2016 Prospect Watch: Why 49ers Should be Interested in Paxton Lynch

Dec 30, 2015; Birmingham, AL, USA; Memphis Tigers quarterback Paxton Lynch (12) drops back to pass against Auburn Tigers in the 2015 Birmingham Bowl at Legion Field. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 30, 2015; Birmingham, AL, USA; Memphis Tigers quarterback Paxton Lynch (12) drops back to pass against Auburn Tigers in the 2015 Birmingham Bowl at Legion Field. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports /

With their earliest draft pick since 2011, the San Francisco 49ers can take nearly any prospect in the 2016 NFL Draft.  One name 49ers fans should keep on their radar is Paxton Lynch.

For many NFL fans, Jared Goff of California is the best quarterback prospect out there.  Others prefer Carson Wentz from North Dakota State, who has obvious upside but played against lesser competition in college.  Still others like Connor Cook, perhaps the safest bet out of Michigan State.

All three are very viable NFL prospects, and anyone claiming to know for certain which one will be the best in the NFL is lying.  All of them have significant pluses and significant minuses, and history tells us that the odds are one or two will work out brilliantly for the team that picks them, and one or two will be afterthoughts and cautionary tales.

I’m not here to say that I know for certain who the best quarterback in the 2016 draft class will be, but I’m here to pitch a fourth name for the San Francisco 49ers—Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch.  I feel he would be an excellent fit for the 49ers, based both on Chip Kelly’s offensive philosophies and the current state of the quarterbacks on the roster.

First, let’s briefly consider the state of the quarterbacks under contract.  Both Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert are signed for next season, but rumors have Kaepernick leaving town—including this New York Daily News rumor, which suggests the Jets as a landing point.  Even if Kaepernick, who looks to be a solid but imperfect fit for Kelly’s system, sticks around for a year, Kelly has shown willingness to move on from quarterbacks.  Last season, he traded away Nick Foles for Mark Sanchez, despite the fact that Foles was a Pro Bowler for Kelly in 2013.  Even if Kaepernick or Gabbert appeals to Kelly for 2016, he likely would not have any qualms moving away from them in the future if he thought he found his guy in the draft.

So, the 49ers’s quarterback situation doesn’t at all preclude them from taking a quarterback in the 2016 draft.  The question then becomes which quarterbacks fit what Kelly likes to do?

Kelly’s number-one stress is for what he calls “repetitive accuracy”.  He wants a quarterback who can regularly and consistently complete passes.  This isn’t a surprise, as every coach in the NFL wants that, but it goes beyond the usual and obvious in Kelly’s scheme.

Kelly’s offenses at Oregon were known for having exceptional efficiency and ball-control in clutch situations.  From 2009 to 2012, no team had a higher passer efficiency on third-and-short than Kelly’s Ducks, and only two schools in the nation had a lower interception per attempt rate.  This continued in Philadelphia, where Nick Foles had an incredible 27-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2013, the year Kelly’s squads made the playoffs.

Kelly’s entire philosophy involves running tons of plays and gaining advantages based on gaining slight advantages, winning matchups.  He needs a quarterback who is going to consistently make the right decisions and not turn the ball over.

That brings us to Lynch.  Lynch’s decision making has been very sharp over his Memphis career.  He consistently makes good reads and rarely forces a throw.  He is the most accurate of the three FBS passers considered potential first-round picks, and throws interceptions at just about the same rate as Goff—once every 52 passes in college.

One reason for this is that Lynch seems to have a sixth-sense for where to place the ball.  Watching the film, he nearly always makes the right decision as to whether to try to lead his receiver into open space, allowing them to rack up yards after the catch, or whether to try to place it where only his receiver can get to it.  While some scouts are divided as to Lynch’s decision-making skills, I see a quarterback who generally places the ball in the right location.  Inside the Pylon does a great job of breaking this down, taking a look at how Lynch reads the situation and determines where to go with the ball.

A more apt critique of Lynch’s decision-making skills is that he has not had a chance to do much work going through progressions.  Memphis uses a spread-style offense where the majority of reads were designed off of a single read—if the cornerback is here, throw there, otherwise, throw there.  This is a legitimate concern for a complicated NFL offense, certainly.  He’ll have to work through progressions more on an NFL level.  That’s not to say Lynch is a one-read quarterback or anything of that nature, just that he didn’t have to go through as many progressions as an average NFL quarterback.

However, in Chip Kelly’s offense, quarterbacks aren’t progression pocket passers—or, at least, not as much as they are in other NFL systems.  Kelly’s offense features a lot of half-field, single reads—a great deal of the quarterback’s mental work is done before the snap, and even after the snap, Kelly’s offense generally leads to very clear progressions.

Working in a very similar offense, Lynch completed 66.8 percent of his passes last year, with 28 touchdowns to only four interceptions.  That’s indicative of a player who can efficiently run an offense like Kelly’s.  There are questions about whether or not Lynch will be able to adapt to a more Pro-style offense, but those concerns would be relatively minimized in Kelly’s offense in San Francisco.  Kelly would love Lynch’s accuracy and ball security.

In addition, Lynch would be the most mobile quarterback Kelly has had in the NFL, including the old version of Michael Vick Kelly had as his opening day starter in 2013.  Lynch isn’t a scrambler, per se, but he was a high school running back before his massive 6’7” frame moved him to quarterback.  He’s the most athletically gifted quarterback in this draft class, but he tries to extend to play and pass first, rather than take off downfield.  This is something he got better at in 2015—he scrambled a bit too much as a sophomore.

Now, though, he scrambles when necessary and extends the play when he can.  He can run the zone-read or bootleg plays with aplomb, with top-end quarterback speed to actually be a threat with the ball in his hands.  He’s not Marcus Mariota, Kelly’s last great quarterback at Oregon, but he provides that element to Kelly’s offense that was just missing with the immobile Sam Bradford last season.

Lynch’s mobility and large frame, coupled with Memphis’ quick-fire offense, means that he doesn’t take very many sacks.  He was taken to the turf only 15 times in 477 dropbacks last season, in large part because he can run himself out of trouble when need be.  He has the arm strength to make deep downfield throws on the move, too—he’d be a great fit for Torrey Smith.

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His strong arm, though, isn’t used in the same way Colin Kaepernick’s is, in that every throw is a bullet.  Lynch has shown the ability to use touch and finesse on his throws.  He has a reputation as a hard-thrower, and a deserved one, but from watching film, he has a wider range of velocities than Kaepernick, which would be a positive for 49ers fans.

I’ve made him sound like a can’t miss prospect in the previous few paragraphs, but that’s not entirely the case.  There’s a reason Lynch came out and said he wouldn’t mind sitting for a season, and why some scouts really hope he gets a chance to do that—there are some mechanical issues Lynch needs to work on to succeed at the next level.

Lynch’s footwork needs notable work.  For someone as athletic and quick as Lynch is, he has a bad habit of shuffling his feet and overstriding—issues that really didn’t hinder him at the college level thanks to his amazing arm strength, but issues none the less.  If he’s going to take snaps under center, he needs to work on his footwork significantly.

The footwork issues perhaps play into some of the odd kinks Lynch has in his throwing motion.  He tends to load up the ball to throw it, which causes a delay in his release.  I think when people criticize his decision-making or accuracy, this is actually the root cause—he’s making the right reads, but his mechanics let him down, causing the ball to come out too late or not quite at the perfect point in the route.

Lynch would benefit from a situation where he wasn’t forced to be in the starting lineup right away, necessarily, and could work on his mechanics as he learned the offense.  That’s where having Kaepernick and Gabbert under contract comes in—Kelly could run his offense with either player in 2016, with the idea of having Lynch take over late in the season or in 2017, depending on how the year goes.  This isn’t a situation like Cleveland where there are no proven quarterbacks on the roster; the 49ers have question marks, but players who can reasonably be considered to be under center without giving up on the season before it begins.  That’s a relative rarity for someone drafting in the top 10.

Finally, there’s one other reason why the 49ers could be interested in Lynch–draft positioning.  While the draft board is still very much in flux at this point, CBS’ draft experts currently have Lynch going in the second half of the first round.  Walter Football, too, has Lynch lasting until the teens, as does three of NFL.com’s four mock drafts, with the fourth having him miss the first round entirely.

This implies that the 49ers could move back in the first round, add an extra pick on day two, and still get Lynch.  If the face a situation where the top players–Joey Bosa, Jared Goff and Laremy Tunsil–are all off the board, this could be a way for the 49ers to find an answer at the quarterback position and still acquire important talent elsewhere.  With an extra pick in the late second or early third round, the 49ers could grab a solid offensive guard or receiving prospect.  Alternatively, they could package the pick and move back into the first round for a player like Josh Doctson, the productive receiver from TCU.  A package of Lynch and Doctson would be better for the 49ers in the long run than just a top quarterback or receiver alone, even if you prefer a Carson Wentz or a Laquon Treadwell.

I’m not ready to say Lynch will be the best quarterback in the 2016 draft class, or that he is even necessarily the best player the 49ers could pick—there’s a lot that can change between now and draft day.  Lynch’s best fit, though, is with Chip Kelly in San Francisco, so they should be very intrigued about the possibility of adding him to their roster.

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Bryan Knowles is a staff writer here at Niner Noise.  Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.