INDIANAPOLIS — As the NFL Draft approaches, teams often make it a point to stay tight-lipped about their plans. In the case of the San Francisco 49ers, there’s not much mystery when it comes to their biggest needs and what the franchise is likely to do with the No. 2 overall pick come April 27.
Such is life when you have a roster without a quarterback.
On Wednesday, Colin Kaepernick’s agents reportedly informed NFL teams that the quarterback would be opting out of the final year of his 49ers deal, making him a free agent when the window to sign players opens next week. Backups Blaine Gabbert, Thad Lewis and Christian Ponder — none of whom were thought to be serious candidates for the Niners’ starting job this year — will be free agents as well, leaving the team with zero options.
“I don’t think you need to be too transparent to realize that’s a position we’re looking at,” new 49ers general manager John Lynch acknowledged Thursday at the Combine. “We don’t have any, so that’s a position that’s a big focal point of our preparation right now, and this week is a big part of that.”
Fortunately for Lynch, there are several draft prospects who could fill that void for a team that went 2-14 in 2016, and San Francisco should have its pick of the litter if it wants one. To that end, Lynch said he’s already started gauging who might be the best fit for his quarterback role, and it seems there’s a good chance it could ultimately come down to Deshaun vs. DeShone.
On Wednesday, Lynch met with the latter, former Notre Dame signal-caller DeShone Kizer, and said he was pleased.
“This whole thing is not about an interview, but if you were grading him on that alone, he blew the doors off it,” Lynch said. “He’s an impressive young man.”
Lynch said he also walked away feeling good about Clemson’s national championship-winning quarterback Deshaun Watson, a two-time Heisman finalist, when he had the chance to meet him in Houston last month.
“I love winners, and he has that,” Lynch said. “Before I was hired as the general manager of the 49ers, I spent some time around him at the Super Bowl, and there’s certain guys who just carry themselves differently, have a presence about them. I’d put him in that category. In the brief time, you could see there’s a confidence, an aura that he carries himself with that’s pretty special.”
Lynch also name-dropped North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky and Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes as other prospects who have caught his attention in what he calls “a very talented draft class at that position.” But while the opportunity to meet quarterbacks and watch them work out in Indy is helpful, it’s not the be all and end all when it comes to selecting the right guy.
“The tape’s by far the most important,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said Wednesday. “You want to block out everything else. If you don’t like what you see on the tape, then nothing else matters.”
Unfortunately for Shanahan the format is such that he won’t truly be able to put quarterbacks under the microscope until after the Combine is over.
“Here, I get to the know them, (then) I go back and watch the tape, and if you like the tape and you remember liking the guy, then you’ve got to look into all the stuff that is very hard to find,” Shanahan said. “There’s a lot of pressure in this business, especially on the quarterback position. So, how are they going to handle pressure? How are they going to handle adversity?
“No matter how good you are, everyone is going to tell you how bad you are at some time during the year,” Shanahan continued. “So all that stuff goes into play when you’re talking about, to me, one of the most scrutinized positions in sports.”
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On Thursday, Lynch described Shanahan, the former Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator, as a coach who is “masterful at getting the most out of his quarterbacks,” and said the process thus far has been extremely collaborative.
“When we sit down and look at film, I’ve got my perspective on how you judge a quarterback … and he’s got his,” said Lynch, who was formally introduced as the team’s GM in a joint press conference alongside Shanahan on Feb. 9. “Now, they marry in many ways, but I think that’s been a great part of this relationship thus far.
“It’s a fluid process,” Lynch added, “and we’re having a blast attacking it.”
With a cupboard as bare as the 49ers, though, there’s more to addressing the team’s quarterback needs than simply using the draft.
“A lot of people look at it like, ‘Oh my gosh, you don’t have any quarterbacks,’ but that also is somewhat liberating in that you can create this thing and that position, that is so critical, in the way that you want,” Lynch said. “Now, we’re restricted by who’s available and whatnot, but I think we’ve got a lot of great options at our disposal.
“There’s a number of different scenarios we’re looking at,” Lynch added. “And some of those include, ‘Let’s have a young guy and let’s have an old guy to kind of be there with him’ So those are all mixes that you look at.”
And though it might sound unfathomable, Lynch says he also hasn’t ruled out bringing Kaepernick back into the mix, as well.
“Having been a player, one thing I always wanted from coaches … is just transparency,” Lynch said of his recent meeting with the 29-year-old. “You want honesty, and so that’s what we were with Colin, and he was back to us. So there was a great understanding, and I think we both agreed that under the current construct, it wasn’t going to work out. But we said, ‘Let’s not close the door.’ ”
With so many options at the team’s disposal — not to mention the team’s other nine 2017 draft picks — it’ll no doubt be an interesting couple months for Lynch and Shanahan. Still, it’s clear that the quarterback position is at the top of their respective lists, and the hope is that the right one will help San Francisco return to its former glory.
“I played at Stanford when (the 49ers) were in their heyday,” Lynch said. “And I happened to have the opportunity to play for two coaches who were a part of that in Denny Green and Bill Walsh, and even further on, with Mike Shanahan, who had been a big part of the 49er way, the 49er standard. So that always meant a lot to me. Guys like Ronnie Lott are idols of mine, so I know the way they played and the way they went about their business.
“This is an iconic organization,” Lynch continued. “It’s fallen on some hard times, but my attitude is how great it’s going to be when we get it back to where it should be.”