Bay Area interest in the upcoming National Football League draft got a lot more intense after the San Francisco 49ers traded up to the third pick in the first round. They paid a heavy price for moving up nine spots, including their first round choice this year and first rounders in 2022 and 2023 along with an additional third round choice next season sent to the Miami Dolphins.
The trade made it clear that San Francisco is looking to draft one of the quarterbacks available this year in a draft considered to be QB rich. When they made the trade, they thought they might get their choice of the four considered best available after Jacksonville used the first pick in the lottery to tab Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence. That list includes BYU’s Zack Wilson, Alabama’s Mac Jones, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance and Ohio State’s Justin Fields.
Between the Jaguars first pick and the 49ers third, the New York Jets were wedged and they had traded up a couple years ago to pick their franchise quarterback, Sam Darnold. But, like so many things with the Jets, Darnold never took off with a professional career that matched his prowess during his college days with the USC Trojans. We are going to find out now whether Darnold’s struggles were solely his fault or more likely attributed to the mess that is the Jets.
The Carolina Panthers paid a small price in draft choices to acquire Darnold last week, meaning New York has decided it wants to hit the restart button for a quarterback in the Big Apple and will use their second pick in the draft to grab one of the four that remain after Lawrence is a Jaguar. San Francisco had hoped that the Jets would stay with Darnold and go for another position with the second pick … that possibility is now erased.
As for Darnold’s future, he is likely to have a career boosted by his departure from the Jets. We have other examples of QB’s that didn’t succeed with struggling teams that drafted them and went on to Hall of Fame careers with better organizations. Jim Plunkett was the first pick of the New England Patriots and struggled there before a couple NFL stops later landed him with Al Davis’ Raiders and resulted in a pair of Super Bowl wins. Steve Young struggled with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after a brief career with the Los Angeles Express of the USFL, then blossomed with the 49ers and engineered a win in Super Bowl XXIX while throwing a record six touchdowns.
In 1983, the NFL had a draft that was considered the most quarterback rich ever and six teams used first round picks to choose a field general. The Baltimore Colts took John Elway with the first pick in the draft, and then were cornered into trading him and his career with the Denver Broncos was pure storybook. It included four Super Bowl appearances and two wins. That same year, the Miami Dolphins, who had lost to the Washington Redskins in the prior season’s Super Bowl, took the last of the six signal callers chosen in the first round … and that worked out very well with the addition of Dan Marino to South Florida.
Between Elway and Marino, the four other quarterbacks chosen were hit and miss. Jim Kelly had a great career with Buffalo, leading them to four Super Bowls, while Tony Eason, Ken O’Brien and Todd Blackledge chosen by New England, Jets and Kansas City respectfully, never emerged as the long term solution those teams were looking for with their 1983 first round selections.
Picking a quarterback is highly speculative. In 1979, the 49ers selected Joe Montana with the final pick in the third round, the 82nd player chosen that year and fourth quarterback. The three that were selected in front of him were all first round choices with the Cincinnati Bengals taking Jack Thompson with the third overall pick, the New York Giants getting Phil Simms with the seventh pick in the draft and the Kansas City Chiefs taking Steve Fuller 16 selections later. Only Simms proved to be a success at the pro level and had a Super Bowl win.
In 2000, six quarterbacks, Chad Pennington, Geno Carmazzi, Chris Redman, Tee Martin, Marc Bulger and Spergon Winn were all taken before the New England Patriots chose Tom Brady in the sixth round with the 199th pick in the draft.
Now, Montana and Brady had great success, but they were also chosen by organizations that were well run from ownership to coaching. Whoever the 49ers take this year with the third pick has a real good shot at being better than the two quarterbacks selected before him because he will be going to a solid organization while Lawrence and the New York pick will have to play for the Jaguars and Jets.
In fact, I would expect Darnold’s career to now go better than whomever the Jets pick second in the draft to replace him.
In San Francisco, they are hoping for the kind of success the Chiefs engineered with the acquisition of Patrick Mahomes. In his rookie season, Mahomes played behind incumbent starter Alex Smith, then took over in his second season and has led Kansas City to Super Bowls in each of his first two years as a starter.
The 49ers plan on keeping Jimmy Garoppolo this year and have him impart his knowledge and experience on their rookie signal caller, and then presumably have their first round pick move into the starting role for the 2022 season.
Who that will be might depend on who the Jets take and more importantly what QB John Lynch and company decide is the right fit in San Francisco.