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24 Hours … With John Lynch

The rookie GM is staring down a major rebuild with one of the NFL’s most prestigious franchises. And it started with the biggest day of the year, a GM’s Super Bowl: draft day

This is the third installment of The MMQB’s “24 Hours” series, inside-inside, multimedia stories for the 2017 NFL season, chronicling a day in the life of an important figure in pro football.

This one is a view into the world of John Lynch, rookie general manager of the San Francisco 49ers, on the first draft day of his executive career. Lynch, 45, played 15 seasons in the NFL as a safety and made the Pro Bowl nine times. After a nine-year stretch as an analyst for Fox, he was named GM of the struggling 49ers on Jan. 29, joining fellow first-timer Kyle Shanahan, the head coach, in trying to return the Niners to their glory days.

Though Lynch had never been a scout or worked in football management, the Niners are counting on him and Shanahan to quickly rebuild a team that was in the Super Bowl just four years ago—but has gone 7-25 over the last two seasons. So the first day of the 2017 draft was a big day for Lynch. Very big. “It’s a feeling like I had the day I played in the Super Bowl—it’s that important,” Lynch said a few hours before the draft kicked off on April 27. His day kicked off, actually, much earlier than he would have liked.

• PETER KING'S WEEKLY HOT READ:  Want more insider information from Peter King? Check out The MMQB Hot Read.

* * *

Santa Clara, Calif.
Thursday, April 27
3:30 a.m. PT

“This is waaay too early! You HAVE to get more sleep!”

Those are Lynch’s first thoughts on a very big day. He wakes up in the Santa Clara Marriott, in the expansive room that has been his residence for two months while wife Linda and his four kids remain at home in San Diego. Six hours of sleep is not going to be enough. He hoped for eight. He needed eight. John Elway, his mentor in the business, had the biggest piece of draft-day advice for him, and it had nothing to do with football: Nothing much happens the day of the draft until the draft, so be sure to be rested.

Lynch gives it 15 minutes. He closes his eyes in the dark room. He tries to relax. No dice. I’m just faking it, he thinks. His mind is racing.

* * *

3:45 a.m.

It’s still pitch dark outside. Lynch rises and walks a few steps to the standard-issue hotel desk in his room and turns the lamp on. There are five Marriott index cards in a rack on the desk. He picks one out and begins to write:

2

Can’t trade

Solomon Thomas

He takes another note card.

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2 to 3

Trade

Solomon Thomas

Reuben Foster

And so on. The “2” is Lynch’s first-round draft slot, and the first card notes who he’d pick if he doesn’t trade the pick; the second card notes his draft priorities if he trades down with Chicago at three, which is likely. In order, the pick would be Stanford defensive lineman Solomon Thomas, and if he’s gone, Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster. He writes out a couple of other cards, including “2 to 12,” in case the Niners work out a deal on the clock to trade down with Cleveland at 12.

Busy work. Lynch just wants to start the day by crystallizing in his mind what Shanahan, vice president of player personnel Adam Peters, chief strategy officer Paraag Marathe and senior personnel executive Martin Mayhew have agreed to do after almost three months of draft prep. He doesn’t watch more tape. He’s seen enough tape. “At some point, it becomes a matter of diminishing returns,” he says. “You need to put it all aside and clear your mind.”

Busy work. After a while, Lynch lies down and tries to get another hour of sleep. Too many thoughts, like, Who do I believe?

It’s significant that Lynch knows what Cleveland will do with the first overall pick. For weeks, he’d assumed the Browns would take pass-rusher Myles Garrett. Late yesterday, that seemed in doubt. “John [Elway] called,” he says, “and he told me, ‘This thing might be going the other way’” to quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. Lynch wants to see Trubisky go No. 1. That would leave the Niners with two pretty good choices—taking the top player on their board, Garrett, with the second pick; or trading it for “a ransom,” as Lynch says. Truth be told, he’d probably trade it … if he could get a bevy of picks, including an additional first-rounder in 2018. He knows he and his team will have to weigh some heavy options late in the afternoon if Garrett is there.

But just before he went to sleep, Lynch got a text from someone he trusted saying Cleveland coach Hue Jackson would be shocked if the pick was Trubisky. Now, as he lies there, fruitlessly trying to sleep, the GM of the 49ers has a good feel for what he thought would happen with the first pick. But he truly doesn’t know what awaited him half a day from now, in the biggest decision he’d make in his rookie year.

* * *

5:49 a.m.

Up again. No sleep. With plenty of time on his hands, he issues a tweet from @JohnLynch49ers for the first time ever. Actually, he’d been directing tweets from that account for a couple of months, while vice president of communications Bob Lange would do the actual tweeting. But this morning, as dawn breaks, Lynch takes the training wheels off and sends this one:

* * *

7:09 a.m.

Peters, the personnel czar Lynch hired away from the Broncos, calls with some intel. He’s heard reliably that Cleveland owner Jimmy Haslam has met with Hue Jackson, and the decision has been made: Cleveland is picking Garrett. If true, that’s a bit of a bummer. No ransom for the pick now. Lynch isn’t feeling down. He didn’t expect Garrett to be there at two anyway. “Garrett’s just too good,” Lynch says.

* * *

7:15 a.m.

Elliott Williams, the 49ers’ director of functional performance, knocks on Lynch’s door. Under Lynch, the Niners are big into movement and stretching, and not just strength and cardio. Now, the first of the GM’s three workouts on the day commences. “I need to burn off some energy,” Lynch says. For a guy who was supposed to be pretty beat up at the end of his 15-year NFL career, Lynch stretches like a pretzel and looks like, if he didn’t do the GM thing, he’d be a good personal trainer. He keeps an eye on ESPN’s “Mike and Mike” on TV, where the consensus is that Cleveland is going Myles Garrett, and San Francisco is going to have the pick of the rest of the board.

The workout wraps up, but before he leaves his room for a 1.7-mile jog to his office adjacent to Levi’s Stadium there’s one last order of business: the cheese plate, an amenity from the hotel. This is some aged cheese under the cellophane, ignored by Lynch for two months. “I guess I’m really not going to eat it,” he says, and places the tray outside the door.

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* * *

8:18 a.m.

Jogging from the Marriott to Levi’s Stadium, via the San Tomas Aquino Trail, Lynch multitasks.

“Nice text from Peyton,” Lynch says, running and reading. “‘Good luck tonight and through the weekend. Hope it all goes well for y’all … P.’ Nice.”

Lynch's morning run from hotel to office, phone in hand.

Lynch's morning run from hotel to office, phone in hand.

A plane from San Jose International Airport, a few miles away, roars overhead. As the decibels die down, Lynch puts the phone to his ear.

“Hey Kyle,” Lynch says.

“Hey man, what’s going on?” Shanahan responds.

Lynch: “I’m jogging in from the Marriott. Figured I’d get some exercise.”

Shanahan: “Hey, you gonna let those players go before they work out again? [The Niners planned to cut several players when they added undrafted free agents post-draft.] Or how are you gonna handle that?”

Lynch (slightly panting): “You know what I found out, Kyle? We don’t have to do it till … We can do it Monday. I guess with free agents, we don’t have to do it till we sign them and turn the contracts in.”

Shanahan: “All right man. 9:30?”

Lynch: “Yeah. See you at 9:30.”

“So,” Lynch says, off the phone, “this is a situation where it’s a deep draft, and we’ve got a lot of guys we want down low in the draft that might be able to make our team. They’d have a better chance than some of the guys we have now, we think.”

He takes a couple of breaths.

“I committed—I learned this from Tony Dungy—that talking to them personally, the GM and coach, is just the right thing to do. Even the bottom of the roster guys, you talk to everyone you release [them]. I told Kyle when we started there’s certain things I want to do different. I don’t care if it’s the back end of the roster, you and I both should meet with them. It’s a tough deal when your dreams are shattered.”