Mac Jones, Justin Fields or Trey Lance? Breaking down 49ers’ QB options with No. 3 pick in NFL draft

With the Jacksonville Jaguars essentially a lock to make Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence the first overall pick of the NFL draft and the New York Jets expected to take BYU’s Zach Wilson second, the intrigue begins with the third pick. 

At that point, the San Francisco 49ers will receive the opportunity to reshape their future and alter the complexion of this year’s draft. 

The 49ers are taking a quarterback. That’s no secret. They’ve acknowledged as much ever since they pulled off the blockbuster trade to move up from 12th overall to No. 3. They wanted to ensure they had a chance to take the top remaining quarterback and solidify that position for the next decade. 

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan looks on from the sideline during the first half against the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium.

San Francisco’s target remains a mystery, and the 49ers’ decision could trigger other moves as quarterback-needy teams scramble to position themselves to take one of the remaining passers. 

The 49ers have enviable options. To some, there may not be a wrong answer when it comes to the top two or three remaining quarterbacks. 

Here’s a look at the leading candidates under consideration. 

Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields (1) celebrates his touchdown run with wide receiver Chris Olave (2) during the second quarter against the Indiana Hoosiers at Ohio Stadium.

Justin Fields

The Ohio State quarterback makes a lot of sense here. He has size (6-3, 227 pounds), speed (4.43 seconds in the 40-yard dash at his pro day), arm strength, toughness, leadership skills, and a proven record in big games. 

Fields would give the 49ers’ offense another dimension, and his playmaking ability would only strengthen San Francisco in the NFC West. 

A lot of the pre-draft buzz from analysts has centered on the 49ers taking Mac Jones because the Alabama quarterback is smart and reminds people of former Shanahan pupils Kirk Cousins and Matt Ryan from an athleticism standpoint. 

MORE:What makes Justin Fields such an NFL draft mystery?

But let’s not forget that Shanahan constructed a prolific offense around Robert Griffin III while in Washington. Many of his concepts from that 2012 season served as a blueprint for the offensive success teams with mobile quarterbacks enjoy today. 

Fields could use a season to acclimate to the NFL, and the 49ers have a veteran in place. The day that they traded with Miami to obtain the third overall pick, general manager John Lynch informed Jimmy Garoppolo, who has two years left on the five-year, $137.5 million contract extension he signed in 2018, that he remains a part of the team’s plans for 2021. 

The 49ers could roll with the veteran for this year and then turn the offense over to Fields the following season, similar to the approach the Kansas City Chiefs took with Alex Smith and Patrick Mahomes. 

Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Mac Jones (10) against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship Game.

Mac Jones

The Alabama quarterback may not have impressive athleticism or mobility. Several talent evaluators also say he has the weakest arm of any of the top quarterback prospects. 

But he has drawn rave reviews because of his smarts. Several NFL talent evaluators find Jones’ ability to recognize defenses and make quick decisions impressive. Some see him as one of the more pro-ready quarterbacks, even though his limited athleticism could translate into a lower ceiling than Fields or Trey Lance might have.

If the 49ers decide that a quarterback with toughness and great mental tools outweighs all of the physical gifts at a time where most teams are looking for the next Mahomes, then Jones could be their guy. 

It’s just hard to envision moving all the way up to third for a quarterback that some NFL scouts have said would probably be viewed as a second-round level prospect had he not been surrounded by a wealth of talent at Alabama. But if they 49ers are looking for the safe pick, and a guy who is reliable and can run their offense sooner rather than later, Jones could fit the bill. 

In this Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020 file photo, North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance (5) winds up to throw during the first half of the FCS championship NCAA college football game against James Madison in Frisco, Texas. The NFL announced last month that some of the top prospects were being invited to Cleveland.

Trey Lance

The North Dakota State quarterback ranks among the most mysterious prospects in the draft because his college played only one game during the COVID-19-impacted 2020 season. 

However, based on the potential that he displayed during the 2019 season – his lone year as a starter – and the physical gifts that the 6-3, 224-pounder boasts, he is viewed as an enticing prospect with quite possibly the highest ceiling of any passer in the draft.

Lance has a big arm and great mobility. He’s the type of player that Shanahan could feature in an offense similar to what he ran in Washington for Griffin – strong rushing game, read-option packages and other designed quarterback runs, and a play-action passing attack that generates big plays downfield. 

The biggest problem with Lance is he lacks experience and remains extremely raw.

Because of the refinement that Lance still needs, NFL teams view him as a project that could need a year or two before he’s ready to become a starter. But Lance’s upside could be worth the investment if a team has patience to develop him the right way. 

San Francisco seemingly has that luxury. If he can stay healthy, Garoppolo could buy Lance and the 49ers some time.

San Francisco gave up a haul of picks (three first-rounders and a third) to move up from No. 12 to third overall. Now, the 49ers find themselves in a position with enviable options. Their next call centers on which quarterback they believe is best.

Follow USA TODAY Sports NFL columnist Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.  

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