John DePetro/The MMQB
12 May 2017

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.

* * *

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.

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:

Advice from all my new GM friends? "Get some rest, it's a marathon." Yea right! I've been up since 3:30 AM. Let's do this already! — John Lynch (@JohnLynch49ers) April 27, 2017

* * *

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.

* * *

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.”

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.”

It’s been a radical change in Lynch’s life, living alone, 460 miles north of his family while Linda and their four school-aged children stay back in San Diego (for the time being). This job popped up out of the blue in January, when Shanahan, then Atlanta’s offensive coordinator, asked Lynch, then in the Fox booth, if he’d ever be interested in moving into football management. Lynch, in truth, had been thinking about it. “I loved the Fox job, a lot,” he says. “But I missed the scoreboard. I missed caring who won and lost.”

Plus, the only one of Lynch’s children who remembers much about what he did as a player is his son Jake, a high school junior. As Lynch runs, he explains why he had to take this job and why, at the same time, it’s a bit tormenting.

“It really wasn’t the ideal time,” Lynch says. “Kids in high school. That’s hard. I struggle with that. I’m away from them. It’s really hard. We’re a close family. But even they said, ‘Dad, you’re too excited. Go for it.’ And I think in some ways it’s good for them too. They can see something important about life.

“I’ll tell you a story. In one of my last years playing, we scrimmaged the Cowboys down in Dallas. [Ex-fullback Daryl] Moose Johnston came out to practice, just to watch. He was retired then. I started talking to him and he asked about broadcasting. I said, ‘Moose, I don’t know. If I’m gonna play 15 years, maybe it’s best for me just to go home and play Mr. Mom and be around my kids for a while. You know, hang with them.’ He said, ‘Yeah, you know, I thought the same thing. Then my dad, he’s kind of blue-collar, said to me, ‘Your kids are too young—they didn’t see the work it took for you to play. They just see the lifestyle. They need to see the work. They need to see you work.’ That really struck home with me. My kids, other than my son, didn’t really see me play. They all just think, Hey, nice house, nice cars. You know, you’ve got to work. And it’s good to show your kids if you want to accomplish great things, it takes work.”

* * *

9:35 a.m.

Lynch and Shanahan savor a couple of hours together uninterrupted in the coach’s office on the first floor of the Niners’ football building, making sure they agree on the draft plan. They start by going over Lynch’s cards.

“Dude,” the laconic Shanahan says, “I did the same thing this morning.”

“Good,” Lynch said. “We can’t let anyone in that room tonight see any hesitation between us.”

* * *

12:27 p.m.

Part of running a draft is the contingencies. In Shanahan’s office, Lynch has Peters and Marathe empty their tanks of everything they know about the draft between 1 and 34 (San Francisco’s second-round pick), and this much they know:

• There’s an offer on the table from Bears GM Ryan Pace for Chicago to trade the third overall pick, plus third-round picks this year and next year, for the Niners’ first-round pick, No. 2.

• If they pick Foster at three, the Niners have some assurance that the agents for Foster will put contingencies in the contract to cover some of the off-the-field risks he presents. Foster tested positive for a diluted drug sample at the scouting combine, meaning there may have been an attempt to drink enough water to hide a positive drug test. And Foster flipped out on a hospital employee over the extended wait for combine medical tests in March; he was expelled from the combine for that. “They [Foster’s agents] are all in on that if we pick him up here,” Lynch says.

• The rest of the time in Shanahan’s office—Marathe leaning against the widow looking out onto the practice fields, Shanahan at his desk, Lynch seated in the middle of the room, and Peters seated behind Lynch—the GM throws out ideas, as does everyone else. The most experienced man in the room, Marathe, is in his 17th draft with the team. He knows the cap, and he knows the value of picks on the trade market.

This is the crux of the draft. This is what 31 other organizations are doing right now, in one form or other. This is the debate Lynch needs to have in the hours before the draft, so the team can walk into the draft room unified, and so he can be comfortable knowing, generally, what he’ll want to do depending on whether he moves back or moves up. Or what he’ll think about any one of a number of offers he thinks he could get while on the clock tonight.

The 49ers hold two and 34. No one in this room believes the team will stand pat with either of its picks in Rounds 1 and 2.

“Paraag,” Lynch says, “with the extra third from Chicago, how far up can we get from our second-rounder?”

“If we pull this off with Chicago,” Marathe says, “that extra three … you can get up to 21 from 34. And you still have your original three. You can use 34 and then Chicago’s third to get to 21.”

Shanahan: “Remember … I think because it’s tonight and we have the night to talk about it afterward, whatever we are getting for a pick if we move back, we have time to study that team’s roster. And get them to throw in another player who has one year left on their contract. Someone who can start for us for a year. Keep that in mind.”

Moving from 34 to the area around 21 is important, they think, because one of their targets should they deal down from two to the area between eight and 15 could be there: running back Christian McCaffrey, wide receiver John Ross, edge rushers Charles Harris, T.J. Watt or maybe Takkarist McKinley, and perhaps a wild card.

“I think Jabrill Peppers has to be in the discussion there,” Lynch says.

Shanahan: “To me, any given year or this year, that’s eight all the way to 32. They are all kind of the same value. What I really want to get down here in the next hour or so … we keep talking what if we’re stuck in the low teens, or anywhere from eight to 15 and all these guys are on the board, which won’t happen, but you got Watt, you got Harris, you got McCaffrey, you got John Ross. You got all these guys that we really like, but where do we like them? If all those guys are there, then obviously we are trading back because we are happy with all those guys. But if they aren’t there, who are we taking?”

“[Florida linebacker] Jarrad Davis,” says Peters. “Would you put him in there?”

Shanahan: “I wouldn’t.”

Peters: “[Washington cornerback] Kevin King?”

Shanahan: “I wouldn’t that early. I think he’s later.”

Lynch: “I think Kevin could possibly be a move up, based upon if we gather picks and move up into the first round and, you know, you get a guy with another fifth-year option.”

Shanahan: “Kevin is a goal if we had the 32nd pick.”

Peters: “Not in the twenties, even?”

Shanahan: “To me, if we gained a bunch of stuff then we need to debate whether to move up into the twenties. I personally … I know King’s the best, but when you talk about guys like [Colorado cornerback] Ahkello Witherspoon possibly in the third or even [West Virginia cornerback] Rasul Douglas—like, we all know King is the best. [But] not a huge difference in getting the other guys.”

Lynch: “King is a little different though.”

Shanahan: “If all we needed is one guy, it’s a huge difference. King is definitely better. We need as many guys as we can, so … I’m hoping we can get [Ohio pass-rusher Tarell] Basham also. Now it’s not life or death, I’d rather risk getting the lesser guy to have more guys.”

Watt is on the floor again, before the group breaks for lunch.

Lynch: “Obviously I love the guy. I guess where you get a little nervous, is he was a tight end two years ago, so I read something from coach [Bill] Walsh: ‘Watch out for the one-year wonders.’ That was one of his philosophies, but what makes me feel better about that is the gene pool he is working with [T.J. Watt is the brother of J.J. Watt]. Not that you can count on that, but there’s something that makes you feel like our eyes aren’t lying to us.”

Peters: “The flipside is that he has only been a defensive player for 15 months. So, there is that upside. He’s only learned those skills and those traits since last June really.”

Lynch: “And I think Bill is talking about taking him with the third pick in the draft. He’s not talking about 24 or 26 or wherever it is that we may pick him.”

As they disperse, Lynch seems O.K. with where they are four hours before the draft. “My first draft and we’re running an auction … that would have been nice. That would have been fun. But we’re good. We’re good.”

Lunch (omelet, bacon, fruit). Workout. Meeting. Short workout. Lynch just wants to get this going.

* * *

3:30 p.m.

Lynch gathers CEO Jed York and his father, co-chairman John York, and Shanahan and asks them to come into Jed York’s office. He sees Jed’s twin sisters, Jenna York and Mara York, who don’t have titles with the team but are in for the draft, and invites them too. “We’d like you to hear our plan,” Lynch begins, and he lays it all out. The crew likes the trade from two to three.

* * *

​3:40 p.m.

Lynch’s office is across the hall from the John McVay Draft Room (McVay was the GM under Bill Walsh), and an hour before the draft, he puts on the suit his wife picked out for such a momentous occasion: gray pinstripe suit, white shirt, white pocket square, black loafers. (Jed York picked out the tie: 49er red, with narrow white stripes). Lynch feels something in his breast pocket. It’s a card, from Linda. He’s used to this. She surprises him with cards often.

He opens the card. It reads:

“You were made to do this. Trust your instincts. You’ll be great.”

* * *

4:57 p.m.

Walking into the draft room, minutes before the draft kicks off in Philadelphia, Lynch is calm. Shanahan too. “Ready,’’ Lynch says with a smile. “Just like I was at 3:30 this morning.” They’d just come from a meeting in his office, during which Lynch directed Marathe to try to get one more thing out of the Bears.

Chicago threw in a fourth-round pick in addition to the two third-round picks, with the proviso that the 49ers would only make the deal with the Bears if Garrett is the first overall pick. If Garrett is there at two, the auction would commence and the Niners would either take a monster deal, or the monster pass-rusher.

There are 31 people in the room. The brain trust (Marathe, Jed York, Shanahan, Lynch, Peters, Mayhew, John York) from right to left at the front of a three-sided table about 27 feet around. Scouts along either side. Medical staff and some coaches on the inside, and minority owners and two fans who’d paid $30,000 each to the 49ers foundation sitting silently in back.

Just before the draft goes live, Marathe calls one of his counterparts with the Bears and goes over the terms of their deal. With Lynch listening, Marathe says:

“As of right now, we’re in a good spot,’’ Marathe says. “Two things need to happen. Cleveland needs not to do something crazy, and we need not to get a crazy phone call. Like, somebody offering us four ones. Which is not going to happen. Other than that, we are good to go and we will make this deal … But we’re on the same page with the compensation, right? It’s 67, next year’s three, and 111 … Yep. Yep … Yep, 111. O.K.? We’re close to a handshake. We’re high-fiving.”

* * *

5:11 p.m.

The Browns pick Garrett. Lynch’s expression doesn’t change. Niners on the clock, Lynch on the clock for the first time in his life. The Niners wait to be sure no team calls with a ridiculous offer now that Garrett is gone. Three minutes later, Marathe okays the deal with Chicago, and both call the league to confirm. Chicago is on the clock. When the trade is announced on NFL Network (TVs in the room are tuned to ESPN and NFL Network; the sound is up on the NFL’s channel), there’s an “Oooooooh” from the crowd in Philly. Lynch’s expression doesn’t change.

Marathe phones six teams in the top half of the draft that he thinks might have some interest in the third pick. “New Orleans, Carolina, Cleveland, Philly, Jacksonville all said no,” Marathe announces. Chicago will pick, and then San Francisco.

* * *

5:21 p.m.

“TRUBISKY!” says Lynch. His expression does change now. Chicago shocked the draft.