The 49ers have balanced Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance long enough. It’s time to rip off the Band-Aid and let Lance be the guy.
In their franchise history, the San Francisco 49ers have selected eight quarterbacks in the first round of the NFL draft. Some worked out very well (Y.A. Tittle, John Brodie), some were decent (Alex Smith, Earl Morrall, Billy Kilmer), and some were… less than spectacular (Steve Spurrier, Jim Druckenmiller).
Smith (2005) was the only quarterback selected first overall. Morrall was selected second overall in the 1956 draft. But the 49ers have never given up more to take a quarterback in the draft than they did with North Dakota State’s Trey Lance. San Francisco moved from the 12th spot to the third in a trade with the Miami Dolphins in which the 49ers gave up their first-round picks in the 2021, 2022, and 2023 drafts, and got a 2022 third-round pick and the right to make Lance the third quarterback taken last year (after Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson).
Lance’s collegiate experience was limited; he had one full season as the Bisons’ quarterback (2019), and played in just one game in the 2020 season — a 39-28 win over Central Arkansas in which he completed 15 of 30 passes for 149 yards, two touchdowns, and the only pick he threw in his college career. Lance was more of a runner than a thrower in that game, and it did amplify some concerns about his NFL transition.
What Trey Lance’s final college game tells us about his NFL future
In the 2021 preseason, Shanahan dialed up some wicked option stuff for both Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo in which counter bash concepts kept the Raiders off their feet to an embarrassing degree.
49ers give Raiders option anxiety with alternating QBs and Counter Bash
When the 49ers were ready to roll for the regular season, Garoppolo was the starter. The 49ers had already made a serious commitment to the veteran — had they released him, the dead cap debt would have been a fraction of the $26.6 million cap number incurred with Garoppolo on the team. Shanahan thought he had a winning team, and he didn’t want to upset the balance. He also knew that Lance had some work to do before he was a functional NFL quarterback.
“Stuff I thought he learned the most of was this was his first time playing in almost two years,” Shanahan said of Lance this February. “And we asked him to do a lot of different things and just watching him play in the pocket, watching him work on play actions that he didn’t get to do as much in college. He had never done a seven-step drop before, which is how a lot of play actions are. He’d always done five and trying to mess with his feet and timing of all different types of plays. I thought it was great for him. It was great experience for him and I think it was good that he could kind of sit back and watch all that and not get forced into stuff where he’s learning it and doing it for the first time at full speed versus NFL defenses, because it’s a lot harder.”
In the end, the decision to keep Garoppolo as the starter down the stretch was based on the team’s rise from irrelevance to playoff contention — a process that ultimately landed the 49ers in the NFC Championship game, losing 20-17 to the Rams.
“Towards the end of the year, I never thought about just trying to get [Lance] in because I knew that was about to come. When we were 3-5, that was kind of the breaking point where I knew it was getting close. I know everyone else thought it was there, which I agreed it was getting close to there, but once we won that game and went to 4-5 and ended up winning four in a row, I thought we had a chance. And when you’re doing that, you don’t want to mess with the team. I would’ve done it for strategic reasons, if I thought it helped, but I wasn’t going to do it just to help Trey get 4-6 plays and ease him in at that time, because that’s not what we were thinking about at that time. We were thinking about how we can get our team to the playoffs. And once we got to the playoffs, we were thinking how we could win each game, because we knew only one team was going to be happy at the end. And we’re not that happy.”
Well, about that. In Weeks 1-10, Garoppolo completed 154 of 232 passes (66.4%) for 1,936 yards (8.3 YPA), 10 touchdowns, five interceptions, and a passer rating of 97.6. From Week 11 to the NFC Championship game, Garoppolo completed 190 of 283 passes (67.1%) for 2,405 yards (8.5 YPA), 12 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, and a passer rating of 92.9. So, it’s not as if Garoppolo saw some massive uptick in efficiency and productivity that would make him the clear and ideal starter. In the postseason, Garoppolo completed 43 of 74 passes (58.1%) for 535 yards (7.2 YPA), two touchdowns, three interceptions, and a passer rating of 72.7.
Lance spoke in late May about his offseason process, and between what he broke down and what Shanahan said in February, the Garoppolo decision seemed more about Lance’s readiness in 2021 than anything Garoppolo brought to the table.
“I didn’t try to rewrite anything. I kind of dealt with my finger throughout the season, so for me, it was kind of getting that back and getting healthy and feeling back to myself. I felt like towards the end of the season, I wasn’t the best version of myself, overall. It was a long season, long pre-draft process with me not being in school. Everyone says it’s going to be, but you don’t really realize it until it happens. And I think the finger for me was the biggest thing just as far as throwing the ball. I kind of had to learn how to throw the ball differently without using my pointer finger I guess just because of where it was at throughout the year. But now, I feel like I’m in a great spot health-wise and throwing the ball well and I feel really good.”
Now, it should be up to Lance to assert himself as the 49ers’ starting quarterback.
“Last year I was swimming a little bit,” he said during 2022 OTAs. “It was hard to not be, being drafted and then 10 days later, rookie mini-camp. So just trying to keep up, keep up with the other guys in the room. But yeah, I feel very different this year, for sure.”
Here’s why Shanahan, his staff, and the 49ers should feel differently about Lance this time around.