NFC West Writer
The San Francisco 49ers gave up three first-round selections and a third-rounder for the privilege to draft a quarterback with dazzling potential but a limited track record in Trey Lance.
But with a talented roster built to win now, San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan did not have the luxury of slowly nurturing the 23-year-old quarterback of the future so that he realized his full potential during his time with the 49ers.
The 49ers pulled the ripcord on the Trey Lance experience in the Bay Area this week. Shanahan announced that Lance had been beaten out by another forlorn No. 3 overall pick, Sam Darnold, for the No. 2 job behind Brock Purdy.
Then, on Friday, just hours before Lance’s scheduled start in San Francisco’s last preseason game against the Los Angeles Chargers, the 49ers executed a trade with the Dallas Cowboys, sending Lance to America’s team for a measly fourth-round pick.
Lance now becomes the project of Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy, a prospect to develop behind franchise QB Dak Prescott.
The NFL is a bottom-line business based on wins and losses. Lance technically had his opportunity to earn the starting job last year, when head coach Kyle Shanahan made him the unquestioned starter. The athletic quarterback suffered a season-ending fractured right ankle in the opening quarter of a Week 2 contest against the Seattle Seahawks.
However, it’s not like Lance received a long runway to earn the staring job in San Francisco. He played in a total of eight games over three NFL seasons, the fewest by a top-five pick for a franchise he debuted with in the common draft era.
Lance’s warts have been well-documented. He struggled with accuracy and indecisiveness. He routinely turned down throws to open receivers and seemed at times to work slowly through his progressions.
[Helman: Cowboys’ trade for Trey Lance is opportunistic — and straight out of Eagles’ playbook]
In exhibition play this season, Lance completed 66.7 percent of his passes for 285 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception. He was sacked four times and posted a 101.2 passer rating. But those numbers don’t truly reflect his inconsistent play both in practices and in games. While Lance showed some improvement, it wasn’t enough for Shanahan to keep him around as a development project in a quarterback room expected to lead San Francisco toward a Super Bowl.
Last season, Shanahan didn’t do Lance any favors by using him more like a battering-ram fullback than the face of a franchise.
How Kyle Shanahan & 49ers mismanaged the Trey Lance-Brock Purdy QB1 situation
Lance struggled to stay healthy during his time in San Francisco. He suffered a broken finger during exhibition play in his rookie season in 2021, which altered his throwing motion. Lance also sprained his left knee in a start against the Arizona Cardinals that year in Week 5.
Because of his lack of playing time and his ability as a runner, Shanahan leaned on Lance’s legs.
He ran the ball 13 times for 54 yards in San Francisco’s season-opening loss to the Chicago Bears last year, and another three times on designed runs against the Seahawks before suffering the ankle injury.
In two starts during his rookie year in 2021, Lance ran the ball 38 times for 168 yards.
Lance ran the ball 54 times and threw it just 104 times in five games played with San Francisco before this past preseason. And on many of those running plays, Lance lowered his shoulder and invited contact instead of sliding to protect himself from big hits.
Players get better by playing. Unfortunately for Lance, the NFL doesn’t have a relationship with a developmental league as they did years ago with NFL Europe, where quarterbacks like Kurt Warner and Jon Kitna cut their teeth and made mistakes, gaining valuable experience before returning to the NFL.
Lance should get an opportunity to land on his feet with McCarthy, who has experience developing young quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Matt Hasselbeck during his time coaching for the Green Bay Packers.
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As for Shanahan, he had the fortune of finding a diamond in the rough last year with a seventh-rounder in Purdy. But for one of the best offensive minds in the game, Lance will always be a mismanaged asset who never received the opportunity to reach his full potential under the guidance of one of the NFL’s best quarterback whisperers.
Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.
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