Niners factoid: The last piece in the big March 26 trade with Miami that netted the third overall pick was a bonus that fell from the sky. At least that’s how the Niners thought about the 2022 third-round pick that they threw in to complete the trade with Miami. That third-round pick is one of two Compensatory Picks the Niners got for developing and then losing Robert Saleh to be the head coach of the Jets. “We never counted on having a three for Robert Saleh,” Kyle Shanahan told me. “So I looked at that as a complete bonus that made it worth getting the trade done a month in advance.”
Around draft time, reporters dig, and friends of people in the league nose around. So Adam Schefter has been close to the Shanahans since he covered the Broncos for the Denver Post, and Chris Simms has been close to Kyle Shanahan since they were teammates at the University of Texas. So they sniffed around when the Niners traded from 13 to three, and both Schefter and Simms thought there was a good chance San Francisco would make Mac Jones its first-round pick. If the two people who know Shanahan the best in the media think it’s more likely than not Jones, well, of course, the avalanche will follow. And it did. “We weren’t going to work to correct that,” said Shanahan. “But to see how much this matters to so many people was just unbelievable. It really taught me a lot about people. And I guess it’s awesome for our league, all the attention.”
The Niners gain nothing by saying who they’d pick—and Shanahan said he and Lynch didn’t know for sure Lance was the guy till April 19, the day of Lance’s second Pro Day practice in North Dakota.
I asked him: How did you know it should be Lance?
“It’s so hard for me to give a quick answer,” Shanahan said from California.
“His natural ability to play the quarterback position, just in terms of how he plays in the pocket, how he can go through the progressions, how, when no one’s open, that he gives it a chance, that he recognizes it. And how quick he reacts to turning it into an off-schedule play. He plays on tape like he’s a very poised, smart person who’s been playing the position for a while.
“Then you look into the other attributes, and you’re like ‘Oh, I haven’t even gotten to the running skill set.’ I haven’t gotten to the upside of how much better he can get, the more he plays. That’s what made me like him so much right away.
“But it’s also, once you do that, you see all this, now let’s talk about what’s wrong. Why isn’t this a slam dunk? You hear his school [level of play], the lack of throws, not playing the 2020 season. Those are real things. That’s why I’m glad that we had a long time to go through it. Because you love the tape, but just like everyone in the league, there are some stuff you can’t just say it’s a slam dunk. That’s the stuff that worries you about it. But that’s what was so cool about the kid, that going through this process after we moved up to where I talked to him so many times, to have him go through the number of tests and stuff that we have them all go through . . . I can’t tell you how special of a person he is. It has nothing to do with football.
“He’s extremely intelligent. He knows how to handle situations. He knows how to carry himself. The guy that I see on tape that I tried to describe that I see such a natural quarterback, such a smart player. Well, if I never saw the tape, and I got to hang out with him first, I would’ve felt that same way with him as a person and been like, ‘Man, I hope the tape matches this person!’ You know? That’s kind of what was cool about it. The first time you watch the tape, ‘Man, hell yeah!’ But no decision’s set in stone in January. That’s how I felt in January when I saw him. But I was going to do the process right. Watch everybody. Every guy. I can always spend two hours and get myself to like anyone. Then, I go to the time getting myself to not like him. And I see what ends up sticking. That’s what was cool about him through the process at the end. No matter what I tried to do to say, It’s too risky!, all that stuff kind of went away the more I got to know the person. I went back to how I originally felt about the tape.”
The process: After the Niners’ season ended, Shanahan and family went on vacation. Most days, he’d do family things for part of the day and watch college quarterbacks (plus Matthew Stafford and Deshaun Watson, once rumors put them on the street) for part of the day. Jones was the first passer he studied. The Niners were at 12 then, and maybe Jones would be the only quarterback available there. After watching big chunks of his 17 Alabama starts, Shanahan was revved up about him. I’d definitely take this guy at 12, he thought.
Lance was the last college guy he studied. Playing at a lower level, and playing only one game, made Lance sound like the riskiest prospect to Shanahan.
How he did the study was interesting too. The 49ers’ video department puts a blank bar on each video clip, so Shanahan—instead of taking notes in a notebook—can type in his notes on every play. After he finished his pass-through of tape study on Lance, he emailed Lynch between 20 and 40 plays of Lance so he could see what Shanahan was seeing, and he told the GM words to this effect: I’m obsessed with the type of stuff we can do with this guy. Shanahan said Lynch couldn’t sleep that night, he was so excited about Lance’s prospects for the offense.
“I’ve always been intrigued when you can have a guy make the defense play 11-on-11,” Shanahan said. “It just slows down the game a little bit. You cannot have a guy that only makes them worry about the run. It’s just a matter of time before that becomes pretty easy to contain and that’s not built to last. You’ve got to have a guy that can do both.” Shanahan didn’t say this to me, but he had to be thinking about the mobility of Lance and the relative lack of it with Jones, and he had to be thinking of the exquisite accuracy of Jones (74 percent) versus the decent accuracy of Lance (65 percent) in college. Everything had to be considered.
Once they were sufficiently smitten with Lance, the Niners also knew it was doubtful he’d be available at 12. Lynch spent much of March fact-finding on trades. Jets at 2, no. Dolphins at 3, maybe. Falcons and Bengals at 4 and 5, no and no. Lynch and Shanahan weren’t totally set on Lance yet, but they were leaning that way. Could they have made a better deal than the gargantuan price of first-round picks in ’22 and ’23, plus a three next year, to move just nine spots? Could they have waited and done better? Possibly. But there was so much buzz about teams moving up for quarterbacks. They had to be comfortable enough to move knowing they’d now have a month to pick between Lance, Jones and Justin Fields. “You get up to three,” Shanahan said, “and it’s not about upside anymore. It’s about, You can’t miss.
So many younger coaches and GMs don’t treat first-round picks like priceless vases anymore. They’re capital. When you want something bad enough, go buy it—even if the price is more than you dreamed of paying.
“Everyone talks about the draft capital and I totally understand all that,” Shanahan said. “I know, growing up, how I felt about first-round picks. Those are such a big deal, and it’s true. They are. But I kept making the point just watching teams in our division these last few years, watching Seattle trade two ones for a strong safety, watching the Rams do it where they haven’t had one five years in a row, do it for a quarterback and a cornerback. I think all those were good moves. I think they have helped their teams.” Without the two future ones and the three, Shanahan knew Miami would stick at 3, and the prospects of moving up were not good. If the oft-injured Jimmy Garoppolo got hurt again and the Niners lost out on the quarterbacks because they wouldn’t pay the price, Shanahan would have been sick.
In his office in Santa Clara, Shanahan would call in coaches and debate the quarterbacks with them, trying to never give a clue who he liked. But slowly, he came to value the versatility and mobility of Lance. Two days after the Lance Pro Day, Shanahan and Lynch told each other they were done. Lance was the guy.
They didn’t tell the coaches, he said, till the Jaguars picked Trevor Lawrence.
“You wouldn’t tell me nothing!” Lance said when Shanahan called to tell him he was the pick with the Niners on the clock.
A lot of people connected to this story will have good stories to tell their grandchildren one day. Now all Lance has to do is be great.