Where things went wrong for Trey Lance and the 49ers

The selection of Trey Lance third overall in 2021 was supposed to represent the future for the San Francisco 49ers at their most important position. That future ended on Wednesday when reports surfaced that Kyle Shanahan had selected Sam Darnold, not Lance, to serve as the number two quarterback to Brock Purdy.

San Francisco’s use of three first round picks and a third-round pick will go down as one of the worst in franchise history. On a side note, what keeps it from being the worst is the 1978 trade for O.J. Simpson which cost the 49ers their second and third round picks in 1978, their first and fourth round picks in 1979 and a second rounder in 1980.

Let’s try to unpack where all of this went wrong.

Raw Talent

Saying Trey Lance was a raw player coming out of North Dakota State is an understatement. This was a quarterback who had thrown just 99 passes in high school. Lance then made 318 attempts over three years in college, losing 2020 due to Covid and deciding to enter the NFL draft early.

Despite knowing Lance would be a project, the 49ers pulled the trigger.

San Francisco tried to take the pressure off Lance as a rookie by saying publicly there would not be a quarterback competition. There was.

As 49ers general manager John Lynch said before the 2021 preseason opener against Kansas City, Lance had started strong and was “pushing Jimmy Garoppolo.” During joint practices with the Chargers the following week Lance was given his first extended snaps with the starting offense. The rookie then split series with Jimmy Garoppolo to open the game.

Neither quarterback played well, and Lance was unable to take advantage of the opportunity to show he was the better option.

During practices the following week the 49ers worked on using a two-quarterback system. This carried over to the final preseason game against the Raiders. They did it again in week two against Detroit with Lance replacing Garoppolo on the team’s opening drive and throwing a touchdown to Trent Sherfield for the first score of the season.

Apart from one snap against Green Bay a couple weeks later, the two-quarterback system was shelved for the remainder of the season.


During the 2021 preseason finale at Levi’s Stadium, Lance fracture the index finger on his throwing hand when he hit it on the helmet of a Raiders defender.

Although he didn’t miss a game as a result, the injury had lingering effects for Lance.

“And I think the finger, for me, was the biggest thing just as far as throwing the ball,” said Lance during the 2022 offseason. “I kind of had to learn to throw the ball differently without kind of using my pointer finger, I guess because of just 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 feeling really good.”

An injury to Jimmy Garoppolo in week four opened the door for Lance to make his first career start the following week against Arizona. The rookie was predictably up and down throughout the game, but the bigger issue would come in the form of a knee injury. The injury forced San Francisco to rush back Jimmy Garoppolo instead of being able to give Lance another start two weeks later against Indianapolis.

Lance was given the keys to the offense for 2022.

The second-year quarterback was up and down during his first training camp as a starter. In the season opener at Chicago, his third career start, the skies opened, and conditions were far from ideal. Lance made some good and bad plays, just as he did during camp. An interception in the fourth quarter led to Chicago taking a two-score lead, a downpour ensued, and the game was over.

In week two against Seattle, Lance led a scoring drive to open the game. After getting into field goal range on the following possession, Lance took off on a run over the right side and suffered a broken ankle when he was tackled.

Lance’s season was over less than five quarters after it started.

For a quarterback who needed time to play, in both games and practice, the injury was devastating.

Brock Purdy

From the moment Purdy took over after Jimmy Garoppolo went down with an injury at the end of the 49ers first possession against Miami, it was clear he was different.

The final pick in the 2022 draft went out and did what the 49ers had hoped Lance would do, blow everyone away with his play and leave no doubt who the best quarterback was on the roster. Purdy did this repeatedly, including two playoff wins to reach the NFC championship game.

Purdy’s emergence changed everything.

What’s next?

San Francisco see’s Lance as an asset and the quarterback just had the best offseason and training camp of his time in San Francisco. According to reports, the 49ers were offered a fifth-round pick for Lance before the draft.

Speaking with KNBR Thursday morning, 49ers general manager John Lynch said, “I think that’s the most likely option is that he’s here. If we can find a landing spot for Trey that is a really good one for him and works for us that’s not something we’d turn a blind eye to, but that’s not where our focus is right now.”

If this sounds familiar to you, it should. San Francisco spent nearly the entire offseason in 2022 saying this about Jimmy Garoppolo before eventually keeping the veteran on the roster with a restructured deal.

With teams across the league unlikely to offer anything better than the fifth-round pick San Francisco already turned down, Lance sticking with the team could happen.

This article has 33 Comments

    1. Jack’s assessment is compelling because it is fair to all parties. Jack is right that the draft was, even at the time, known to be a huge gamble. One day we will know why the cautious Niners went all out for a high school star with limited college experience in the minor leagues of college football. Inexplicable really. I also like that Jack points out that it was Lance himself who performed poorly in so many healthy pre-season practices. Kyle saw in Purdy what he wished he could see in a very nice young man called Lance. Purdy took control immediately even having had far fewer snaps than Lance at the same stage. If Purdy is indeed the real thing, it will partially make up for the Lance fiasco.

  1. Seems like horrible timing to demote him after he played so well at the end of the last game.

    His throwing mechanics and accuracy look really good. He moves really well – better than the two other QBs. I get he still has a ways to go on decision making.

    Where the heck is Griese?

    He did get a must win against Houston. No playoffs if he doesn’t win that game.

  2. Worst draft day trade in the history of the NFL. We better win a Superbowl this year.

  3. What we wrong is that they picked a development QB when they needed as close to ready as possible. Also, not realizing he was not really a running QB and not having a plan with the 3rd pick until after they made the trade for it. All of those things were gross mismanagement. That stated, I’ll keep Kyle Shanahan and Lynch, thank you very much!

    1. He really was a running QB..his last season at ND State, he ran for 1100 yds on 160+ carries…that many yds are not racked up avoiding the rush and scrambling

  4. Once you take the trade to go up to number 3 you are committed. The player they originally sought was a fit for the offense, the player they took would
    need the offense to be modified a bit. Its a 50/50 crap shoot if it will work or not. Now Brock Purdy is here, played great and is a fit for his offense. The best thing that can happen is that Purdy does turn out to be for real.

  5. Jack,
    Another trade in the worst 49er trade ever category was 1961 Y.A. Tittle for Lou Cordileone. Tittle took the Giants to 3 straight NFL championship games while the 49ers floundered.

      1. My Dad passed a couple of years ago at 93yo and he was still pissed that the 9ers traded Tittle and kept Brodie

  6. If drafting/trading for Trey Lance was the worst pick ever….drafting Brock Purdy may be the best pick ever. So they kinda cancel each other out. Me thinks the Niners have a great chance to win the Super Bowl this year. This 2023 team is stacked!!!

  7. The good news is that the Darnold signing seems to be starting to bear fruit, either from his picking up the system, Griese’s tutelage, or both.

    Guy Haberman posted a nice video in which he graded every throw he witnessed over the last several weeks in order to study the progress of the qbs. His work supports Shanahan’s statement that Darnold has pulled away and may have established a higher floor than Lance in terms of a significant difference in negative-graded throws. So more consistency and better, longer drives.


  8. imho the coaching staff has failed many time at understanding the players talent and putting them in a place to get the best situation for them to be successful and the team as well. it really all started when they call lance to tell them they were going to draft him and kyle said you where always our guy and lance said really.
    i think management wanted the player w the highest ceiling and the coach wanted a game manager, i dont think kyle has what it take to develop a QB into a premier elite qb.. i mean they had a chance at drafting watson or mahomes and came out w solomon, they then trade a 2nd round for a pending free agent w couple starts, he won couple meaningless games that only took them out of the running for a higher draft pick only because they were winning-less, for whatever reason they made him the highest paid qb on a long term deal, WTF? they had multiple outs on the deal and instead of getting draft picks for JG, they somehow messed it all up and he was still on the team his last year, to the point that the best they got for him is a comp pick while wentz was traded for a 1st.
    is not just qb, this is how many draft picks they used on skill positions. even w all this draft picks at rb they sign Jet to a ridiculous contract
    rb picks 4, 2 trade up, 3, 6, 3, 2, 3, 4, 5,
    wr picks 5, 7, 2, 3, 3, 4, 1, 7, 3,

  9. A few things:

    Trey Lance is not a natural thrower of the football. He is inconsistent in his motion. grip, and delivery which causes inaccuracy. Josh Allen created a lot of problems for NFL teams when he overcame inaccuracy to be a really good NFL QB. Allen is the exception – not the rule. Developing accuracy once you make it to the NFL is extremely rare. I think the 49ers thought Lance could improve his accuracy issues and he simply has not improved.

    Lance was drafted in part because the 49ers thought his mobility might be a combination of Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson. Trey Lance does have mobility but he’s not a running QB. He’s a passing QB that can run if he is forced out of the pocket but he is not an elusive QB. He takes way too many hits which has been a part of his injury issues.

    Kyle Shanahan’s scheme for Trey Lance was based on a total miscalculation of Lance’s mobility. Calling QB dives for Trey Lance is exactly why Lance was injured. Shanahan very richly deserves blame for getting Lance hurt in 2022. It should have been very obvious from Lance’s injury against the Cardinals in his rookie year that Trey Lance is not a guy who uses agility and quickness to avoid taking hits. Trey Lance was accustomed to being the biggest baddest dude on the field at ND State and he brought that mindset to the NFL. He thought he could run over guys and he took major hits in his rookie season. Shanahan absolutely deserves harsh criticism regarding Trey Lance’s injury issues.

    I’m rooting for Trey Lance to remain with the 49ers. Shanahan and Lynch have proven they do not value the contributions of the Offensive Lines. Their roster decisions at Center, RG, and RT are almost roster malpractice. I wouldn’t be surprised if the 49ers lead the NFL in starting QBs lost to injury in the Shanahan era. It’s almost a guarantee that Trey Lance will get snaps this year if he begins the year as QB3. The first 2 guys are almost guaranteed to get injured. If he can get field time, and Shanahan stops treating him like Larry Csonka, I’d love to see what Trey Lance can do.

  10. I break it down into two decisions. One was the Trade. The other decision was the player.

    I disliked the trade as soon as it was announced. A 1st+1st+3rd to move from 12 to 3.
    Moments later Miami traded its new 12th+future 1st+123rd for Philadelphia’s 6th+156th.

    If I recall correctly, the trade was reported on during Mac Jones pro day. I figured the 49ers, Dolphins and Eagles GMs were all aware of (what appeared to be) a 3-way trade.

    When reporters at Mac Jones pro day asked Lynch about the series of trades, Lynch expressed surprise about the Miami>Philadelphia deal. Nothing inherently wrong about that. Just a strange vibe. I was thinking Lynch would have known about a 3-way deal.

    Now this is based on recall of the trade day. I could be wrong. I welcome corrective info. Either way, the trade just seemed… weird.

    Do I want to get rid of Shanahan? No. Never get rid of someone until you have a better replacement lined up.
    If I were Jed I’d be thinking about a management restructure. Adam Peters more clout. GM gets final draft say. (like no on Joe Williams).

    Feasible without alienating Shanahan? Who knows. But I’d be thinking about it.

    1. Shanahan is the real talent that York hired and Lynch was hired because that’s who Shanahan wanted. My opinion is that the head coach should always have a huge say on draft picks because they know what kind of player they want for each position. The Lynch Shanahan team works great as evidenced by the the top roster they have. When you have a coach and GM at odds, you end up with Baalke and Harbaugh.
      As for Trey Lance, we won’t probably ever know if it was a mistake to draft Lance. They knew he was raw and would take time to develop but injuries derailed that plan and then Purdy came along and ended the plan.

  11. The year they drafted Lance, it was their last chance. Ownership demanded a change at QB after Jimmy got injured again and again. All through the offseason they tried to acquire an experienced QB but were unable to come up with anyone. Come draft time they were under the gun to come up with a QB with a future THAT YEAR, and the draft was their last chance to do so. Why they chose Lance remains a mystery but under the circumstances Kyle and John felt he was the best choice in the draft. None of the early QBs have shown much more, and if Lance hadn’t been so injured he might have been the best of the bunch. He still might be but we will probably will never know. The 49ers acquired their QB of the future with Brock. They did achieve their goal, first in the draft, last in the draft, doesn”t matter, they got their QB of the future so why quibble about the process. They have Lance under contract for two more years at a good price, he may actually be a great QB but at this point it is found money. Just like Kinlaw they may have blown a first round pick, but have found gold in later picks. I personally think the 49ers are better picking in later rounds and should trade rounds 1 and 2 for more picks, they are more productive!
    SF goes through QBs every year and Lance still is an option. Now with a third viable QB they are set for the future. Ease up on Kyle and John, if anything it was ownership’s impatience that has caused the problem at QB, and it might yet be gold gold gold in the future

  12. During practices the following week the 49ers worked on using a two-quarterback system. This carried over to the final preseason game against the Raiders. They did it again in week two against Detroit with Lance replacing Garoppolo on the team’s opening drive and throwing a touchdown to Trent Sherfield for the first score of the season.

  13. It’s not that they gamble-drafted Trey but what they gave up to get him.
    Jack can you analyze what happened to those picks, who got picked and where are they at?

  14. According to Lowell Cohn, KS is a coward who is hiding under the bed. He questions his character, elocution, truthfulness, and management approach. Whew! He says that what KS has done “stinks”, that he has mishandled Lance from Day 1. It gets worse. Says he goes on KNBR to avoid tough questions


    1. Even says KS acts like a weasel and that makes him (Lowell) want to vomit. I mean, wow! How can he get away with saying this kind of stuff? It’s worse than Trump.

      1. The Clown family likes to make ridiculous statements!
        If KS was a coward he wouldn’t have admitted that TL was a mistake and he would have named him 1st or 2nd QB…

        1. Lowell Cohn is an amazing writer especially when he write about sports history, boxing or his relationship with his father but he was part of that generation of sports writers in the 70s and 80s who began leaning on sensationalism and his son has followed suit. There is an old saying in the newspaper business, if it bleeds it leads. Both he and his son are just doing what it takes to make a living. I wonder what an even handed reporter like David Lombardi makes versus a sensationalist like G. Cohn makes? I bet Cohn makes a lot more.

      2. Cohn is a disgusting human being who knows nothing about football but somehow he gets people to reed him. He obviously doesn’t have an ounce of moral integrity.

  15. Hopefully, a team is willing to take a chance on Lance. I can’t think of any other high draft pick QB (I should include Alex Smith) that has been snake-bit as has Lance.
    He starts about 4 games, then is seriously injured that further slows down his development.

    I’ve said it before and repeat that no one still doesn’t know what Lance is capable of. Third string QBs do not get the level of snaps given to the QB1 and 2.
    I’d prefer the 49ers find a trade partner even if it means receiving a low-end player in return. Hopefully, the 49ers can work a deal where they also receive draft pick next year.
    Rather then let Trey rot on the bench, free him to develop elsewhere.

    1. AES,
      I hope they keep him this season. David Lombardi said the cap savings for this season are minimal about 2 mill. At #3 he will run the scout team that is where BP really showed he was capable. There is no way of knowing whether TL could over take Darnold for the #2 spot during the season. There is a chance that TL could get on the field this year and shine improving his trade value for next year. Who knows if he does hit the field it is possible he could show enough to put him in competition for #1 next year. If not we can trade him before next years draft and still save 14 mill off of next years cap.

  16. Coach,
    Reports are that Lance is in his way to the Cowboy’s.
    If true, I’m happy for him.

  17. Why? Is it a better situation than staying with the Niners? I don’t know the answer because I don’t know much about Dallas.

    1. Because Prescott has had injuries and has choked in the playoffs.
      And, Lance would likely have a better opportunity to get on the field in Jerryville.

      I’m disappointed on many levels with Lance leaving, but, the 49ers are in a good situation with their current QB room. I, also believe that Allen can carry the team if need be.

  18. At first glance the 49ers use of the picks below was much worse than the OJ Simpson trade.
    Trey Lance Cost

    OJ Simson Trade

    But the 49ers were likely a winning team when the trade was made. This softens the blow a bit.

    I still think the picks used to get Trey had more value than the picks used for the OJ trade. It’s close. Valid arguments can change my mind.

    Cap Management
    The premise for trading up was rookie quarterbacks make it easier to manage cap, sign free agents. I agree with this approach. Wilson and Mahomes helped their teams acquire and retain free agents.

    Though picks as high as 3rd cost way less than a good free agent quarterback, 3rd overall the picks are not chump change. So that has to be factored as well.

    A 3rd costs more cap than ten 29th picks. Those late 1st to early 2nd rounders are key to managing cap. A 29th costs only $3M a year. A 50th costs under $2M a year.

    1. The Trade – Horrible
      The whole thing stunk. Another ‘What Shanny wants, Shanny gets’ Joe Williams impulse move, turned up to 11. Shanahan tells Lynch what to do.

      Picking Trey Lance – NA
      Trey might be the best quarterback in history relative to pass attempts, yet still not starter material. At least not yet.

      Trading Trey to Dallas – Horrible
      Trey has way more value than a 4th. The 49ers injury epidemic is still going.
      Trey has little chance of getting game experience at Dallas.

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