49ers QB Trey Lance gears up for what could be last extended run Friday night against Chargers
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — It makes no sense for the 49ers to part ways with Trey Lance after two seasons unless a substantial trade offer is made.
We’re not talking about a conditional mid-round pick based on how much Lance plays for a new team when we say “substantial.” Unless someone comes calling with a second-round draft pick or something in the top 100, Lance should stay with the 49ers regardless of whether he plays in 2023.
Coach Kyle Shanahan hasn’t revealed any playing time plans for Friday night’s preseason finale against the Los Angeles Chargers, saying only that the starters (including Brock Purdy) will see some action.
I’m not sure if that’s wise, but whatever. The more important task is to give a player who is in desperate need of developmental playing time what could be his final extended run in a 49ers uniform.
Lance was noticeably better against the Broncos on Saturday than he was against the Raiders in the preseason opener, for reasons other than his stat line of 12-for-17 for 173 yards, a touchdown, and an interception in 35 snaps beginning late in the third quarter.
He led the 49ers to a 21-20 victory with two late drives that resulted in a 22-yard touchdown pass to Cameron Latu and a 32-yard field goal by Jake Moody at the gun.
“The thing that people have to understand about Trey is that I believe he’s 22 years old,” Denver quarterback Russell Wilson said after the game. “At the age of 20, he was drafted with the weight of the world on his shoulders.” He’s a fantastic football player. He has a lot of gifts and talent, and it’s all going to work out for him.”
Lance turned 23 on May 9, but Wilson makes an excellent point. Lance hasn’t gotten the kind of work he needs to develop into the player the 49ers thought they had when they traded up from No. 12 to No. 3 to get him in 2021.
He might never get that job. Brock Purdy is the undisputed starter, and for good reason, given his body of work as a rookie and the condition of his surgically repaired elbow. Sam Darnold appears to have the inside track to be the backup, though that’s just a guess and Shanahan hasn’t announced anything.
So, what’s the point of keeping Lance around?
Consider the following reasons:
- They might require him.
The 49ers are coming off an NFC Championship Game in which Purdy, who started the season as QB3, had his elbow shredded by Haason Reddick. Quarterbacks are injured. Either Shanahan is harsh on quarterbacks or they are unlucky, but keeping Jimmy Garoppolo upright was always a challenge, and neither Lance nor Garoppolo will be able to play in 2022.
There’s a lot of talk about all the things Lance can’t do in terms of running an offense fluidly and converting touch throws. But he’s also the most athletic quarterback on the team, has significantly improved his passing mechanics, and who’s to say he can’t develop into the job if disaster strikes? Shanahan is a competent enough play designer to highlight his strengths.
- He has the backing of his teammates.
As meaningless as preseason games are, Lance’s teammates’ reaction to his touchdown pass to Latu — and the ensuing penalty for frontline players not in uniform being on the field in celebration — was remarkable.
This is no small matter. Lance works with the second and third teams, so he doesn’t get much time with Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, or George Kittle when he’s healthy. Without Trent Williams, he’s playing behind a backup offensive line.
If Lance wanted out, he could go the bitter route and publicly lament his lack of opportunity, and the 49ers would probably oblige. He hasn’t done so. He has been unwaveringly positive and has backed both Purdy and Darnold.
- Lowest possible return
Lance has already been factored into the 49ers’ salary cap, so there’s no problem there.
Lance has played so infrequently since his COVID year during his final season at North Dakota State that he is too unknown for teams to ship the 49ers a high draft pick in the hopes of making him their starter.
Purdy was kept on the 49ers’ roster as the team’s third quarterback a year ago. In retrospect, ask them if that was a good decision or if they would have preferred an extra mid- to late-round draft pick in 2023.
- He could still be pretty good.
Purdy has a good chance of matching or improving on what he did last season, staying healthy, and establishing himself as the 49ers quarterback for the long haul. That means Lance will be playing somewhere else next season or later.
Lance’s dismissal on a national scale is almost comical. According to ESPN’s Marcus Spears, the Lance trade is the worst in NFL history. Former NFL executive Mike Lombardi stated that he was not a quarterback when he came out of the womb. (Apparently, Purdy began spouting protection schemes in between bottles and his first attempts at solid food). According to ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky, it’s time to move on.
Nobody gave the Seattle Seahawks much of a chance last season after Wilson forced a trade to Denver, handing the job to Geno Smith. Smith played early after being drafted by the Jets in 2013, then served as a backup from 2015 to 2021. When given a proper scheme, environment, and supporting cast, he exceeded all expectations.
Lance has a lot of room to grow and has shown the perseverance and diligence to keep going.
- Locate, locate, locate
The worst thing that could happen to Lance is for a struggling team with a questionable roster to immediately bring him in as a starter. Spending his time with a strong team is preferable to being forced into action for a weak one in the long run.
Lance would join a new team, learn an entirely new system, and potentially have to start all over again if and when the coach is fired at the end of the season. Alternatively, they may fall out of favor and be replaced by a new flavor of the month.
There’s no guarantee Lance will get the chance he seemed destined for with the 49ers after the 2021 draft, and fairness doesn’t exist in the NFL. He can only keep grinding.
The best thing for Lance’s career and the 49ers is for him to stay in 2023 and see where the journey takes him.