SANTA CLARA, Calif. — If history is any indication, the San Francisco 49ers‘ move up in the NFL draft to take a quarterback with the No. 3 pick isn’t going to work out.
Armed with a loaded roster they believe can get them back to contention next season, Niners coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch traded significant draft capital — three first-round picks and a third-round pick — to the Miami Dolphins for a purpose: finding a long-term, franchise quarterback capable of winning Super Bowls. Plural.
On the surface, the chances of that happening aren’t good. According to ESPN Stats & Information, 44 quarterbacks have been selected in the top three during the past 50 NFL drafts. Of those players, only two — Troy Aikman and Peyton Manning — have gone on to win a Super Bowl with the team that originally drafted them.
In the past 15 years, five teams have traded up for a top-3 pick and used that pick on a quarterback. None of those players lasted more than five seasons with the team that drafted them, though four of them made at least one playoff appearance before departure.
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None of that was lost on the 49ers when they made the trade.
“You study historically how things work but we have got great confidence in this group of players that are up there and now we hone in and continue to examine each and every guy that we have interest in at that spot,” Lynch said on March 29. “And ultimately do our best to find the guy who is going to be a great part of this organization’s future.”
But while previous failures would indicate an uphill battle, some solace can be found in this: The 49ers are about to do something that’s never been done before.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the highest a team has drafted a quarterback only one season removed from a Super Bowl appearance was 25th overall, when the Green Bay Packers picked Don Horn in 1967. Barring a surprising trade back or an even more surprising pick, that’s going to change on Thursday night when the Niners make their choice.
“Whoever they draft at No. 3 could be walking into a situation where you have a roster in San Francisco that can compete for a playoff spot,” Matt Bowen, ESPN NFL analyst, said. “I think that’s fully right now what Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch believe is they have a roster that can compete for a Super Bowl. If you trade away future first-round picks, you believe in this roster right now. … But in terms of the quarterback, you’re not walking into a team that is talent deficient in key areas. You’re walking into a team that the head coach and the general manager believe is a quarterback away from winning the Super Bowl.”
Indeed, the Niners’ bold move is a product of their belief in the foundation they’ve built and what that could mean for any rookie quarterback entering the mix. Where many rookie quarterbacks walk into difficult situations, the 49ers don’t view their setup as anything remotely resembling a rebuild.
While San Francisco doesn’t have the same roster it did when it went 13-3 and won the NFC championship in 2019, many key factors remain. Linebacker Fred Warner, tight end George Kittle, left tackle Trent Williams and defensive end Nick Bosa are established as foundational players for the long term.
In addition, Shanahan and offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel are still widely-regarded as innovative offensive minds. Whoever the Niners draft will also have Kittle, receivers Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel and running backs Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. in place.
“I think the guys going one and two are going into some tough situations,” J.T. O’Sullivan, former NFL quarterback and creator of Youtube’s “QB School” channel, said. “I think the 49ers is not that situation. I think it’s got the potential to be a pretty great situation for a young quarterback. … It’s an organization that normally a third pick doesn’t get to go into with what that franchise is right now.”
The Niners could also offer a rookie quarterback the chance to sit and learn before starting. Carson Palmer is the only quarterback selected in the top three in the common draft era to not start a game as a rookie, waiting behind Jon Kitna for the 2003 season.
Although it could change if the Niners get a trade offer they like for incumbent Jimmy Garoppolo, Lynch and Shanahan have been adamant he will be the starter to begin 2021 and a rookie would most likely start the season on the bench.
That could be beneficial for any of the quarterbacks who are under consideration by the 49ers. Zach Wilson‘s 30 collegiate starts with BYU and Justin Fields‘ 22 at Ohio State are the most while Alabama’s Mac Jones and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance each have 17 on their résumés.
“History tells you that the correlation for success at the quarterback position, there’s a high correlation from games started and game experience and normally it’s like 25 plus games,” Todd McShay, ESPN senior NFL draft analyst, said. “So, it gives you an opportunity to get this quarterback ready and maybe not have to start him Week 1.”
One more thing history tells us: With the potential for five quarterbacks to land in the top 15 for only the second time in the common draft era, it’s unlikely all will succeed.
“All five of these guys are not going to be really good,” Mel Kiper, ESPN senior NFL draft analyst, said. “There’s going to be a bust and there’s going to be a disappointment. Now, good luck having your crystal ball to figure that out.”
If things go according to their plan, the 49ers won’t need a crystal ball. They already have what they need to become the exception to the rule.