49ers: NBA Draft principle’s impact on 2021 NFL Draft at No. 3 overall

Rui Hachimura being drafted by the Washington Wizards (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
Rui Hachimura being drafted by the Washington Wizards (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images) /

Jeremy Fowler of ESPN recently reported the San Francisco 49ers are still undecided about their selection with less than two weeks to go to the 2021 NFL Draft, and that the performance of North Dakota State University quarterback Trey Lance at his second pro day, scheduled with the Niners in mind, may play a major role.

This uncertainty of what San Francisco will do at No. 3 overall has kept the media constantly guessing and fans constantly frustrated.

There is very little to go off on to understand whom the 49ers might select with this pick. A proponent of every quarterback has some prior understanding to go off on. For Alabama QB Mac Jones, it’s head coach Kyle Shanahan’s previous desire for a quarterback who can run his offense efficiently and not break plays off early.

For Ohio State QB Justin Fields, there’s a prior history with the QB Collective, Shanahan’s more recent comments about wanting a quarterback capable of playing within the structure but also creating out of the structure, and pinpoint accuracy.

And for Lance, there’s both a willingness to trade up for players who may not be finished products as of now (though Lance’s lack of pro-readiness is perhaps overstated) and Lance’s prior experience in pro-style situations.

Long story short, there’s no real prior history to use when the Niners make such a big move because quite frankly, there’s no precedent for what they’ve done.

There are, however, other circumstances, beyond current abilities that will have an impact on whom the 49ers draft. After all, this pick is not being made just for the 2021 season, it’s being made for the next 15 years if it works out correctly. This type of forward-thinking mindset, coupled with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo already on the roster in case any quarterback is somehow not ready, creates another consideration: age.

How NBA Draft considers age

The NBA Draft and the NFL Draft are not easily comparable. The condensed nature of the former makes pick values oscillate much more than the latter. But there is a trend in the NBA Draft that can be particularly insightful when thinking about picking at the top.

In the NBA Draft, college freshmen “one-and-dones” are picked in the first few picks significantly more often than college seniors. The rationale for this is that a 19-year-old prospect — who may be slightly worse, statistically, but also has the same if not better physical tools — will, in the long term, end up better than the 23-year-old prospect. By drafting the younger player, teams try to accelerate their development by using a pro-style environment, shaping the player in a more rigorous and valuable manner.

If in four years, the 19 year old plays better than the 23 year old did as a rookie, that’s a win, and that’s not all that impossible an option.

When re-grading drafts or looking back on them, this age consideration isn’t taken very seriously, especially in the NFL. This is in large part because the range of ages in the NFL is significantly less than in the NBA or the MLB. But beyond that, retrospect sorts by draft classes, not by ages. And as a result, a player who is still not as old as his draft peer was when he was drafted is matched against them.

Short-term, that doesn’t really matter. Long-term, this age difference can result in drastically different arcs.

How age ties into 49ers at No. 3 overall in 2021 NFL Draft

The three quarterbacks who will likely be available for the 49ers to select all have different ages. Jones is the oldest, with a 1998 birth year, Fields few months later with a 1999 birth year, and Lance the youngest, only 20 years old with a 2000 birth year. Both Fields and Jones are 22 years old.

That means, by this logic, if in two years, Lance is as good as Fields and Jones, he’s at worst matched the curve. If he’s better than they were at the same age, he’s beaten the curve.

A study from 538.com following the 2018 NFL Draft found the average career value of quarterbacks who were 21 or younger when drafted was roughly 75 AV, while those who were 22 was 54.5. That’s a pretty sizeable difference. There is, as always, a sample-size issue when considering first-round quarterbacks, but the data seems to point that betting on youth tends to be better. Potential is a buzzword that rarely has a lot of substance around it, but it seems that “potential” makes a difference. It’s not crazy to think a quarterback’s development will be streamlined in the pros as opposed to college.

What this means for the Niners is Lance may become a more appealing option based on this upside of age. If the 49ers think in two years he’d be able to surpass the level Fields is at, or that of Jones, selecting Lance can make more sense.

This isn’t to say Lance has to be the pick, both because San Francisco has a roster that can win sooner and the long-term differences may be negligible when compared to the short-term, and because development is not a linear or simple process.

It just is another factor to consider when the 49ers make their pick.

Next. 10 high-profile 49ers draft picks who never panned out. dark