How late-round magic from the 49ers GM sets the team up for sustained success
By Brad Hamilton
Other than in 2019, when he plucked future stars Nick Bosa and Deebo Samuel in the first and second rounds of that year’s draft, San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch has a curious record of striking out badly at the top of the draft, only to strike gold on its second and third days.
No example of that oddity is greater than the split between his chosen franchise QB, Trey Lance, for whom he traded a pirate’s booty of picks to select at no. 3 overall in 2021, and Brock Purdy, the signal caller who saved the season for San Francisco after Lance got hurt, despite getting selected dead last, with pick no. 262, last year.
There’s still time for Lance to make a mark, but so far he’s vastly underperformed, having compiled a pedestrian passer rating of 84.5 while battling a host of injuries, including a broken finger in his rookie year that forced him to alter his throwing motion and a fractured ankle in 2022 that ended his season and required two surgeries to fix.
This after head coach Kyle Shanahan told incumbent starter Jimmy Garoppolo that the team felt compelled to draft Lance because Jimmy G, their best quarterback in a decade, kept getting hurt.
Purdy, meanwhile, performed well beyond how he’s been described. Meaning he’s not just doing fine for being Mr. Irrelevant or filling in admirably after Garoppolo again went down, this time with a season-ending foot fracture in week 12. Purdy finished with the league’s highest passer rating for the season, 107.3, outdoing presumptive league MVP favorites Patrick Mahomes (105.2) and Jalen Hurts (101.6).
The bold move to acquire Lance came after Lynch had repeatedly failed to draft an elite quarterback.
Prodded by Shanahan during the GM’s first draft, he gambled on CJ Beathard, picking the Iowa QB in the third-round in 2017. Beathard flamed out, replaced by Garoppolo in a midseason trade proposed by the New England Patriots.
Jimmy’s back-up that year was Nick Mullens, another of Lynch’s undrafted free agents, who was much better than Beathard — he threw for 262 yards and three TDs on Nov. 1 2018 in what was the most productive NFL debut since the merger, but then faded. He left in 2020, and now backs up Kurt Cousins in Minnesota.
Brock Purdy followed Broc Rutter, a record-breaking small-school QB who led North Central College to the Division III title in 2019 and landed a free-agent deal from Lynch, though he never made it out of camp.
But the puzzling dichotomy of such a low pick in Purdy outshining such a high pick in Lance isn’t an anomaly in Santa Clara.
It’s emblematic of Lynch’s six-year tenure at the switch.
Because that trend is also true of the running backs he’s selected, an offensive lineman and several defensive players.
Lynch appeared to get off to a dazzling start.
He earned high marks in his first draft in 2017, pulling an 11th-hour trade with Chicago that netted two first-round selections: defensive tackle Soloman Thomas at no. 3 and linebacker Reuben Foster at pick 31. Solomon disappointed while being moved around the line, and is now on his third NFL team. Foster imploded amid off-the-field scandals — arrests for pot and gun possession and suspicion of domestic violence, though he’s not been convicted of any crime. He currently plays in the USFL.
Lynch also botched it that year with a disastrous fourth pick, selecting running back Joe Williams, again at Shanahan’s urging. Williams, who had suffered two serious knee injuries in college, never played a down in pro football. There were superb backs the GM could have taken in that draft but didn’t: Aaron Jones (fifth round), Chris Carson (seventh round), and Austin Ekeler (UDFA).
His next selection, however, was a grand slam — tight end George Kittle, who is widely regarded as one of the best overall players in the league. NFL pundits have lauded the 49ers brass both for seeing Kittle’s potential, and for snagging him so late (fifth round, no. 146 overall).
Lynch also grabbed a standout nose tacke in the sixth round, DJ Jones, as well as free-agent running back Matt Breida, who excelled for the team before moving on in 2020.
But his legacy is littered with high-profile flops — Dante Pettis in the second round of the 2018 draft, Jalen Hurd in the third the following year, Trey Sermon in the third round of 2021. Lynch’s top pick in 2020, interior defensive lineman Javon Kinlaw, has been plagued by injuries and uneven performances. (Video of him getting manhandled by Philly’s offensive line during the team’s championship game loss has been viewed more than one million times.)
Lynch’s no. 1 pick last year, pass-rushing specialist Drake Jackson, was a healthy scratch during the last six games of the 2022–23 campaign, when the 49ers desperately needed to bring added pressure on opposing QBs.
But for every dud early in the process, there’s a stud down the line.
Lynch assembled arguably the best linebacking corp in the NFL without using a first- or second-round pick: Fred Warner (round 3), Dre Greenlaw (round 5) and Azeez Al-Shaair (undrafted).
Before the 49ers signed former Chiefs cover corner Charvarius Mooney Ward, their best CB might have been another undrafted gem, Emmanuel Moseley, who arrived in 2018 but tore his ACL in October and was out for the rest of the year. (Reporter Grant Cohn recently called him "one of the best players on this team.")
In addition to Breida, Lynch signed, then later traded or released, two-thirds of the current Miami Dolphins backfield: Jeff Wilson (UDFA in 2018) and Salvon Ahmed (UDFA in 2020). Another free-agent find, JaMycal Hasty, now backs up Travis Etienne in Jacksonville.
In 2021, he made up for the Sermon blunder by tabbing Elijah Mitchell in the sixth round. All Mitchell did was set the 49ers rookie rushing record for a season, piling up 878 yards in just 10 games, an average of 4.7 yards per carry.
Something similar happened this season, when Tyrion Davis-Price failed to live up to his third-round billing, and got surpassed on the depth chart by UDFA Jordan Mason, a rugged rumbler whom Shanahan dubbed his "closer" after Mason ripped off a 56-yard gain to seal the 49ers win against the Seahawks on Dec. 15, thereby clinching the NFC West title.
Though he didn’t qualify because of too few carries, Mason’s 6.6 yards per carry average would have been tops in the NFL, besting league leader Khalil Herbert’s 5.7 mark by nearly a yard per tote.
And it wasn’t much of a surprise that safety Talanoa Hufanga, a fifth round pick, became a first-team All-Pro selection this season in just his second year in the league. His skills were obvious to anyone who watched him play.
Lynch’s top pick in 2018 was offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey, who has been steady but not the stellar lineman the 49ers had hoped he might be. Other tackles who got drafted that year after McGlinchey: Pro Bowlers Orlando Brown (third round) and Brian O’Neill (second round).
Now a pending free agent, McGlinchey — who has been both solid and so-so — is unlikely to return. He and fifth-round pick Colton McKivitz had similar grades on the year from Pro Football Focus. He was at times outplayed by journeyman center Jake Brendel, a Pro Bowl alternate this year, and rookie fourth-round guard Spencer Burford, who earned a 78.5 overall grade from PFF, the highest mark of any offensive player, during the 49ers win playoff win over the Dallas Cowboys.
As frustrating as Lynch’s early round failings might be for 49er fans, his talent for finding talent late in the draft might be the key to building a strong and lasting roster.
His team was already considered among the NFL’s best prior to the start of the 2022 season, and they got younger following the draft: Eight rookies made the roster. As it stands now, 20 out of 53 players have three years or less of NFL experience.
Being blessed with not just one but two potentially great QBs on rookie contracts is a massive advantage, providing tens of millions in salary savings that San Francisco can use to re-sign its own players and attract much-needed free agents.
If Purdy does end up being the starter, the 49ers will reap the rewards of reduced QB costs for two, possibly three years. Nor will the team have to break the bank to keep Lance — potentially.
Purdy is sent to earn the league minimum this year and next — a total of $1.85 million — and won’t be eligible for a new deal until after the 2024 season. Lance is owed $9 million under his rookie deal and has a fifth-year option in 2025, considered a standard pact for a QB2, according to Spotrac.com.
The website compared them with the three other quarterbacks who played in the championship weekend.
Hurts, having just completed the third year of a four-year deal, will need to negotiate a new one soon, and Philadelphia knows what that is likely to cost — somewhere in the $40 million per year range. Joe Burrow is also up for a possible extension, and is certainly going to get more than $40 million per year as well.
Mahomes is in the third year of a 12-year deal and is set to rake in $40.5 million for the coming season.
It’s unclear how the 49ers will handle Christian McCaffrey’s contract — he signed a four-year, $64 million deal in 2020 and is set to earn an eye-popping $19.55 million in 2023, though the team is likely to restructure the terms. But however that works out, having two talented young RBs to fill out the roster certainly helps. Mitchell and Mason aren’t just cheap. They can share the workload, helping keep CMC fresh and reducing the chances of him getting injured, without much drop-off in production.
Hufanga isn’t the only young star in San Francisco’s secondary. Deommodore Lenoir, also a fifth round pick in 2021, emerged during the postseason and seems poised for a possible breakout campaign in 2023. If Moseley, entering his prime at age 26, re-ups and returns healthy, the defensive backfield could become a top-tier unit.
And for any fans worried about how Lynch and company might recover from having dealt away the team’s first and second round picks in the 2023 draft, remember that they are projected to have basketfull of mid-round selections, including three third-round comp picks and three fifth-round picks. They’ve also got one sixth-rounder and four seventh-rounders. That’s 11 total picks.
And with Lynch at the controls, it doesn’t seem to matter that he is without any first- or second-round selections.
He hasn’t done great with them anyway.