SANTA CLARA, Calif. — For most quarterbacks selected in the top three of the NFL draft, the immediate expectation is for them to take downtrodden franchises and elevate them to the league’s loftiest heights.
More often than not, it doesn’t work. It’s why, at the time the San Francisco 49ers used the No. 3 pick in 2021 on quarterback Trey Lance, a whopping 44 quarterbacks had been selected in the top three in the previous 50 NFL drafts and only two starters — Troy Aikman and Peyton Manning — won a Super Bowl with the team that originally drafted them.
The situation in San Francisco is unique. When coach Kyle Shanahan finally, officially declared that these Niners belong to Lance on the opening day of training camp, he wasn’t asking the second-year signal-caller to be the franchise savior.
As he explained why the 49ers are turning a team that was minutes away from a second Super Bowl appearance in three years over to an unproven 22-year old, Shanahan pointed to multiple things. A belief in Lance, sure, but nothing stood out more than this: the Niners’ roster is talented enough that Lance doesn’t have to play the hero.
“I feel as good about our roster as I have,” Shanahan said. “I think our team’s in a great spot to turn it over to a quarterback who hasn’t played before.”
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The 49ers have a roster that doesn’t look anything like most teams drafting quarterbacks in the top three. Only a year after appearing in Super Bowl LIV, the Niners traded from No. 12 to No. 3 to get Lance, a move they were positioned to make only because of a 2020 season decimated by injuries.
Before the Niners drafted Lance, no quarterback had ever been picked higher than No. 25 by a team that was one full season removed from a Super Bowl. So while Lance will have plenty of pressure in his first full season as San Francisco’s starter, it will be more of the “don’t mess it up” variety than the “please save us” kind.
“I think he’s in probably the best position you could be in as a first-year quarterback with a defense like us and a good O-line and a bunch of weapons,” defensive end Nick Bosa said. “He’s got all the help he needs … I think if he doesn’t make big mistakes, then we’re going to be in good shape.”
The question then becomes what, exactly, do they need from Lance in order to get to the mountaintop? While San Francisco’s offense under Shanahan will never abandon its core concepts — wide zone mixed with gap scheme rushing attack, plenty of play-action and bootlegs in the passing game — it will likely function differently with Lance than it did with Jimmy Garoppolo.
With Garoppolo at the controls, the Niners ran a precision, run-heavy offense that leaned on yards after the catch to do damage through the air. Over the past three seasons, Garoppolo completed 68.5% of his passes (fourth in the NFL) and the Niners were fifth in time of possession.
What Garoppolo didn’t bring was the ability to consistently throw the ball downfield or make plays with his legs. In that same time, the Niners were last in the NFL in pass attempts of 20-plus air yards (118), 29th in completions on such throws (56) and their 339 rushing yards from quarterbacks also ranked 29th.
In Lance, the Niners are installing a quarterback who came into the league with just 318 pass attempts at North Dakota State and some accuracy questions. Last season, Lance’s completion percentage of 57.7% was more than 10 points below Garoppolo’s.
The Niners hope Lance’s willingness to take shots and make things happen when plays break down will offset any accuracy losses. Even in a small 71-attempt sample from last season, Lance proved he’s not afraid to let it fly, with 13 attempts of 20-plus air yards (18.3%). Garoppolo had 441 passes last season, with 32 traveling 20-plus yards in the air (7.2%).
Lance’s 10.2 air yards per attempt was the highest in the NFL among quarterbacks attempting at least 50 passes. Of course, Lance also brings a ground element — he had 1,100 rushing yards for the Bison in 2019 — that will allow Shanahan to get creative in the run game and create more off-schedule opportunities to throw.
“New wrinkles isn’t the problem with him,” Shanahan said. “Trey can do anything, but what’s going to be his best stuff, and that’s [something] I don’t have the answer to yet. And I’ll have a much better idea at the end of camp, but I still won’t have the answer. That will go throughout the year and that’s always evolving.”
To Lance’s benefit, he will start the season with a handful of elite players dotting the roster. Left tackle Trent Williams will protect his blind side, and Lance has former All-Pros such as receiver Deebo Samuel and tight end George Kittle catching passes, not to mention emerging young wideout Brandon Aiyuk and running back Elijah Mitchell.
On defense, the Niners return eight starters, including Pro Bowlers Bosa and Fred Warner, and spent big money to sign cornerback Charvarius Ward. That unit was so suffocating in the opening days of camp that some wondered if the offense would ever catch up. As the preseason wore on, Lance and Co. began to find some success and stood firm in the belief that playing that defense every day only served to make them better.
“When you say things [are] slowing down, it’s just getting better,” Lance said. “Every rep I take, I think the game slows down, and that’s kind of the way I’m going about it every single day, one day at a time, and every single rep [I’m] trying to learn as much as I can from it.”
There are a handful of quarterbacks who have won a Super Bowl in their second NFL season. That list that includes Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Kurt Warner and Russell Wilson. Of that group, Brady and Warner were, like Lance, in their first seasons as the starter.
They were also surrounded by elite talent, meaning they didn’t have to carry the freight. The Niners know Lance will have his ups and downs. But they hope he will improve every week, and at minimum, avoid the plays in key moments that lead to losses.
“We need to do our best to make it as easy as we can for Trey,” Kittle said. “We need to play at a high enough level where if Trey has a game where he throws a couple picks, it is what it is and we’re gonna be playing well enough where we can win those games … The more games Trey plays, the better he is going to get and it’s just going be up to us to help him out as best we can.”