The 49ers badly need a franchise-altering quarterback, and lucky for them, their timing just may be perfect because this upcoming offseason will be filled with enticing quarterback options.
49ers GM John Lynch has gotten off to a nice start in his first year. He’s given the franchise a public relations lift and re-made nearly 60 percent of roster from last year’s frustrating 2-14 campaign. If he were a student, he would be the guy who has done well on the first few quizzes and is working his way toward a good grade in the class.
If building an NFL champion was a class, the final exam would be to find the next great quarterback and it would count for 95% of the grade.
In today’s NFL, the quarterback means everything. If you have a good one, your team has a chance to be good, and if you have a great one, you have a chance to win Super Bowls.
Football is still a team game, and even an elite quarterback can’t succeed if surrounded by a substandard cast. But having that star quarterback is a prerequisite to winning Super Bowls. The NFL has 53-man rosters and 10-man practice squads and yet most team’s fortunes are almost always directly tied to the quality of their signal-caller.
The list of quarterbacks whose teams made the 2016 playoffs includes Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Derek Carr, Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson, Eli Manning, Dak Prescott, Matthew Stafford, Alex Smith, and league MVP Matt Ryan. Compare that group to the list of quarterbacks who played for the league’s six worst teams (Jets, 49ers, Bears, Browns, Jaguars, and Rams). It’s a list that includes Cody Kessler, Josh McCown, Brian Hoyer, Matt Barkley, Colin Kaepernick, Blaine Gabbert, Blake Bortles, Jared Goff, Case Keenum, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Bryce Petty.
If you want to win the Super Bowl, you better get a top-tier quarterback. The two best quarterbacks in history, Joe Montana and Tom Brady, have combined to appear in 11 Super Bowls, winning 9 of them.
In the last 10 years the only quarterbacks to win Super Bowls are Brady, Peyton Manning, Wilson, Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Roethlisberger. Of that group, only Flacco will fall short of the Hall of Fame.
If you study the entire Super Bowl era, the only truly average quarterbacks to win Super Bowls are Jim McMahon with the 1985 Bears, Jeff Hostetler with the 1990 Giants, Trent Dilfer with the 2000 Ravens and Brad Johnson with the 2002 Bucs. Three of those four teams, the Bears, Bucs and Ravens, were led by historically dominant defenses that more than compensated for average play at the quarterback position.
The number one goal of this season for the 49ers should be to properly evaluate their current quarterbacks Hoyer and rookie C.J. Beathard. Hoyer, who has been on six teams in the last seven years, has proven to be a journeyman to this point and is likely just a place-holder. Beathard demonstrated a veteran’s poise in the preseason, but also struggled with his accuracy at times. It would be nice to see Beathard get at least seven or eight starts in the second half of the season to see what he can do. Beathard’s performance in November and December could determine how aggressive Lynch is in his pursuit of a quarterback in March and April.
The primary goal for the offseason will be to identify and acquire the franchise’s next great quarterback, and there will be multiple options available in both the trade and free agent markets as well as the April college draft. The free agent market for quarterbacks is usually incredibly thin and is often filled with career backups, but this year may be the exception. The quarterbacks who are currently slated to be unrestricted free agents next March include the Saints’ Drew Brees, the Patriots’ Jimmy Garappolo, the Vikings’ Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater, and possibly the Redskins’ Kirk Cousins, if Washington opts not to retain him on the franchise tag. Cousins has been heavily rumored to be headed to the 49ers to reunite him with his former coach Kyle Shanahan, and at this point, he would have to be considered the front runner for the job.
The quarterback trade market could also be an option for the 49ers with three extremely interesting candidates potentially becoming available in Sean Mannion, Alex Smith and Andrew Luck. Lynch made some astute trades this year. The 49ers will enter the 2018 draft with ample trade ammunition with five picks in the first three rounds. The Rams have a talented backup quarterback in Mannion, who is currently blocked by Goff. Mannion, a Pleasanton native, was a four-year starter at Oregon State and left as the Pac-12’s all-time passing leader. He’s a tall, relatively immobile pocket passer, but he has developed nicely and finished the preseason with a 64.5 completion percentage with two touchdowns, zero interceptions, and a 91.4 rating.
Smith could also find himself on the trade market if he’s unable to vault the Chiefs into the Super Bowl this season. Kansas City traded their 2018 first-round pick to move up in last April’s draft to nab Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes, an incredible physical specimen who has often been compared to a young Bret Favre, lit it up in the preseason, completing 63% of his passes with four touchdowns and zero interceptions. It’s Super Bowl or bust for Smith this year. If he guides the Chiefs to Minneapolis, Mahomes stays on the pine for another season, but if he falls short of that, Mahomes will become the starter and Smith will be searching for a new address. If Beathard shows promise this year, Smith could become the ideal tutor to add to the 49ers quarterback room.
Luck ran a Colts’ offense that ranked 10th in the NFL last year in yards-per-game and eighth in points-per-game(25.7) and he’s only 27-years-old, so why would the Colts consider dealing him? The truth is Luck may be damaged goods at this point. He’s taken 156 sacks and 576 hits and enters this season coming off of shoulder surgery that may cause him to miss a good portion of this season. It’s possible that new GM Chris Ballard could fire head coach Chuck Pagano and pawn Luck for a package of picks, essentially hitting the reset button on his entire organization. Lynch gambled and won on his doctors’ medical intel on Reuben Foster’s shoulder, while other teams passed. Will he gamble on Luck regaining his health? It’s a high-risk, potentially high-reward acquisition.
The draft is considered to be one of the best quarterback drafts in years. There are three elite prospects who are likely to be top five picks in April in USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, and Wyoming’s Josh Allen. Darnold, a redshirt sophomore, took the starting job away from Max Browne last year and led the Trojans to nine straight wins capped by an incredible 453-yard five-TD game versus Penn State. Darnold lacks experience and has an unorthodox delivery but he’s likely the first pick in the ’18 draft.
Rosen was a 5-star recruit and has huge arm talent. He set a UCLA school record for most consecutive passes (245) without an interception, but he struggled last year due to UCLA’s poor offensive line and running game, and eventually hurt his shoulder and missed the 2nd half of the season. This year Rosen has added 15 pounds to his frame and is looking elite. He had four touchdown passes in the fourth quarter to beat Texas A&M and led UCLA to touchdowns on their first seven drives versus Hawaii. Allen grew up rooting for the 49ers in Firebaugh, Ca., a small Central Valley town. He is a 6-foot-5, 233-pound pocket passer who led Wyoming to the Mountain West Championship game and the Poinsettia Bowl. Lightly recruited out of high school because he didn’t attend the elite high school prospect passing camps, Allen began at Reedley Community College and says he models his game after Aaron Rodgers.
The draft is exceptionally deep at the quarterback position even outside of the first round and three guys to watch for this fall are Washington State’s Luke Falk, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham.
Falk was originally a walk-on and has thrown 38 touchdown passes in each of the last two seasons, leading the lowly Cougars to 17 wins, the only two winning records the program has had since 2003. He’s 6-foot-4 225-pounds and throws the ball with uncommon accuracy, Mayfield was also lightly recruited out of high school in Austin, Texas and was a walk-on at Texas Tech in 2013 before losing his job to Davis Webb, and transferring to Oklahoma. The past two seasons, Mayfield has thrown for 76 touchdowns and only 15 interceptions. A mobile quarterback with elite improvisational skills, Mayfield was simply special in Columbus, Ohio last Saturday, completing 27-of-35 passes for 386 yards and three touchdowns in an upset win over Ohio State. Mayfield may be a tad short at 6-foot-1, but he has that “it” factor and tremendous swagger and confidence. Stidham was supposed to be the quarterback of the future at Baylor before Art Briles got fired and Stidham opted to sit out a year and transfer to Auburn. He is a big, strong, athletic prospect who can run. He needs development, but he has impressive traits and could be a draft day sleeper to watch for.
Lynch and his hand-picked personnel assistants Adam Peters and Martin Mayhew will spend countless hours over the next seven months evaluating all of their various quarterback options. It’s their most important decision and one that they must get right.
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