Trading the top 3 in the NFL draft to pick a quarterback has been a dangerous proposition for the past decade. The 49ers in 2021 are in a strong position to reverse a worrying trend for teams making such a move.
San Francisco was supposed to reach number 12 overall but unloaded a trio of picks from round one and round three selections to jump to third place, where they’ll likely pick up a quarterback they hope will he’ll be their caller for the next round, decade or more.
Five other teams have taken similar steps over the past 10 years, and none of them have been a complete success. Here are the five trades:
In 2018, jets were traded in third place for Sam Darnold
In 2017, Bären traded in second place for Mitchell Trubisky
In 2016, Rams was ranked # 1 for Jared Goff
In 2016, Eagles swapped for Carson Wentz up to 2nd place
In 2012, Washington was ranked # 2 for Robert Griffin III
Darnold hasn’t been good in three years and may not be in New York before his rookie contract expires. Trubisky has gone from bad to worse in his four years in Chicago and will be the second-largest quarterback in Buffalo for his fifth season. Goff was traded with the Rams after five seasons this off-season. Wentz was also traded this off-season following a 2020 disaster campaign. Griffin was injured in his freshman year and was never the same.
The 49ers are in a unique position compared to the previous five clubs that made trades up to the top three. They went 6-10 last year but have a Super Bowl-ready roster and would likely have fought for the NFC championship again last season if injuries hadn’t looted their roster all year round. None of the other clubs were near playoff berths.
The jets were 5-11 the year before Darnold’s draft. The bears were 3-13 before taking Trubisky. The Rams were 7-9 and needed a coach change before Goff arrived. The Eagles were also 7-9 and fired their mid-season coaching before advancing to Wentz. Washington was 5-11 the season before picking up Griffin.
Goff is a fascinating case because the Ram switched coach and took off in his sophomore year. Sean McVay’s magical touch came to an end at some point, however, and Goff’s shortcomings as a quarterback held her back.
Wentz had a good rookie year and an excellent second season before injuries turned the wheels off for him and the rest of the Eagles’ list. Doug Pederson, the coach who was there when he was drafted, was fired that off-season and Wentz was extradited.
San Francisco has an established coach, a good supporting cast and the luxury of not immediately pushing the rookie into a starting role. You can take the route the Chiefs took with Patrick Mahomes, but they can do so with the third choice instead of # 10. Kansas City the year before they acted through the tenth election to collect Mahomes, went 12-4 and went to the playoffs. They were a playoff team at 11-5 the year before.
While it’s an inaccurate science, history shows us that the player is less important than the situation they are going to go into. Talent can play a bigger role later in the design, and there are intangible mental things holding players back that the team just can’t explain. However, if you get in the top three, the talent pool will be exceptionally high. There aren’t many “bad” players who get into the top three, just like there are bad teams who pick good players and make them fail.
It is no accident that only one quarterback drafted into the top 3 in the last 20 years has claimed a Super Bowl victory (Eli Manning), and that of the 73 quarterbacks that have ever been drafted into the top 3 , only eight in pro football are hall of fame.
The draft is a relative crapshoot, but the 49ers this year are knocking down the odds in their favor in a way the team normally can’t. The Stars were aligned to make a good team, with enough injury issues to finish 6-10 and pecking high enough that they could cobble together enough design capital to finish in 3rd place overall. It’s an extremely unique luxury that none of the youngest teams to make the top three could afford.
Perhaps the 49ers pick will follow the path of the last five in the last decade, and the trend of getting into the top three continues to be a disaster. However, if one team were able to reverse this, it would be a championship-caliber team like San Francisco that took the step with the future in mind, not the present.
NFL Draft History: Every quarterback has ever drafted the number 3 overall