SANTA CLARA, Calif. — President Donald Trump is already on record offering the most lofty comparison anyone could make for San Francisco 49ers quarterback C.J. Beathard. Niners coach Kyle Shanahan would settle for quite a bit less.
In January 2016, Trump said Beathard would become “the next Tom Brady” upon arrival in the NFL. As quarterback comparisons go, the bar doesn’t get much higher. The 49ers would gladly take it, but Shanahan appears to have a more reasonable goal.
Moments after the Niners traded into the end of the third round of last week’s draft to select Beathard, Shanahan was asked if he believed there was Kirk Cousins-like upside for Beathard. In other words, is Beathard the type of midround, developmental quarterback who could one day evolve into an NFL starter?
“Yeah, I think that’s exactly how you see it,” Shanahan said. “Anytime you take someone you want to see the potential to develop someone. Anytime you’ve got a guy that’s fearless, I think he’s extremely intelligent, football means the world to him, he really works at it, he’s accurate and he can process and play the game very fast in the pocket. I think that gives you a chance to play in this league.
“By no means does that mean that he’s ready to do that, but I think that’s a great guy that you have a chance with. I’m excited to get him here, just throw him into battle with all those other guys.”
Shanahan was the offensive coordinator for the Washington Redskins when they used a fourth-round pick on Cousins in the same draft in which they took Robert Griffin III with the second overall pick. If you’re looking to find the reasons for the Cousins comparison, you don’t have to look far.
Beathard is 6-foot-2, 209 pounds. Cousins is 6-3, 210. Beathard played in a pro-style offense at Iowa, in the Big Ten. Cousins played in a pro-style offense at Michigan State, also a member of the Big Ten. Beathard was the 104th overall pick. Cousins was 102nd.
Of course, none of that means Beathard will become an effective starter in the NFL. In fact, the Niners still look poised to try to add Cousins if he’s available next offseason. The larger point here is Shanahan identified Beathard as the one quarterback in this draft he coveted because he saw the traits he wants in a signal-caller.
“One thing that helps is being able to see guys play the way you’re going to ask them to play,” Shanahan said. “I think that helps with being at Iowa, having watched the system that he’s in. It’s easier to see. And, to watch him over the years, he’s a three-year starter. He’s led his team to a bunch of wins, especially in 2015 where they had a better team. I think he played unbelievable. They struggled a little bit more this year. I don’t think he had as good of players around him. But, he’s a leader, he’s tough, processes very well, extremely accurate and I think he lives and dies football.”
That’s a good jumping-off point as Beathard embarks on his NFL career. Of all the choices the Niners made during the draft, it was Beathard who surprised the most, but Shanahan’s history of developing quarterbacks should earn him the benefit of the doubt, particularly considering Beathard isn’t being asked to come in and be the long-term solution.
Instead, Shanahan and 49ers general manager John Lynch said they would pencil in Beathard third on the depth chart behind Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley. Where he goes from there will be up to him, but there will be no immediate pressure to play. And if Beathard ends up showing the ability to start after the Niners have added a franchise quarterback? Even better, as that would give the team a solid backup with strong trade options.
Beathard says he believes his background at Iowa will give him something of a head start, even in a complicated scheme like Shanahan’s.
“Compared to all these other quarterbacks in this draft class, one of the benefits is just because of the system I played in,” Beathard said. “They put a lot on the quarterback at Iowa. I had to make checks in the run game, pass game, ID the Mike [linebacker]. The other thing like that, in the NFL it’s what you have to do, and I think that’s given me a step ahead of a lot of the other guys.”
Beathard’s intangibles are hard to deny but those weren’t the things holding him back in the eyes of draft pundits and evaluators. His arm strength is OK, his 2016 completion percentage was a below-average 57 percent (though Shanahan rightly points out that’s not always correlated to accuracy) and he has a tendency to hold on to the ball too long, as evidenced by some of the many sacks he took.
Those are all things Shanahan believes he can help Beathard improve, otherwise he wouldn’t have been the choice. If nothing else, the one thing we learned from how Shanahan & Co. handled this draft as it relates to quarterbacks is that the coach is looking for guys who can play the style of offense he wants to play. It’s why he parted ways with Colin Kaepernick and signed Hoyer and Barkley. Shanahan’s belief is all three have a similar skill set that fits what he wants to do.
So even as others were surprised by the Niners’ choice, Beathard wasn’t taken aback by landing in the third round.
“I’m confident in my abilities,” Beathard said. “I think I am a very good quarterback and I’m confident in myself. You know, I understand, I can’t wait to get there and get the offense and the playbook down and get with the guys and prove that I have what it takes. I know I have what it takes to be a starting quarterback in this league and for the 49ers.”