The San Francisco 49ers almost certainly traded their 2021, 2022, and 2023 first-round NFL Draft picks to the Miami Dolphins for the third overall pick so they could select a Kyle Shanahan type of quarterback. But which of the top prospects in this year’s NFL Draft is really a “Kyle Shanahan type of quarterback?”
The smart money is on Ohio State’s Justin Fields, who attended Shanahan’s “QB Collective” offseason camps as a prep star. But the internet was full of post-trade speculation that Shanahan might prefer Alabama’s Mac Jones, who is less athletically gifted than Fields but (purportedly) more polished and NFL-ready.
Let’s not forget North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, an ultra-talented FCS mystery box who lost nearly all of his 2020 season to COVID cancellations. But let’s forget Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and BYU’s Zach Wilson, because the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets are drafting them, and everyone is 99.9% certain of it.
The real question is which prospect Shanahan prefers. There’s been a lot of talk over the last few days about which quarterback is the perfect “system fit” or meets this-or-that Shanahan specification. Most of that talk has been dreary, quasi-informed blindfolded archery. A little guesswork is part of the job description in my line of work, of course. But even when speculating for fun and profit, it’s important to at least try to get the facts straight.
With that in mind, here’s a detailed look at Kyle Shanahan’s quarterback history. It’s filled with big names, drama, a few almost-triumphs, and lots of tragedy. And it shows just how hard it will be to pin down exactly what the 49ers plan to do with that third overall pick.
Kyle Shanahan’s QBs: Robert Griffin and Kirk Cousins
Mike and Kyle Shanahan held a father-and-son retreat with Robert Griffin before Washington made him the second overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. (The Indianapolis Colts made it clear that they were selecting Andrew Luck well before the draft, making such a skull-session possible). That due diligence appeared to pay off when Shanny & Son tailored an option-flavored offense to Griffin’s talents. Griffin earned Offensive Rookie of the Year honors and Washington a playoff berth.
Alas, Griffin suffered an ACL tear in a playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks on a FedEx Field surface that looked like it had just gone through a truck rally and Burning Man. Washington had hedged its bets by drafting Cousins in the fourth round of the same draft as Griffin. Sure enough, a quarterback controversy ensued that would rage until after Kyle Shanahan skipped town for Cleveland.
It would take an entire gritty Netflix documentary to cover all the twists and turns of the Griffin/Cousins/Shanahan/Shanahan saga. The elder Shanahan was well known as one of those bosses who mistakes “conflict” for “competition” and was quick to blame others (Griffin, mainly) when things went sideways. There were lots of side characters stirring the pot, from Dan Snyder to Griffin’s helicopter father. The he-said/he-said stuff reached Degrassi levels.
Anyway, it’s hard to pin down Kyle Shanahan’s preferences or role in any of this, as he was still just acting as a crown prince. Cousins completed just 52.3% of his passes and threw 7 interceptions in three starts and two relief appearances in 2013, Kyle’s final year in Washington. So Cousins never really “succeeded” under Shanahan; folks who claim he did are getting their history mixed up.
In fact, the one quarterback who truly succeeded under Kyle Shanahan in Washington was Griffin before the injury and the soap opera. The 49ers are almost certainly seeking a quarterback who avoids injuries and soap operas. But then, so are everyone else.
Kyle Shanahan’s QBs: Johnny Manziel and Brian Hoyer
Kyle Shanahan did not choose Johnny Manziel. Manziel chose the Browns. It was up to Shanahan to cope with the fallout.
Legend has it that Manziel texted Browns quarterback coach Dowell Loggains saying he was ready to “wreck the league,” as Manziel slid down the draft board in 2014. Loggains forwarded the text to head coach Mike Pettine and Browns owner Jimmy Haslam. Haslam made the call to draft Manziel, whom much of the league knew had the personnel habits at the time of a typical late 1970s punk rock drummer.
Shanahan, the new Browns offensive coordinator at the time, is pointedly left out of the “wreck the league” yarn. So, he got saddled with a rookie quarterback chosen by one of the league’s worst owners and Adam Gase’s future wingman.
Manziel proved less than NFL-ready on a variety of levels as a rookie. Journeyman Brian Hoyer won the starting job. Hoyer played well early in the season but went through a November stretch when he threw zero touchdowns and 7 interceptions in three starts. Manziel started a pair of games and looked like someone who was using his playbook as a drink coaster.
Then, Manziel pulled a hamstring. South Carolina legend Connor Shaw finished the season at quarterback.
All we can really learn from Shanahan’s time in Cleveland is that he can craft offenses that make journeymen look good for a month or two and that he prefers quarterbacks who don’t think “Party Like a Rockstar” by Shop Boyz was a philosophical treatise.
We already know that Shanahan can make ordinary quarterbacks look pretty good. As for Manziel, well, every coach comes away from their stint with the Browns with a hard-earned life lesson or two.
Kyle Shanahan’s QBs: Matt Ryan
The Ryan-Shanahan relationship was a little rocky at first. Ryan suffered one of his worst NFL seasons when Shanahan became the Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator in 2015, with a career-high 17 interceptions. There were rumors of a rift between the quarterback and the coach. Then, as NFL Network’s Mike Silver reported in 2016, they “just worked it out over a couple of beers.”
The beers clearly worked. Ryan was the MVP in 2016, and the Falcons won the NFC Championship and the first three quarters of Super Bowl LI.
When many of us think of a “Kyle Shanahan quarterback,” we think of 2016 Ryan. But it’s important to note that Ryan wasn’t a natural fit in what Shanahan wanted to do. It took that 2015 season for the pocket-bound Ryan to get used to the rolling pockets and play-action designs Shanahan installed.
It’s also important to note that there is no 2016 Matt Ryan in the 2021 NFL Draft class. Just because Mac Jones looks good standing in the pocket and throwing to a stacked receiving corps doesn’t make him a 31-year-old playoff-tested Pro Bowl the way Ryan was when he teamed up with Shanahan.
The Shanahan-Ryan relationship is also worth noting since Shanahan has a “nice guy” reputation, and Ryan has the public persona of dry toast. Shanahan might have inherited some of his father’s pot-stirring habits. Don’t assume that he’s drafting a quarterback just because he liked the kid’s handshake at a quarterback clinic.
Kyle Shanahan’s QBs: Jimmy Garoppolo & Friends
Garoppolo was the first quarterback Shanahan got to have final say on. While general manager John Lynch was the one who traded to acquire Garoppolo from the New England Patriots, no Papa Shanny or truck stop tycoon was involved in the decision.
When the 49ers traded for Garoppolo, he was coming off a pair of impressive performances in relief of Tom Brady during DeflateGate. Garoppolo was also just three years removed from his status as a small-school Senior Bowl darling. He was considered an accurate touch passer with a lightning-quick release and a touch of mobility.
A great scouting report, a little experience, a Patriots Seal of Approval, and three seasons breathing the same atmosphere as Brady? What could possibly go wrong?
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Well, injuries. Also, limitations as a deep passer and decision-maker. Shanahan used every trick in the book to create short, scripted throws to receivers in space for Garoppolo. It worked well enough to get the 49ers to the Super Bowl when Garoppolo was healthy. But Shanahan was using game plans similar to the ones he used to prop up Hoyer, and he was forced to turn to backups Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard for long stretches of 2018 and 2020.
So is Shanahan searching for an idealized version of Garoppolo? If so, the 49ers are looking for a laser-accurate quarterback with a quick release who moves well, makes smart decisions, isn’t afraid to throw the deep ball, and can put some oomph on the ball when he does.
Yep, that’s just about what every team is looking for. Shanahan has been coaching NFL offenses for nearly a decade, and it’s not really clear what his “type” is.
Justin, Trey, or Mac?
Most NFL decision-makers don’t really have a quarterback “type.”
Sure, Mike Mayock and John Elway like tall guys with strong arms. And many defensive coaches act as though every turnover is a betrayal of the ideals of democracy itself, which is why they often prefer veteran checkdown artists. But ask an offensive coach what he looks for in a quarterback, and you’re likely to get a boilerplate cliché dump:
I like a guy who’s the same every day. Who doesn’t get too high after wins or too low after losses. I want someone who takes command of the huddle. He has to be waiting in the parking lot when the janitor unlocks the door to team headquarters. I’m not worried about arm strength or scrambling. I want decisiveness, competitiveness, accountability, leadership …
In other words, most coaches are seeking an idealized version of their younger selves (but with their 40-plus-year-old brains) at quarterback. It explains why Elway likes tall guys with rifles, but it doesn’t explain what Shanahan and the 49ers are planning with the 3rd overall pick.
There’s a perception that Shanahan “chose” Cousins over Griffin and perhaps Hoyer over Manziel. That perception may be working in the background when many analysts speculate that Shanahan prefers the less-impressive Jones to Fields or Lance.
In reality, Griffin got injured then got caught in an ego maelstrom in Washington. Manziel chose wine, women, and song over the NFL.
Meanwhile, when Shanahan coached one of the most pocket-bound passers in the NFL in Ryan, he convinced the quarterback to move around a little bit more, and it worked.
Shanahan’s “quarterback-friendly system” also gets a workout when we try to guess his intentions. Just because a coach can make Hoyer or Mullens look good for a few games doesn’t mean he wants to work with Hoyer or Mullens types. Andy Reid’s system is quarterback-friendly too, but he upgraded from Alex Smith to Patrick Mahomes as soon as he got the chance.
The 49ers almost certainly traded up to finally give Shanahan some pure (healthy, sober) raw talent to install in his ever-so-friendly system. If Shanahan was impressed with Fields during their instructional camps together, then that’s Fields. But if Shanahan wasn’t blown away by his time with Fields — offseason quarterback camps aren’t binding commitments, folks — he may prefer Lance. Lance, after all, comes with incandescent talent, an ultra-coachable reputation, and (this could be big after the Griffin/Manziel experiences) reduced immediate expectations.
And heck, maybe the 49ers traded three first-round picks for the right to draft Jones, who looks a lot more like a Cousins than a Ryan. Stranger things have happened. But when you look at both the prospects themselves and Shanahan’s real history, it doesn’t look likely.