They say hindsight is 20-20. In this case, it’s 31-20.
The 49ers’ Super Bowl 54 loss to the Chiefs should have made clear to San Francisco general manager John Lynch what he could not see before his first NFL Draft on the job a few years ago. Patrick Mahomes, already a league MVP and a Super Bowl MVP after two seasons as the starter in Kansas City, was the best player in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Yes, the 49ers are in good shape in 2020 with Jimmy Garoppolo as their starting quarterback and with a well-built roster that just stormed though the NFC playoffs before falling to Mahomes and the Chiefs. That doesn’t mean it’s unreasonable to think about what could have been had San Francisco selected Mahomes instead of defensive lineman Solomon Thomas with their top pick in 2017 — the No. 3 overall selection after the 49ers traded down a spot from No. 2 — and about the ripple effects that pick would have sent through the NFL.
Coming off a 2-14 season, San Francisco was moving on from Colin Kaepernick with Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley as the only passers on the roster. Quarterback was on the team’s short list of needs.
The 49ers drafted C.J. Beathard in the third round as a possible solution. The plan backfired quickly, and they didn’t win a game that season until November, a couple weeks after they had traded a second-round pick to the Patriots for Garoppolo.
We’ll comfortably assume those 2017 49ers would not have started the season 0-9 had Mahomes been in the lineup.
But not all aspects of this alternate history are good for San Francisco. There are both positives and negatives.
Positive: Mahomes is the 49ers’ quarterback. Let’s start with the obvious. While the 49ers love Garoppolo, nobody in San Francisco will tell you with a straight face he would be preferred over Mahomes. The 2017 season also was the first in San Francisco for coach Kyle Shanahan, who had just led Atlanta to the Super Bowl as offensive coordinator. Shanahan and Mahomes would have been paired together from Day 1, and obviously, the Garoppolo trade never would have happened.
Negative: The 49ers likely don’t get George Kittle. San Francisco’s selection of Kittle at No. 146 overall in the fifth round in 2017 already has become one of the best late-round steals in NFL Draft history. Yet a Mahomes selection in Round 1 could have created a domino effect that changed the rest of the team’s priorities. The 49ers still would have needed to address their defensive line, so depending on the grades they had on players available, all of their picks could have been different. Keep in mind other teams would have had to adjust to the 49ers taking Mahomes and passing on Thomas, as well.
Positive: The 49ers don’t waste a third-round pick on Beathard. This is related to the positive above. That third-rounder, No. 104 overall, could have been spent on a player at another position who might still be a regular contributor. (For what it’s worth, the Steelers drafted James Conner one pick later, and the 49ers took Joe Williams with their next selection.) San Francisco lost four of the five games Beathard started in 2017 before Garoppolo took over. Beathard is still on the roster as a backup.
Negative: The 49ers likely don’t end up with Fred Warner. Had San Francisco targeted Mahomes at the top of the 2017 NFL Draft, it likely would not have traded back to No. 3 and collected a handful of draft picks from the Bears. Part of that haul from Chicago, which traded up one spot to select Mitchell Trubisky, was the Bears’ 2018 third-round pick. The 49ers used that pick to land Warner.
Positive: The 49ers likely finish better than 6-10 in 2017. Garoppolo famously emerged victorious in each of the five games he started in San Francisco to close the 2017 season, including wins against the playoff-bound Titans, Jaguars and Rams. The streak gave the 49ers momentum for 2018, but it also impacted their draft position.
Negative: The 49ers likely don’t get Mike McGlinchey in the 2018 NFL Draft (or Nick Bosa in 2019). San Francisco had a relatively easy choice to make on McGlinchy at No. 9 overall. Barring a trade, the 49ers would not have had a chance to land McGlinchy had Mahomes led them to a better record in 2017. That also means they couldn’t have lucked into Bosa, Sporting News’ 2019 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, after a 4-12 season (thanks to Garoppolo’s ACL injury) slotted them into the No. 2 overall pick.
Positive: A QB on a rookie contract. Lynch has done a masterful job building a Super Bowl contender around Garoppolo, whom the 49ers extended with a five-year, $137.5 million contract soon after the trade. The GM could have been even more aggressive around Mahomes, whose cap numbers over the last two seasons were $3.73 million and $4.48 million, respectively. Those numbers for Garoppolo? $37 million and $20 million.
Beyond San Francisco, multiple NFL teams and players would be in different situations under the circumstances of this alternate reality.
Below are those impacted most directly, beginning with the team Mahomes just led to a Super Bowl.
Impact on the Chiefs
Kansas City parted with a ton for the right to draft Mahomes at No. 10 overall in 2017, sending Buffalo its No. 27 pick, its third-round pick and its 2018 first-rounder. With Mahomes off the board, the Chiefs would have had to decide whether Deshaun Watson was worth the same move.
The Chiefs still had Alex Smith under contract through 2018, so they might have stayed put, kept those high-value picks and targeted a different quarterback. But had they moved up to draft Watson, they would be in a similarly great place today. We can’t say the same about the team that actually landed the star passer from Clemson.
Impact on the Texans (and Bills, Cardinals, Ravens and Jets)
Houston moved up from No. 25 overall in 2017 to No. 12 in a trade with Cleveland, which also got the Texans’ 2018 first-rounder in the deal. Had the Chiefs traded up for Watson with Mahomes off the board, that Texans-Browns deal likely never happens. For reference, the next quarterback off the board was Deshaun Kizer (Cleveland) at No. 52 overall.
The Texans in that case would have held on to their 2018 first-rounder, which ended up being the No. 4 overall pick after they finished the 2017 season 4-12. They surely would have targeted a quarterback in a class that, after the Browns picked Baker Mayfield No. 1 overall and the Jets traded up for Sam Darnold at No. 3, offered Josh Allen, Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson.
Which means the Bills, Cardinals or Ravens could have been forced to go elsewhere at quarterback. There’s also a chance the Texans would have wanted Darnold, and with a better trade package than what the Jets sent the Colts to get to No. 3, he could have been had.
Impact on the Bears (and Saints)
Chicago liked Trubisky enough in 2017 to trade San Francisco its first-rounder (No. 3), a third-rounder (No. 67), a fourth-rounder (No. 111) and a 2018 third-rounder just to move up one spot. So surely the Bears would have drafted him at No. 3 had the 49ers stayed put and taken Mahomes at No. 2.
Which means the Bears would have landed the quarterback they wanted without giving up such a ridiculous haul of draft capital. GM Ryan Pace surely would have preferred to keep those picks, especially given the context of how Chicago’s Trubisky selection has backfired.
This would impact New Orleans, too, because the 49ers took that 2017 third-rounder they got from the Bears and traded it to the Saints, who used it to land running back Alvin Kamara.
Impact on Jimmy Garoppolo (and Browns and Patriots)
San Francisco drafting Mahomes in 2017 would not have changed what was going on in New England, where coach/GM Bill Belichick and Patriots owner Robert Kraft reportedly were at odds with how to move forward at quarterback with Tom Brady and Garoppolo.
According to ESPN, Belichick wanted to keep Garoppolo on the roster as Brady’s soon-to-be replacement, but Kraft preferred to let Brady play and start on his own terms for as long as he wanted. Reluctantly, Belichick agreed to trade Garoppolo, but he did so somewhat spitefully. For a player the Patriots reportedly thought was worth at least a first-round pick, Garoppolo was traded to the 49ers for just a second-rounder.
Belichick reportedly accepted so little from San Francisco because he wanted Garoppolo to succeed with his new team. Of course, had the 49ers drafted Mahomes a few months prior, such deal would not have been available.
In that case, the Patriots’ best option in terms of a trade partner for Garoppolo would have been the Browns, who reportedly were showing the most interest at the time and who likely would have had to part with their 2018 first-round pick. (Remember, in this scenario, Cleveland only has one first-rounder, because its trade with Houston in 2017 never happens.)
Had the Browns agreed to trade their first-rounder for Garoppolo, and had they still finished the 2017 season with a worse record than the 3-13 Giants, the defending AFC-champion Patriots would have had the first overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
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