwise wouldn’t give someone else.

We’ll give four points for first place, three for second, two for third, and one for fourth, then tally up each to see who comes out as the winner at the end.

All-in on Accuracy

Accuracy was an issue for every quarterback under center in 2020 for the 49ers. Too many yards were left on the field because QBs could not deliver the ball where it needed to be. Frequently, the pass-catchers bailed out the quarterbacks with tremendous catches. Citing completion percentage is not indicative of a quarterbacks’ accuracy.

There is so much nuance to the QB position. Just because the pass is completed doesn’t mean it’s a good throw. Also, just because the quarterback completed the pass doesn’t mean it was the correct read, either.

I worked with Ian Wharton for a couple of seasons at Bleacher Report a few years back, and he does excellent work. Wharton charted each of the top QBs, and the results favored Fields, and it wasn’t particularly close:

Fields led in six of the ten categories. Most importantly, Fields’ accuracy didn’t falter under pressure. If you watched any Ohio State game this past season, you’re aware that their offensive line couldn’t pick up an elementary stunt. They made the Niners’ offensive line from this past season look like world-beaters. Fields had to make a play with a defender in his face time and time again.

That’s an extreme example, but it gives you an idea of how Fields was unfazed by pressure.

We can lump touch under accuracy as well, which is why Fields ranks highly. In the play below, Ohio State runs a “sit” route with the No. 1 wide receiver to the bottom of the screen to hold the coverage, that way the tight end can sneak behind the defenders in the end zone:

If Fields throws this ball flat, it’s an interception. He places the ball on the top shelf where only his receiver can make a play. It may not seem like much, but Fields uses his eyes to influence the defense long enough and uses perfect trajectory on this throw.

Ian didn’t chart him, but Jones is more accurate than each of the quarterbacks mentioned above. Yes, he played at Bama with four first-round wide receivers. That doesn’t take away from where Jones located the ball. The sole reason you take Jones in the first round is due to where his passes end up.

Jones hits players in stride and away from the defender. There are numerous instances where Jones puts the ball where only his wideout could make a play. In the play below, Jones finds the Heisman trophy winner in the back of the end zone after taking a big lick from an unblocked defender:

That’s the definition of throwing a receiver open.

Where Jones has the leg-up on the rest of the field is his timing. Jones lets the ball go before you’d ever think of throwing it to a wideout. Again, Jones is under pressure but still throws with incredible timing and anticipation on this pass. Notice how early Jones releases this ball and where it lands:

Jones is the accuracy champion between the four QBs listed, thanks to these types of throws ubiquitous in every Alabama game. Jones’s touch at every level is superb and the reason he’ll be drafted in the first round.

Accuracy rankings

  1. Jones
  2. Fields
  3. Wilson
  4. Lance

Wilson’s lower body mechanics affect his accuracy. Wilson double and triple hitches in his drop, which causes his accuracy to take a slight dip. Wilson’s ball placement, when asked to throw from any platform, is impressive.

Lance is by far and away the least accurate quarterback of all. Too often, his passes don’t hit wideouts in stride at the intermediate level. Lance tends to “aim” his throws. He was the most inconsistent of the bunch due to inconsistent upper body mechanics. Sports Info Solutions has a “prediction completion percentage” stat, and Lance was the only QB who was in the negatives.

Pocket mobility/movement

NFL defenses are faster than ever. The use of simulated pressures and disguises from defenses means that more defensive backs and linebackers are blitzing and getting a free run at the quarterback. Offensive linemen’s jobs are more complicated than they’ve ever been.

In today’s NFL, you need a quarterback who doesn’t panic under pressure and can subtly move in the pocket to avoid the rush. With all of the twists and games defensive lines run now, offensive linemen have no choice to “take them where they want to go.” You’re inevitably going to have to move off your spot and make throws off platform in today’s game.

Each of the quarterbacks discussed today excels in the pocket, and that’s why I believe they’ll all be successful at the next level. Jones is objectively the worst athlete of the group, but you don’t have to run a 4.5 40-yard dash to know how to maneuver in the pocket. Jones is excellent at taking a step or two in a direction, finding a better throwing lane, and getting the ball out in time.

For a 19-year-old, Lance was impressive in the pocket as he never let the pressure from the defense affect him. You’ll see quarterbacks every Sunday drop their eyes at the sight of another color. That wasn’t an issue for Lance, which tells me he’ll only get better with more reps. For me, I have a difficult time watching Lance and thinking he won’t be a great QB at the next level after seeing Josh Allen turn into a star. Lance’s ability in the pocket is a big reason why.

The play below is why I believe Lance is a prodigy. It’s one of the first third downs of the game. NDSU is running a slot fade to the top of the screen. Lance takes a quick peek to the left and sees the safety has the vertical route “capped,” meaning there’s no shot at getting a completion on that route since the wideout cannot close the distance between him and the safety.

Lance then gets to his second read, the tight end running a “stick” route. There is too much “trash” to throw it to him, so Lance gets to his third read. Lance sees the opposite color flash not once but twice in his vision. As you can see, the subtle pocket movement buys him enough time to get to the “dig” route and hit him in stride.

Lance continually had bodies flying around him, yet he never seemed bothered or hurried. Factoring in his age makes it easy to believe Lance will be a big-time quarterback thanks to these types of reps.

Jones may have had a worse offensive line at Alabama than Wilson did at BYU. This adds to the difficulty when it comes to evaluating Wilson. If you watch long enough, you’ll see that Wilson has a few bad habits in the pocket. There are times when Wilson’s internal clock doesn’t go off. Other times, he leaves the pocket too early.

There were a few plays against Houston where Wilson looked like a deer in headlights when faced with pressure. Here is one of them:

Wilson’s lack of feel/anticipation for pressure is concerning.

The same cannot be said for Justin Fields, whose subtle pocket movement to him outright avoiding unblocked defenders is special. If we’re ranking offensive lines, Ohio State was near the bottom for any draft-eligible quarterback. If you went a series without them surrendering some pressure or failing to block some elementary game from the defensive line, it was a surprise. There are endless examples of Fields under pressure during 2020.

There were a few plays from the Rutgers game that instantly comes to mind. Fields’ evades a free rusher on two plays, one from up the middle and another off a cornerback blitz, to create a first down.

You never want to rely on your athleticism, which is why this following clip you’re about to see is a better indicator of how special a player Fields could be at the next level.

Ohio State is looking for a big play here. This is the area of the field where a lot of offensive coordinators design their “shot” plays. The wideout to the bottom of the screen comes off the line of scrimmage as if he’s stalk blocking. After a quick pause, the receiver works up the field and gets into his route. Because the safety has “capped” the deep corner, the wideout does a nice job of snapping his route off at a flatter angle.

After the left guard and center fail to pick up a twist, Fields effortlessly slides away from the pressure and hits his wideout:

As you can see, Fields eye level doesn’t change, despite him having to move off his platform. I also like this rep as it shows Fields is comfortable turning his back to the defense from under center.

This next play is why Fields is, to me, QB1-b in this class. You cannot teach this. There are a handful of plays throughout the game where the defense will be better than you. It happens. You need a guy to make the defense wrong even when they’re right. That’s one of Fields’ best traits:

Those are the types of quarterbacks you bet on in the NFL. The ones who can manipulate the pocket and squeeze every micro-second out of the play to buy time

Pocket movement/mobility rankings

  1. Fields
  2. Lance
  3. Jones
  4. Wilson

I’ll also factor in “under pressure” here. Jones mechanics fall apart when pressured and no longer looks like a “clean” prospect, and it starts with his footwork. When you lack top-tier physical tools, you must remain sound mechanically under pressure. That may be Jones’s biggest drawback.

Here is the remaining quarterbacks’ career individual QB rating from Sports Info Solutions, which is described as:

Sports Info Solutions’ proprietary quarterback metric that builds on the traditional Passer Rating formula by isolating competitive throws (e.g., by excluding throwaways and only including accurate completions) and eliminating the effects of results outside his control (e.g., dropped passes, dropped interceptions).

Lance: 120.1

Fields: 104. 3.

Wilson: 69.9

Wilson’s numbers are a bit worse when you factor in 2018 and ‘19. As you saw in the clip above, there were enough occasions under pressure where Wilson didn’t stand tall in the face of pressure.

Lance was ignorant to pressure. He didn’t react, and it was almost as if he didn’t know any better. That is another reason why I believe Shanahan is high on him, as most evaluators should.

The most significant difference in this category was that Lance didn’t put the ball in harm’s way under pressure as Fields did. That likely explains the difference in the IQR listed above. If the goal is to end every drive with a kick, Lance gets that.

Under pressure rankings

  1. Lance
  2. Fields
  3. Wilson
  4. Jones

Fields has a better feel for the pocket and is more challenging to bring down than Wilson, so he wins this coin flip. I’d say each of the three quarterbacks will excel under pressure in the NFL.

Arm strength

When people think of arm strength, “how far can you throw the ball” is usually the first thing that comes to mind. Any high school quarterback could fling the ball 55-60 yards in the air. But can you stretch the field horizontally to every level of the field? Do your throws lose RPMs when you have to make back-shoulder throws or comebacks?

You don’t see quarterbacks with god-tier arms like Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, or Kyler Murray throw wobbly passes when they’re making these throws. You see this a few times a game with Wilson when he has to throw down the field and outside of the numbers. Wilson can generate upper body torque, so it looks as if he has a whip of an arm, but that’s all aesthetics.

Wilson’s pro day further reinforced my belief that he has a good, not great arm. You could see he overcompensated on a handful of throws, whether it was due to overrotating his upper body to generate torque or simply hitting the intended receiver on the incorrect shoulder.

At Jones’ pro day, receivers had to slow down to catch his passes down the field. Mac’s arm wasn’t exposed at the college level, thanks to impeccable timing. When he’s asked to throw off his backfoot or off schedule in the NFL, you’ll have a better sense of how average his arm is.

Fields has ample arm strength to throw 65-yard bombs to deep out routes to the college hash. Fields has a plus arm, and he’d have the strongest arm of a Shanahan QB since RGIII.

Unless Shanahan takes Lance.

At Lance’s pro day, the ball was whistling. NDSU was comfortable enough to let Lance make decisions at the line of scrimmage and have full-field reads. Lance took full advantage, as you’ve seen in clips above, where he’d have the arm strength to hit a receiver coming out of his break on time as the third read.

Lance’s arm strength is effortless at each level of the field. It doesn’t matter if he’s throwing a 60-yard bomb with the flick of the wrist or an 18-yard dig route on a line. That is how I’d define arm strength, which is why Lance wins the arm strength title.

Arm strength rankings

  1. Lance
  2. Fields
  3. Wilson
  4. Jones

Improv skills/Rushing ability

If you’re still fretting about the potential of Jones going to the Niners at No. 3, I will implore you to listen to Shanahan’s press conference from Monday. From words like “risk” to “elite tools” to him mentioning being able to run around and make plays off-script, I think we can safely assume Jones isn’t the guy for San Francisco.

The play didn’t break down often for Jones, but when it did, he couldn’t do what the other QBs listed can. The NFL will be more of a wake-up call for Jones.

Wilson relishes for the moment the play breaks down. It’s almost as if he invites it. There are times when he’s a little too quick to leave the pocket, but there is no denying Wilson’s ball placement when he throws from any platform outside of the play structure.

Shanahan has to daydream about Fields’ potential running a bootleg or using his legs as a bluff that defenses must respect to open up the 49ers running game. One of the scariest parts, for defenses, is when Fields breaks the pocket. He keeps his eyes down the field and is looking to throw. Fields is an elite athlete who should run a high 4.4 40-yard dash.

It’s not often a guy who projects to run that well is “sneaky fast,” but you’ll see Fields outrun defenders’ angles. He’s the fastest player I’ve ever seen with heavy feet if that makes sense. He’s also strong enough to run through arm tackles on designed QB runs. Per Sports Info Solutions, excluding sacks, Fields averaged 8.6 yards per carry and added 0.24 EPA on 60 carries. That’s more than two yards higher than Wilson against stronger competition.

Lance was a threat to score every time he dropped back. Lance would politely run linebackers over while accelerating past defensive backs. On 169 rushing attempts, Lance averaged 7.8 yards per attempt with an added EPA of .033. Had it not been for Lamar Jackson, we’d be talking about Lance as the best rushing QB to come into the NFL since Cam Newton.

Shanahan all but said he couldn’t win the big one with a Kirk Cousins type of QB on Monday. We’ll find out in a month for sure, but if Kyle has evolved, then the signs point to Lance or Fields.

Improv/rushing rankings

  1. Lance
  2. Fields
  3. Wilson
  4. Jones

Outlook for each

We’ve been through every trait that it takes to succeed in the NFL, and here are the rankings:

  1. Fields - 17
  2. Lance - 16
  3. Wilson - 9
  4. Jones - 9

For me, Fields is closer to Trevor Lawrence than he is to Lance. He’s an exceptional talent who could turn into an MVP under Shanahan. There are sure to be bumps and bruises, but that’ll go for any rookie, which remains true for the current QB on the roster. The best way for a quarterback to learn is under fire. Fields is a star.

Lance isn’t far off, but I can’t give him the same type of credit as I can with Fields considering there are apparent accuracy issues he must fix. I don’t buy that Lance is “raw.” An argument can be made that he’s more NFL-ready than anyone when you factor in what Lance was asked to do at the line of scrimmage and how he executed.

I’m always leery of a QB coming out of nowhere, and that’s the case for the final two. Both would excel in Shanahan’s offense, but who wouldn’t? Wilson has the biggest bust potential, while Jones has the lowest ceiling.

Wilson comes with a buyer beware tag who is the flavor of the month. He’s good, but not on the level as the others.

Jones can play, but he’s not a guy you would take in the top-10 picks in any other draft, so that shouldn’t change in this draft.