Coming off a trip to the NFC Championship Game in 2022, the San Francisco 49ers enter this coming season with high expectations. They have the third-best Super Bowl 58 odds after a busy offseason. At the top of the questions for the 49ers’ 2023 season is whether quarterback Brock Purdy is the answer for the team.
As Purdy enters his second season and is coming off a torn UCL in his elbow, we break down whether the 49ers can overcome a sophomore slump from their QB1. And if not, whether Trey Lance can be of use.
Can the 49ers Overcome a Sophomore Slump From Brock Purdy?
The 49ers have become one of the darlings of the NFL for good reason. They’ve become a hotbed of coaching candidates under Kyle Shanahan, yet the strength of the franchise has allowed them to replace stellar coordinators with their choice of top-notch in-house options or go out to grab proven veterans.
General manager John Lynch has also proven to become a star talent evaluator, and he works incredibly well with Shanahan. The team was able to let quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, safety Jimmie Ward, right tackle Mike McGlinchey, and several other lesser contributors depart in free agency and still maintain their status as a Super Bowl favorite. Being able to land a star defensive tackle in Javon Hargrave and still have talent in the quarterback room certainly allows some room for error.
San Francisco’s continued success has been as non-traditional as we’ve seen over the last decade in the NFL. They’ve been able to compete despite having Garoppolo, a clearly mediocre system QB, and their playoff opponents often having elite passers under center. The one time the 49ers tried to replace Garopppolo, they traded three first-round picks in order to select Trey Lance.
But injuries to Garoppolo and Lance opened the door for Purdy, an overlooked seventh-rounder who was selected with the last pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Purdy proved to be an anomaly as a rookie, winning all five of his starts while completing 67.1% of his passes with an impressive 8.1-yard-per-attempt figure.
Purdy’s success compelled the NFL to select 14 quarterbacks in the 2023 NFL Draft, abandoning the trend of ignoring non-first-round passers. Taking fliers on experienced collegiate quarterbacks with some NFL traits suddenly became hip again. It’s funny how reactive the NFL is when the reality is they just missed on Purdy, and he happened to land in the perfect place.
Purdy suffered a torn UCL in his elbow early in the NFC Championship Game, and Lynch said he’s expected to be out until late August or early September. When he does return, he’ll enter a situation where star RB Christian McCaffrey will have had a full offseason with the franchise, and an offense potentially tweaked to fit his game even more. But there’s reason to believe a sophomore slump is coming for Purdy.
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The 49ers adopted an incredibly run-heavy approach once Purdy entered the lineup. McCaffrey, who’s career could’ve been on the brink of entering life support if he had suffered another major injury with the Panthers, took on a heavy workload as soon as San Francisco acquired him. He averaged over 20 touches a game for the 49ers, including four with 25+.
That same recipe won’t continue to work, given McCaffrey’s fragility. Oddly, San Francisco opted against investing in a capable back to spell McCaffrey in the draft, leaving them to rely on another player with soft tissue injuries in his past in Elijah Mitchell as their primary backup.
There’s plenty of room for the 49ers to do a better job of getting their receivers more involved in a Purdy-led offense. Brandon Aiyuk overtook the offense as the WR1 last year, finishing with 59.7 yards per game and eight touchdowns.
George Kittle has to find more chemistry with Purdy, though. Kittle finished with 37 yards or less in seven of his 10 games with the rookie, including the playoffs. Deebo Samuel also disappeared in 2022, missing four games and seeing his touches and yards per touch drop dramatically.
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Either the 49ers will have to get lucky by staying healthy or force Purdy to take on a bigger role. He averaged only 218 yards per start last year and benefited from the most receiving yards after the catch per target and second-best game script. He had as many danger plays (17) as money throws (16) and racked up 12 interceptable passes to go with his 13 passing touchdowns.
Regression is more likely than not, considering Purdy’s overall play was masked by good luck, an extreme game plan to hide his weaknesses, and the likelihood of a sophomore slump. Even with Shanahan pulling his masterful strings, Purdy’s also in a tougher position because of his injury. He can’t even start throwing until June.
Can Trey Lance Be the Answer for San Francisco?
With a slump for Purdy inevitable at some point, the 49ers will continue to be asked about Lance’s own readiness. Lance, who missed all but two games of the 2022 season with a fractured ankle, has been cleared to practice in OTAs. But he’ll be splitting first-team reps with Sam Darnold, who the 49ers oddly brought in despite a history of poor play and not being able to play in a timing-based system even back to his USC days.
Shanahan said Lance splitting reps won’t be an issue since he’ll still get the full attention from coaches. Lance has been working with Patrick Mahomes’ QB coach to help tighten his throwing motion, but we’ve rarely seen such proclamations actually pay off in games. Lance will still face the same questions I had for him coming out of North Dakota State, where he rarely made tight-window throws or complex post-snap reads, and was still generally inaccurate.
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The 49ers, who were hilariously torn between Lance and Mac Jones when Justin Fields was also on the board, can’t count on Lance despite his incredible physical traits. Shanahan has shown confidence in their ability to “fix” Lance’s issues, but it’s hard to shoehorn an athlete playing quarterback into a scheme that requires timing and a quarterback who is an athlete.
The idea of someone of Lance’s gifts not only executing but also transcending the 49ers’ offense is tantalizing. But Lance was an inexperienced passer from a lower division of competition in a simple scheme at NDSU. Despite the heavy investment the team made into him, the ship has sailed where expectations for Lance are anything but competing for the starting job.
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