Strategic moves and big swings are commonplace in the NFL draft. Teams move up and down the draft board trying to outfox their competition and find the star player who can lead them to a Super Bowl. In the 2021 NFL draft, no team made a bigger, bolder move than the San Francisco 49ers.
The 49ers took a big risk trading up from the No. 12 pick all the way to No. 3. It cost them a lot, which means that the player they select better work out. That pick turned out to be North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance who shares quite a few similarities with another high-drafted 49ers passer: Colin Kaepernick.
The 49ers paid a hefty price to get pick No. 3
Moving up nine spots at the top of the draft costs NFL teams a lot in terms of draft capital. To ensure they got the quarterback they wanted though, this is what the 49ers had to do. ESPN reported the 49ers traded the Miami Dolphins their 2021 first-round pick (No. 12), 2022 first- and third-round picks, and 2023 first-round pick.
Two first-round picks and one third-round pick in the next two NFL drafts could represent three quality starters for the 49ers. Losing these picks will almost certainly hurt the team from a depth of talent standpoint. That said, in the modern NFL, if you don’t have your quarterback, you don’t have anything. That is the way the 49ers had to be thinking when they gave Miami this kind of haul.
The 49ers selected quarterback Trey Lance with the No. 3 pick
The majority of the intrigue going into the 2021 NFL draft centered around which quarterback the 49ers would select. Both Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and BYU’s Zach Wilson were almost guaranteed to be off the board and No. 3. The consensus was that the team was deciding between two signal-callers, Lance and Mac Jones from the University of Alabama.
The two quarterbacks couldn’t be more different. Jones is a traditional pocket passer that has played with some of the best talents in the country at Alabama. He is a proven leader with two National Championships under his belt. Lance, on the other hand, is an athletic, mobile quarterback. He only started one year (2019) at a small school that postponed their 2020 football season.
The 49ers’ brain trust of head coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch made Lance their pick, prioritizing tools and potential over a higher floor. While the names have changed, the 49ers’ philosophy seems to have stayed the same since the last time they picked a quarterback high in the NFL draft.
Trey Lance and Colin Kaepernick have a lot in common
In the 2011 NFL draft, the 49ers owned the No. 7 pick. They went defense and passed on Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, and Christian Ponder. All these players were well-known, coming from Power 5 conference schools.
The 49ers went a different direction and selected an athletic, mobile quarterback who primarily played in the obscure Pistol formation at the University of Nevada. Like Lance, Kaepernick was the tools and potential pick. Then, after Kaepernick was drafted, he sat behind veteran quarterback Alex Smith — just like Lance will likely sit for a year behind Jimmy Garoppolo.
When he got to the Bay area, teaming up with a cutting-edge offensive coordinator in Greg Roman also aided Kaepernick’s development. Lance will have that same type of mind in his corner but it will be Shanahan, his head coach. The football background of these two quarterbacks is very similar. If you’re a 49ers fan, you should hope the early results are as well.
In 2012, Kaepernick went 5-2 in the seven regular season games he started. He continued his promising start by taking the 49ers all the way to the Super Bowl where they lost to the Baltimore Ravens. He started the next year off nicely as well throwing for 3,197 yards and rushing for 524 yards in the regular season. The team would again make a deep playoff run, losing to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship game.
Kaepernick became a nationally polarizing figure based on his off-field and sideline actions later in his career but, his development also plateaued. He suffered injuries and lost his head coach, Jim Harbaugh, and Roman following the 2014 season. Prior to that though, Kaepernick reached impressive levels of success for the 49ers. Fans should hope that Lance can match these early Kaepernick years and then build on them in ways that Kaepernick wasn’t able to.
All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference