SANTA CLARA, Calif. — “Let’s duck in here a minute and talk,” rookie San Francisco 49ers GM John Lynch said to coach Kyle Shanahan and chief strategy officer Paraag Marathe in the team’s John McVay Draft Room here, motioning to his office across the hall 23 minutes before the start of the 2017 NFL draft.
Three men, one plan. As they walked into the room and Lynch shut his door, this is what they knew: Cleveland, picking first, was not trading, and was likely but not certain to take pass-rusher Myles Garrett over quarterback Mitchell Trubisky … San Francisco, picking second, had three men clearly atop its board: Garrett one, Stanford defensive lineman Solomon Thomas two and, in a surprise, Alabama middle linebacker Reuben Foster three … Chicago, picking third, badly wanted someone. The Bears and Niners had an understanding that if Chicago’s man was still on the board after Cleveland picked (Chicago GM Ryan Pace wouldn’t tell Lynch who Player X was; the Niners figured it was Thomas), the Bears would give at least two third-round picks to move from three to two.
No nerves, but no pleasantries either. Marathe, who talks very fast and with great confidence, called another team with interest in the second slot and said, “We got some good action on the pick.” Marathe talked to the club official (he would not disclose the official, or the team) for maybe a minute, just to crystallize that if Garrett was there at two, the Niners would either pick or take a ransom for the pick.
“See if we can get one last thing with Chicago,” Lynch said to Marathe.
Marathe called the Bears. “To try to solidify this now,” Marathe said to Pace, “we’re gonna need a little bit more to finish. It wouldn’t have to be much. Like, your four. So let’s say your third, 67 overall, this year, your three next year, and your four this year, 111 overall … I’m not gonna string you along … No … I will do it quickly. Let me get with John and Kyle and I’ll call you right back.”
The Bears agreed. They’d give two third-round picks and a fourth-rounder to move up one spot.
“Man, who do they want?” Lynch said. “Gotta be Solomon, right?”
“Call me crazy,” Marathe said. “But I think it’s Trubisky.”
“Then why’d they go get [free-agent quarterback Mike] Glennon?” Lynch said.
They debated, and made sure that if they couldn’t find a trading partner to move down from three, they were comfortable taking Foster—with a questionable shoulder and a positive combine test for a diluted drug sample—with the third overall pick, if the Bears took Solomon. But they wanted to try to move down as far as No. 8 because they felt Foster had no chance of being selected before Cincinnati at No. 9.
Four minutes passed. “Don’t lose Chicago, Paraag,” Lynch said.
Marathe got the Bears on the phone. “Cleveland needs not to do something crazy,” Marathe said to Pace. “Other than that we’re good to go if you are—67, 111 and next year’s three, 2018. Shoot, is next year 2018? Time flies. We’re close to a handshake, right?”
“Hey,” Marathe said, “can you tell me who you’re taking? I’m so curious.”
Off the phone, Marathe said to Lynch and Shanahan: “He [Pace] said, ‘I think you guys are going to be comfortable with what we do.’ So I don’t know what that is.”
Eight minutes until the draft went live in Philadelphia. The Niners were fairly sure Garrett would go number one. Now they’d made a verbal deal with Pace for the number two pick. They felt good. They felt mystified. They weren’t sure who the second pick would be. They weren’t sure if they’d be able to deal the third pick down for more picks to replenish one of the least talented rosters in the NFL. After four months of studying a vital draft, the GM and coach who’d been paid millions with twin (and unheard of) six-year contracts truly didn’t know if they’d have Thomas, or Foster, or a bevy of draft picks and neither, or a bevy of draft picks and one or both, by the end of the evening.
“Got a Keurig in here, John?” Shanahan said. “I need some coffee.”
* * *
In the 24/7/365 media crushing of the NFL, somehow the significance of this San Francisco draft was, if anything, being underplayed last week. Think of the historic similarities to the only great era in Niners history.
In the spring of 1979, the 49ers were coming off a 2-14 season, with a new coach/GM, without a quarterback of the future, and with a 30-something owner. Entering the draft last week, the 49ers were coming off a 2-14 season, with a new coach and GM, without a quarterback of the future, and with a 30-something owner.
When I pitched the inside story about the new 49ers regime’s first draft to Lynch at the NFL owners meetings in March, I explained the similarities between Bill Walsh’s start 38 years ago and the new start now. “You just gave me goose bumps,” Lynch said. And so this story was born.
There was one major difference. In 1979, the Niners were a year removed from making one of the worst trades in NFL history: acquiring a broken-down O.J. Simpson from Buffalo for five draft choices, including the first overall pick in the 1979 draft. Simpson had 108 rushing yards in his first Niners home game, and never had another impactful game in his last 21 for San Francisco. But that trade actually was to the Niners’ advantage, as it turned out. When Eddie DeBartolo cleaned house after the ’78 season, he hired Bill Walsh as coach and architect—and the lack of a number one pick forced Walsh to dig deep to find his quarterback. He got Joe Montana at the end of the third round. In the next two decades, the 49ers won five Super Bowls. It left much for the new Niners to live up to.
That’s part of the reason why Lynch woke up at 3:30 a.m. on draft morning. His mentor and friend John Elway had told Lynch to pace himself—that nothing of importance happens on draft morning or afternoon. Lynch told his scouts to come in at 1 p.m. PT, with the draft scheduled to begin at 5:10 p.m. But Lynch was a kid on Christmas dying to open the new Xbox under the tree. He got up and watched tape of some second-round prospects in his hotel room two miles from his office next to Levi’s Stadium. He did a workout, then jogged to his office. While he ran, he sought a break.
Before Lynch went to bed the previous night, Elway called to alert him that he’d heard reliably that the Browns really might take Trubisky, not Garrett. Someone else told Lynch on Wednesday night that Cleveland coaches would be stunned if the pick was anyone but Garrett. Whom to believe?
But Thursday morning, Lynch got another call. And now he thought strongly that the Cleveland the pick would be Garrett. And so he ran the flat San Tomas Aquino Creek Trail on a warm morning, passing Silicon Valley joggers and bicyclists in anonymity. “To be honest,” he said, taking a slow pace, “we’ve been anticipating they’d take Myles the entire time. It wasn’t until the last couple days, really yesterday, that I got a heads up they really may be going Trubisky. Then it kept mounting. I think in retrospect they tried with Myles for a while to get someone to move up to their pick, and it didn’t work. So they said, 24 to 48 hours out, let’s put out the word on Trubisky. Probably not a bad play on their part.”
This was a morning to strategize about the 34th pick in the draft—San Francisco’s second-round choice. In Shanahan’s first-floor office, with the practice fields outside his window (at one point, in an early phase of the off-season strength and conditioning program, a group of players including quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley stretched out on the field), he and Lynch studied candidates; Marathe and vice president of player personnel Adam Peters filtered in and out, in between projects and calls. (One of Peters’ projects, a late-rising prospect, would get intense by Saturday’s third day of the draft.)
Wisconsin pass-rusher T.J. Watt was of particular interest, though there was a good chance he’d be gone by the end of round one.
Lynch said: ”Let's throw up T.J. real quick and start watching him. Let's see how passionate we get. I know what I think. Contagious competitiveness. Football passion.”
They watched Watt slice and dice through offensive lines. Lynch loved him. It was clear he could be a candidate through a trade late in round one, or at 34.
But the talk kept coming back to Foster, if indeed he would be the pick at number three. Marathe was talking theoretically to his agent about some contract concessions to address Foster’s off-field concerns, and the agent was amenable. The 49ers were going to be comfortable picking Foster third overall if they couldn’t move, even though they knew they’d be subject to criticism for taking him too early if it happened.
At one point discussion turned to the rest of the first round. Peters heard reliably that Kansas City, picking 27th, was moving way up to Tennessee at five. Presumably for a quarterback. “I hear it’s for a one, two, four and next year’s one,” Shanahan said. “They offered that to Tennessee.”
Said Shanahan: “The only other guy that I can think of that they would really need would be Leonard Fournette. Would that be possibly worth that?”
“Don’t think so,” Lynch said. “That doesn't fit Andy [Reid]'s style, I don't think, a big back.”
The video of Watt, up on the big screen in Shanahan’s office, was paused now. “Look, if we can get one good player today, whoever it is and wherever it is in the first round, we've gained a third-round pick, worst-case scenario, and a third for next year, worst-case scenario. And now we are sitting in there later tonight, and I think we have a bunch of offers for that 34th pick and hopefully one of those offers is a later second-round pick, another third-round pick or whatever the hell it is … and now we've got enough that we can move back up in the second if there is a guy we absolutely want. There's plenty of guys in the third and fourth. I want to have four guys that can really help us early.”
Marathe asked: “What if Foster falls, free falls, and he's sitting there at 25?”
“To me, that's easy,” said Shanahan. “Get him.”
“He's not getting past Cincy [with the ninth pick in the first round], though,” Lynch said.
“I think he is getting past Cincy,” Shanahan said. “I don't think he's getting past [Ravens GM] Ozzie [Newsome at 16].”
Really interesting part of the pre-draft hours that would surprise most people: These guys have the second pick in the draft. They’re in the belly of the beast. And they truly don’t know what’s going to happen.
* * *
At 4:57 p.m. Pacific Time, Lynch and his coach walked back into the draft room. There were 31 people in the place. Across the main side of the table: Marathe, CEO Jed York, Shanahan, Lynch, Peters, senior personnel executive and former Lions GM Martin Mayhew (Lynch’s sounding board) and co-chair John York. Scouts and medical personnel ringed the table; Jed York’s son Jaxon, 4, came in and out. In the back were a collection of minority owners and a few fans who paid handsomely to the team’s foundation ($30,000 in one case) to silently observe the proceedings. “A couple ground rules,” said Lynch. “My first time doing it. But let’s have a business atmosphere in here. If you have a phone in here, and you’re on it, it’s got to be for work purpose. This is a serious day for our organization … We’re gonna get after this thing. But let’s have some fun.”
The draft began. Garrett to the Browns. The trade with the Bears went through. No drama in the draft room. The TV seemed happier. “The 49ers picked up all that draft capital—phenomenal!” Mike Mayock said on NFL Network. Then the waiting, and Marathe made a round of phone calls between four and 14. Six teams said no. No trade-down.
5:21 PT. Lynch: “TRUBISKY!”
Marathe: “I TOLD YOU!”
That was a shock. Now the room went from possibly/probably reaching for Foster to picking Thomas. At 5:29, after waiting for an offer that never came, Lynch picked up the landline on the table in front of him and dialed Thomas’s cell. Bizarrely, as Jenny Vrentas of the The MMQBreported, Lynch and Thomas had taken a management class together when Lynch returned to Stanford to get his degree in 2014. Thomas was a freshman. So Lynch said when the phone was answered, “Solomon! It’s me! … John Lynch! You want to be a 49er?”
Shanahan got on the phone next. “I told you it’d all work out,” Shanahan said.
Then York. “Congratulations, man … Call me Jed!”
Then a text from Elway to Lynch: “Nice going!”
Lynch, to me: “Had Solomon been gone, we’d have gone Reuben. And been happy.”
6:18 PT. Lynch: “Kansas City took Pat Mahomes!”
6:28 PT. Lynch: “Man, I’d love to go up and get that corner, [Marshon] Lattimore.”
Now the draft was at 12 overall. And Marathe or Mayhew or Peters or Lynch called or took calls from every team between 12 and 26. Foster, Foster, Foster. Nothing worked. For instance, Marathe on with Tampa Bay, preparing to pick 19th, at 7:14 PT:
“Hey it’s Paraag. You are? … Anything? … Okay.”
Marathe off phone. “Standing pat.”
Foster still there. Miami, 22, standing pat. Giants, 23, keeping. Raiders, 24, staying.
Seattle GM John Schneider (26) called.
Marathe: “John, we got a nice juicy fourth pick in the fourth round, 111 overall, for you to move … Yeah, I know, but we like 67 [the third-round pick] too.”
Schneider would think about it.
“He’s got to pee,” Marathe said. “He’ll call back.”
Fifteen minutes passed. Marathe called Schneider back. “Still in?”
Lynch: “Ask him how the pee was.”
Shanahan: “Long one.”
No deal. A few more calls. Some confusion with Schneider about the trade chart. Schneider traded down from 26 to 29, and then from 29 to 31.
Roger Goodell on the TV: “With the 30th pick in the 2017 NFL draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers select … T.J. Watt, linebacker, Wisconsin.”