Smoke screens are as much a part of the NFL Draft as Mel Kiper Jr. and Mr. Irrelevant, the dubious distinction bestowed on the last player selected in the seventh and final round of the annual college harvest. The smoke in the 2021 draft will have dissipated long before the 259th and last pick on Sunday.
The 49ers have been bellowing smoke since March 26 when they shipped the No. 12 pick in 2021, their 2022 and 2023 first-round picks and a 2022 third-rounder to the Dolphins for the No. 3 pick. The 49ers have parlayed their immediate future to select a quarterback who has apparently captured their fancy.
Climbing nine picks to be in position to take Mac Jones, Trey Lance or Justin Fields did not come cheaply. Such a price must be an indication the 49ers are head over heels for one of them, but some draft experts claim the 49ers are two-timing Jones and Lance. “Who Can It Be Now?” has gone from being a No. 1 hit for Men at Work in 1982 to a draft jingle for the 49ers.
The smoke will disperse once the 49ers are on the clock after the Jaguars select Trevor Lawrence with the first pick and Zach Wilson goes No. 2 to the Jets. There are those who believe the 49ers cannot go wrong with Wilson, Lance of Fields at No. 3. Just ask the Jaguars (Blake Bortles in 2014), Titans (Vince Young in 2006) Lions (Joey Harrington in 2002) and Bengals (Akili Smith in 1999) what can go wrong with the third pick.
Kiper has the 49ers taking the safe route by selecting Jones. His ESPN counterpart, Todd McShay, believes the 49ers are willing to gamble on Lance. Tim Plough could make a case for either quarterback. He got a firsthand look at Lance in 2019 when North Dakota State defeated UC Davis 27-16 in Fargo. Plough was the Aggies offensive coordinator at the time. He now has the same job at Boise State.
Lance was not all that impressive against UC Davis, completing just 13 of 23 passes for 156 yards. He did rush for 43 yards and two touchdowns. UC Davis was one of five teams in North Dakota State’s 16-0 season to hold Lance without a touchdown pass. Another team to do so was James Madison in the FCS championship game, but Lance did more than enough on the ground (30 carries for 166 yards and one touchdown) in the Bison’s 28-20 victory.
“His physical stature is very impressive when you see him for the first time,” Plough said of the 6-foot-4, 227-pound Lance. “The ball jumps out of his hand, but he missed some passes against us. If you’re going to draft a guy like that, it’s going to take time. He didn’t have a lot of starts in college.”
Lance started 17 games at North Dakota State, just as many as Jones did at Alabama. The only other statistic they have in common is sacks. Jones was dropped 13 times in 2020. Sacks count as rushing attempts in college, so Jones rushed for 89 yards and lost 75 to finish with 14. Lance was sacked 13 times in 2019, so he gained 1,183 yards and lost 83 to end with 1,100. Jones had one rushing touchdown last season. Lance scored 14 in 2019.
Plough is as impressed with the 6-3, 214-pound Jones’ perseverance as he is with Jones’ passing proficiency. Jones threw for 4,100 and 45 touchdowns, completing 77.4 percent (311 of 402) of his passes with just four interceptions. Plough prefers to look beyond the numbers. He sees Jones as a quarterback who sat behind Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa before reaching the top of the depth chart. A 13-0 season and a FBS national championship are nice rewards for one season of starting.
“Mac Jones has left an impression on me,” Plough said. “He could have transferred. He wasn’t playing, so he could have gone other ways. He kept improving and competing. He’s accurate and he can move within the space of the pocket. He can really throw from the pocket. He can anticipate and be accurate.”
Jones and Lance each have a national championship under their respective belts. Now the question is which one can lead an NFL team to the Super Bowl. “They’re all good,” Plough said of the five quarterbacks who could go in the first 10 picks. “You can’t go wrong.”
We have heard that before.