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Which of Justin Fields, Mac Jones, and Trey Lance fits the 49ers best?

Assuming Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson are gone, which of the remaining quarterbacks should the 49ers draft?

Big Ten Championship Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

With the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets likely taking Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson with the top-two picks in the NFL Draft, the San Francisco 49ers have a franchise-altering choice to make at the No. 3 slot.

A lot of quarterback scouting is trying to determine a fit between the incoming rookie and his offensive play-caller. Lucky for the rookie quarterback, he has Kyle Shanahan as his head coach, which means that his skills will be maximized in this offense given the system and play-makers surrounding him.

Over the next month, our goal will be to remove any existing biases about which quarterbacks Shanahan has inherited or employed in the past and provide an outlook on which of these three players will elevate his offense the most.

John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan are putting their careers in San Francisco on the line with this massive trade. If they hit on the draft pick, they may have a one-way ticket towards greatness, but if they whiff, they might find themselves at the unemployment office together soon.

In order to evaluate these quarterbacks on a grading scale, I’ve decided to choose six different important traits for a quarterback. I will grade the three remaining prospects in order to determine our big board. Each trait will have a different maximum possible score, weighted based on what we know about Kyle Shanahan. The higher the maximum possible score, the more vital it is for the 49ers and this particular offense.

Here are the six traits, along with their maximum possible score. The total possible score is 100.

  1. Accuracy: 25
  2. Working Progressions: 20
  3. Toughness: 15
  4. Arm Strength: 15
  5. Pocket Awareness: 15
  6. Secondary Playmaking: 10

Shanahan has repeatedly spoken about how he prefers his quarterbacks to be great from the pocket, but he would have the biggest, fastest, strongest player if he could draw it up.

Given that, I think accuracy and working through progressions are the two most important traits. I think arm strength, pocket awareness, and toughness are all necessary for an elite pocket passer. I think Shanahan would love to have a quarterback who can extend plays, but ultimately I think it’s the least important to him of these six traits.


Accuracy (25)

Justin Fields (22), Mac Jones (23), Trey Lance (20)

I think it’s important to distinguish accuracy from completion percentage. Many look at the box score and believe that the completion rate is the end all be all. But this doesn’t tell us about the depth of throws, ball placement, drops, etc.

Justin Fields and Mac Jones are deathly accurate to all levels of the field. Their ball placement past 10 yards is really what sets them apart from the rest of the draft class. Both do it at such a high level consistently that it’s almost unbelievable.

Complex Sports’ Ian Wharton charted the Top-4 quarterbacks (sans Mac Jones). You can see below that Fields is in a completely different class than the other three players, especially in high-leverage situations.

In overall accuracy, there was a 12 percent difference between Fields and Jones, but there was a distinct 25 percent difference in accuracy on throws over 10 yards. That’s where I think Fields really separates himself from Lance as a passer at this point.

NBC Sports’ Derrik Klassen also charts quarterbacks, and Fields had the highest depth-adjusted accuracy of any passer since 2016 at 83 percent. Jones followed just behind at 81 percent, and Lance was at 72 percent.

One might wonder what the big difference is between 83 percent and 72 percent, but with these top-flight prospects, there has to be nit-picking at every level in order to rank these players and determine which will ultimately be the best prospect. Over the course of a game with roughly 30 throws, Fields might be more accurate on 2-3 more, which might be the difference in the outcome.

When you turn on the tape, Justin Fields has so many examples of pinpoint accuracy down the field. But here’s my favorite throw, which also shows how un-phased he is in the pocket. The subtle pocket evasion, followed by an accurate throw with anticipation, is exactly what you need in the NFL to succeed as a passer.

Mac Jones has one of the prettiest deep balls in the class, and it’s consistently placed in the right spot. Alabama has elite receivers who create separation and can make magic happen after the catch, but Jones still has to put the ball in the right spots to enable it.

It takes him an extra hitch to generate the arm strength to push the ball down the field, but it’s in a beautiful spot for Metchie to make the play.

Working Progressions (20)

Justin Fields (16), Mac Jones (18), Trey Lance (15)

Another area that Kyle Shanahan is going to value immensely is the ability to work through reads and determining where to go with the ball. This is the facet of the game that Shanahan will assist with most, installing a quarterback-friendly offense where a lot of the deciphering is completed before the ball is even snapped.

Despite what’s been widely reported, none of these prospects are “one-read” quarterbacks. They all have shown the ability to work through progressions and make the correct post-snap read based on linebacker and safety position.

I think Jones excels in this area because he doesn’t have the physical ability to extend the play like Fields or Lance, but I think he’s the best executor in this draft class — a trait which Shanahan will surely love.

Fields has been criticized for holding the ball a lot, but there’s evidence of him working from read to read in a muddy pocket and slinging the ball to his third or fourth read commonly in the progression.

The North Dakota State prospect also does well in this area, but sometimes he tends to come off of a read or progression quicker than you’d like. As a result, he sometimes foregoes a deeper-developing route for a check-down.

Toughness (15)

Justin Fields (15), Mac Jones (12), Trey Lance (13)

This is an unquantifiable trait, but I think it’s something Kyle Shanahan really values. If there’s one thing that’s common to all of the 49ers’ quarterbacks from last season, it’s their unquestioned toughness.

Jimmy Garoppolo, C.J. Beathard, and Nick Mullens would routinely stare down the gun barrel, knowing there’s a free rusher coming full speed and still deliver the ball.

Justin Fields takes the cake here, and his last 1.5 games in college are the definition of toughness. Against Clemson, Fields took repeated shots which led to his ribs being smashed in. Despite the injury, he stayed in and threw six touchdowns on Brent Venables’ vaunted defense.

The following week, Fields played through the pain in the National Championship game while getting peppered all evening long by Nick Saban’s unit.

I think Mac Jones and Trey Lance display this too, but I haven’t seen it as routinely as I do with Fields. This was the first moment that I was truly impressed with Jones, as he tosses a touchdown to Jaylen Waddle while knowing he was going to get blown up by the linebacker.

Lance was bruising in a different way, as he was used as a bully in the rushing game. His toughness was on display as he challenged linebackers and safeties on the second level head-on.


Arm Strength (15)

Justin Fields (14), Mac Jones (9), Trey Lance (15)

Given Kyle Shanahan’s quarterbacks in San Francisco, I think he values having a strong-armed quarterback, but it has to come with all the different traits above. But the most physically gifted quarterbacks his father, Mike Shanahan, inherited were John Elway and Jay Cutler — who had absolute cannons.

I’d define arm strength as being able to comfortably push the ball down the field without an extra hitch but also drive the ball down the seam or outside the numbers on a line.

This is arguably Trey Lance’s best attribute, as he has a rocket launcher for a right arm and, with the flick of a wrist, can throw it 60 yards or also throw the deep out routes from the far hash mark with ease.

I think Justin Fields has the second-best arm in this class right behind Lance, and it isn’t that much worse. He can make all the throws to all levels of the field with ease, and that was visible during his Pro Day this past week.

Pocket Awareness (15)

Justin Fields (14), Mac Jones (12), Trey Lance (10)

I keep coming back to Kyle Shanahan saying that his quarterbacks need to be great pocket quarterbacks during his latest press conference, and there were two players that were head and shoulders above the rest of the class working out of the pocket — Justin Fields and Mac Jones.

With his athleticism and skin color, most have the lazy narrative that Justin Fields is a “one-read and run” quarterback, and it couldn’t be further from the truth. All it takes is watching one-half of Justin Fields’ last game to break this silly narrative. His movement in the pocket to evade pressure, extend plays and look to throw the ball first is exactly what Shanahan would want.

Mac Jones becomes a different player under siege, but because he doesn’t have the requisite athleticism to leave the pocket and out-run defenders, he has to rely on his subtle pocket movement to create throwing lanes. He does this enough, but not on Fields’ level or consistency.

I think Lance’s pocket awareness is solid but doesn’t pale in comparison to either of these quarterbacks. From what I’ve seen, more often than not, he tends to look to run whenever he leaves the pocket, even if there’s a chance for him to make a throw down the field. Being the best athlete on the field, I don’t blame Lance for wanting to use his speed, but I still think the most successful NFL quarterbacks are always looking to make plays with their arms on the run.

Secondary Playmaking (10)

Justin Fields (8), Mac Jones (3), Trey Lance (9)

I’d argue this is the least important trait for Kyle Shanahan, but something that’s necessary for today’s NFL given the growing strength of pass rushers and lack of high-end offensive line play.

This is also where Mac Jones doesn’t hold a candle to the other quarterback prospects because of his limited mobility. When the play breaks down, his chance of overcoming the structure to create on his own drops off the map — where have we heard that story before?

Trey Lance and Justin Fields are elite secondary playmakers. When the offensive line struggles or the receivers' downfield are taken away, these two can create with both their legs and arms and overcome play-calling deficiencies.

I still think Lance tends to turn into a runner whenever he leaves the pocket a lot, but this was an example of the North Dakota State quarterback looking downfield for a receiver as he avoids the pressure.

Totals (100)

Justin Fields (89), Mac Jones (77), Trey Lance (82)

If I was to make projections, I believe that Justin Fields has All-Pro potential, while Trey Lance has Pro Bowl potential, and Mac Jones could set himself to be a franchise quarterback for a team. While I admire all three prospects, there are clearly different tiers here, and I have zero hesitation in who I think the best quarterback will be.

Ultimately, I think there’s no better quarterback for this offense than Justin Fields. I think the Ohio State product is closer to Trevor Lawrence than he is to the other three quarterbacks in this class. Luckily for the 49ers, the Jets are likely taking Zach Wilson, which will pave the way for Kyle Shanahan to find his franchise quarterback.

Since Fields ran a 4.44-second 40-yard dash at Ohio State’s Pro Day and is built like a well-chiseled athlete, most assume that he’ll be an athlete first and a quarterback second. I have watched 10 complete Ohio State games and was blown away by how much of a pocket passer Fields was. I think that’s ultimately going to be the kicker for why Kyle Shanahan will fall in love with him during the pre-draft process.

Ryan Day’s offense consisted of a lot of deep-developing routes, which required Fields to calmly maneuver the pocket while working his reads to hit a lot of home-run plays. He routinely did so, against the best of competition on the brightest stages. Fields played two Top-5 defenses, per Football Outsiders’ DFEI rating, while no other top prospect faced that caliber of defensive competition.

Fields is deathly accurate, right behind Mac Jones as the most accurate passer in this class. He’s pinpoint to all levels of the field, but he excels in the intermediate range of the field, where he completed 73 percent of his 37 attempts in 2020 — which ranked third among all passers in the last five seasons.

I think the 49ers’ headman will be impressed by Fields’ toughness, as he played through broken ribs in the last 1.5 games of the season while routinely making throw after throw while getting destroyed in the pocket by Clemson and Alabama.

I’m not saying Fields is a perfect prospect. I think still think he tends to hold the ball a bit too much on certain plays and can be more efficient working through his progressions.

While some have argued that Trey Lance has a higher ceiling than Fields, I think the Ohio State signal-caller has a significantly higher floor and has nearly the same ceiling, given their similar physical profiles.

I’ve never gone through a draft process before and wondered why analysts criticize a player as dominant as Fields, but it seems to be his turn this draft cycle. Shanahan and Lynch shouldn’t overthink this selection and run to the podium to grab the second-best quarterback prospect in this class.