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.
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.
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.
There are three basic kinds of quarterbacks: The guys you win because of, the guys you win with, and the guys you win in spite of. Throughout his career, Garoppolo has generally been a guy you win with, and more often a guy you win in spite of than a guy you win because of. This was never more obvious than the 2019 postseason, when Shanahan ran Garoppolo through the “Bob Griese in 1973” filter. Garoppolo attempted just 19 passes in the divisional round win over the Vikings. He attempted just eight passes in the conference championship win over the Packers. And in Super Bowl LIV against the Chiefs, Garoppolo attempted 31 passes, but it was his limitations that ultimately prevented the 49ers from pulling off the win.
The problem with Garoppolo is that he is both too cautious and too reckless. There are throws to be made to open receivers that he simply won’t make, and at other times, he runs into the proverbial brick wall when he tries to do more than his talent will let him.
In a recent study of receiver Deebo Samuel, it was made clear to me that there were outstanding routes Samuel ran, creating openings for Garoppolo, that Garoppolo simply refused to exploit.
In the 2021 NFC Championship game, Samuel showed a professional level of understanding when it was time to find zone points in coverage on an over route. He’s more than just a YAC gadget guy on screens and such. It’s not Samuel’s fault that Garoppolo couldn’t pull the trigger and opted for a dump pass to running back Elijah Mitchell instead. You pair Samuel with a quarterback that has more talent and is less risk-averse and can read stuff over the middle, you’re going to see more traditional big plays from him.
Same game, same problem. Samuel runs a great post/corner route to upend his defender, finds open space, Garoppolo doesn’t get the memo, and it’s a sack. If I were Samuel, a big part of my current frustration with my team would be the quarterback.
This 50-yard reception against the Bears in Week 8 shows just how well Samuel is able to press defenders to the wall with his speed, put them in uncomfortable positions, and make the catch, whether it’s contested or not. There’s a lot on the plate with Samuel as a pure receiver that simply can’t be unlocked with a mediocre quarterback.
And then, there was the interception that ended San Francisco’s chances of going to Super Bowl LVI. Garoppolo had his usual issues reading the middle of the field, the play broke down, and the second-reaction ability was not ideal.
We all remember Garoppolo’s overthrow of Emmanuel Sanders in Super Bowl LIV, but it’s more about the shots he doesn’t take than anything else. When you are both risk-averse and too cavalier, you are putting your team in quarterback purgatory. 2022 will be his ninth NFL season; at this point, we can safely assume that Jimmy Garoppolo is what he is… and isn’t what he isn’t.
Lance did start two games in his rookie season — a Week 5 loss to the Cardinals in which he completed 15 of 29 passes for 192 yards, no touchdowns and an interception, and a Week 17 win over the Texans in which he completed 16 of 23 passes for 249 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. Both starts were predicated on Garoppolo’s injuries, and certainly the Cardinals game would have given Shanahan pause regarding making him the full-time starter. Lance had played significant snaps in Week 4 against the Seahawks, throwing two touchdown passes, but Seattle helped a bit with some seriously blown coverages.
The other touchdown pass against Seattle was a motion screen in which Deebo Samuel did Deebo Samuel things.
Lance had issues against a Cardinals defense far more interested in (and able to) upend a quarterback with different looks. The interception came on second-and-10 with 12:59 left in the first quarter. Lance tried to hit Trevis Benjamin in the middle of the field as coverage converged, he missed Samuel to the left boundary until it was too late, and given the linebacker drops, he would have been better off just tucking and running.
Lance was capable enough in situations like this, where Samuel exploited an opening on an intermediate crosser…
…but there were other instances when the timing on a simple screen was an issue.
“I was proud of him,” Shanahan said the day after that game. “I thought he went into a tough environment versus a real good team. I thought he did a lot of real good things. Threw a bad pick on that first drive, but I thought he bounced back well. I thought he was aggressive on what he saw. When he saw it right, he let it rip. When he didn’t think something was there, he ran aggressively. I thought he did a real good job through it all and handled the noise pretty well. And I thought it was a good first experience for him.”
Lance did run 16 times for 89 yards against the Cardinals, which Shanahan also discussed — specifically, the balance between designed runs and scrambles.
“Designed runs, we did a few of them, not too many of the designed runs where it’s just him going. Most of those are options on it that you do it versus a certain look. But I thought it was a good mixture of it. Kept the defense honest in a bunch of stuff. Got them to play a certain way and once you do that, I thought it opened up a chance for us to make them pay on a few things that we missed.”
This 14-yard run happened on the first play of the game — here, Lance did take advantage of the dropping ‘backers.
Shanahan also gave us a fascinating breakdown of this four-yard run, in which Lance was stopped just short of the goal line. Shanahan was asked if Lance should have flipped the ball to another ballcarrier — perhaps fullback Kyle Juszczyk.
“I think it’s a little Monday morning quarterbacking,” the coach concluded. “You run the play, and the first thing you try to do is hit the halfback in the flat right away and they’ve got a guy outside there. And the design is to try to hit Juice [Juszczyk] who slides in from the backside, which the penetration clipped him a little bit. So he was a little bit behind, but that was an option for Trey to do. If you don’t have the legs, that’s where I would expect him to go, back to Juice. But Trey does have the legs so he kept running. He had a chance to get in there. I think he saw No. 9 [Arizona Cardinals LB Isaiah Simmons] in front of him and turned it up in there. And he didn’t see No. 51 [Arizona Cardinals LB Tanner Vallejo] coming from inside, who I think surprised him. The guys made a hell of a play on the goal line and I’m not sure whether he got in or not. You can never tell, but those two guys made a great play.”
Against the Texans in Week 17, the plan seemed to be to get Lance in rhythm early with quick passes, accentuated with play-action and boot rollouts. This worked at times, though it was also waylaid at times by less than optimal protection.
At times, Lance was able to use his improvisational abilities to transcend the pressure. Go back to Garoppolo’s game-ending pick against the Rams in the NFC Championship game, and see if you can spot the difference.
“I thought Trey did some really good things,” Shanahan said the day after this game. “He was thrown into a real tough situation in terms of just where our team was at, how big of a game that was, basically being a playoff game. I thought he went in there, handled the pressure real well. Got off to a slow start, him and the rest of the offense, which I thought put a little bit more pressure on him also. And to watch him just respond, especially after that pick, I thought he had a real successful day. Good to get his first win off his back.”
The interception in question came with 9:24 left in the second quarter, and this may have been a case of Lance just waiting too long to get the ball out. Not the first time that’s happened. Hitting Brandon Aiyuk on the crosser as opposed to waiting Desmond King out the boundary on the attempt to George Kittle may have been the better idea. Or, maybe looking to your right and noticing that Deebo Samuel was wide open for a probable touchdown.
Lance finished the first half with 10 completions in 13 attempts for 105 yards, no touchdowns, and that interception. That things got better in the second half was a nice referendum on Lance’s progress in the offense. The 45-yard touchdown pass to Samuel with 10:06 left in the game was the kind of play where you see it all come together — a young quarterback making a deep, late-in-the-down throw. Lance had the clean (moving) pocket to time it up with Samuel, send a cross-body missile, and this is the kind of throw you’re not going to see from Mr. Garoppolo.
“Having Trey in the whole game allowed us to get a feel for how Houston was defending him,” Shanahan concluded. “When you put on a game plan to how a defense plays a quarterbacks, they’re always going to play quarterbacks somewhat similarly, until you get to a quarterback run and guys always have to adjust a little bit for the different types of plays that come with the threat of a running quarterback. And those are adjustments you want to see. How much does shotgun affect the defense, pistol? When they are accounting for them, what type of defenses does that get you? And it definitely got us some different defenses versus Houston than what we had seen on tape than what we were anticipating. But, when he is going be in there the whole game, then you start to get a feel for it and see how they want to stop Trey. And that’s what was so hard when we were bringing him in for a play or two earlier in the year.”
Shanahan also mentioned this week that Garropolo’s status with the team is contingent on his recovery from shoulder surgery — an unusually candid thing for any head coach to say about a guy currently on his roster.
“Nothing’s changed since the surgery, we knew where we were at before that, and then he got the surgery, so everything went on hold,” Shanahan said. “I expect him at some time, most likely to be traded, but who knows. It’s not a guarantee and it’s been exactly on hold when that happened. And when he is healthy, we’ll see what happens.”
Garoppolo’s 2022 cap charge of $26.95 million would certainly be an obstacle; the 49ers may have to cut him if there are no interested parties. As Garoppolo is in the last year of his five-year, $137.5 million contract, the dead cap charge on his release would be just $1.4 million. Certainly, spending that much on a placeholder while Lance gets ready would be fiscally imprudent for a second straight season.
It could be said that in 2021, the 49ers did the smart thing by maximizing whatever Jimmy Garoppolo has to offer, and letting Lance get the hang of things. But in 2022, it’s time to rip off the Band-Aid, let Lance go through whatever he needs to go through on the field, and become the team they can be with a quarterback who has already proven the nascent ability to do just about anything.