SANTA CLARA — Barring a substantial trade offer, it makes no sense for the 49ers to part ways with Trey Lance after two seasons.
By substantial, we’re not talking about a conditional mid-round pick based on how much Lance actually plays for a new team. Unless someone comes calling with a second-round draft pick or something in the top 100, Lance should remain with the 49ers whether he winds up playing in 2023 or not.
Coach Kyle Shanahan hasn’t divulged playing time plans for Friday night’s preseason finale against the Los Angeles Chargers, saying only that he expects the starters (including Brock Purdy) to get some snaps.
I’m not sure how wise that is, but so be it. The more important task is to get a player desperately in need of developmental playing time what could be his last extended run in a 49ers uniform.
Lance was decidedly better Saturday against the Broncos than he was against the Raiders in the preseason opener for reasons that go beyond his stat line of 12-for-17 for 173 yards, a touchdown and an interception in 35 snaps beginning late in the third quarter.
He led the 49ers to a 21-20 win with two late drives that resulted in a 22-yard touchdown pass to Cameron Latu and a 32-yard field goal at the gun by Jake Moody.
“The thing about Trey that people have to understand is that I believe he’s 22 years old,” Denver quarterback Russell Wilson said following the game. “The guy got drafted at 20 years old with the weight of the world on his shoulders. He’s a tremendous football player. He’s got a lot of gifts, he’s got a lot of talent and it’s going to turn for his good.”
Lance turned 23 on May 9, but Wilson’s point is well taken. Due to circumstances beyond his control, Lance hasn’t gotten the kind of work needed to develop into the player the 49ers thought they had when traded up from No. 12 to No. 3 to select him in 2021.
He may never get that work. Brock Purdy is entrenched as the starter, and with good reason based on his body of work as a rookie and the health of his surgically repaired elbow. Sam Darnold appears to have the inside track to be the backup, although that’s a guess and Shanahan has made no such announcement.
So why keep Lance around?
Let us count the reasons:
1. They might need him
The 49ers are coming off an NFC Championship Game which was essentially over the moment Purdy, who opened the season as QB3, had his elbow shredded by Haason Reddick. Quarterbacks get hurt. Either Shanahan is hard on quarterbacks or unlucky, but keeping Jimmy Garoppolo upright was always a challenge and neither Lance nor Garoppolo could make it through 2022.
There’s a lot of noise out there about all the things Lance can’t do in terms of fluidly running an offense and converting touch throws. But he’s also the most athletic quarterback on the roster, has improved his passing mechanics considerably and who’s to say he can’t grow into the job if disaster strikes? Shanahan is a good enough play designer to accentuate his strengths.
Trey Lance throws a souvenir into the stands Saturday night after the 49ers beat Denver at Levi’s Stadium. Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group
2. He has the support of his teammates
As meaningless as preseason games are, it was remarkable to see the reaction of Lance’s teammates following his touchdown pass to Latu — and the ensuing penalty for frontline players not in uniform being on the field in celebration.
This is not a small thing. Lance is working with the second and third teams which means he doesn’t get a lot of time with Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk or George Kittle when he was healthy. He’s playing behind a backup offensive line without Trent Williams.
If Lance wanted out, all he’d have to do was go the bitter route and bemoan his lack of opportunity in public and the 49ers would probably oblige. He hasn’t. He’s been unrelentingly positive and supported both Purdy and Darnold.
3. Minimal return
The 49ers have already accounted for Lance under the salary cap, so there’s no issue there.
Lance has played so sparingly dating back to the COVID year during his last season at North Dakota State that he remains too much of an unknown for teams to ship the 49ers a premium draft pick in hopes of making him their starter.
A year ago, the 49ers made the decision to keep Purdy on the roster as the third quarterback. Ask them in retrospect whether that was a good idea or if they would have rather had an extra mid- to late-round draft pick in 2023.
Trey Lance rolls to his right to escape pressure Saturday night against the Denver Broncos. Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group
4. He still might be pretty good
There is every possibility Purdy equals or improves on what he did last season, remains healthy and sets himself up for a long run as the 49ers quarterback. That would mean next season or later Lance would carry on somewhere else.
To see how Lance has been dismissed nationally borders on comical. ESPN’s Marcus Spears calling the Lance deal the worst in NFL history. Former NFL exec Mike Lombardi saying he wasn’t a quarterback coming out of the crib. (Apparently Purdy began spouting protection schemes in between bottles and his first attempts at solid food). ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky saying it’s time to move on.
There weren’t a lot of people who gave the Seattle Seahawks much of a chance last season when Wilson forced a trade to Denver, ceding the job to Geno Smith. Smith played early after being drafted by the Jets in 2013, then spent 2015 through 2021 as a backup. He exceeded all expectations when given a chance with a proper scheme, environment and supporting cast.
Lance has plenty of room to grow and has shown the fortitude and diligence to keep on plugging.
5. Location, location, location
49ers’ Brock Purdy checks out healthy after nerve-wracking scramble in cameo
Inman: 10 things to catch my eye in 49ers’ preseason tilt with Broncos
49ers’ Jake Moody comes through, but there’s still reason to be concerned
Kurtenbach: Brock Purdy picked up where he left off. That makes the 49ers the NFC’s team to beat
49ers 21, Broncos 20: Brock Purdy makes cameo; Jake Moody kicks winner
The worst thing that could happen to Lance is for a struggling franchise with a questionable roster to bring him in as a starter immediately. Biding his time with a strong team is better in the long run than being forced into action for a poor one.
Lance would go to a new team, have to learn an entirely new system, and if and when the coach is dismissed at the end of the year, potentially have to do it all over again. Or fall out of favor and be replaced by a new flavor of the month.
There’s no guarantee Lance is ever going to get the shot he seemed destined for with the 49ers following the 2021 draft, and fairness doesn’t enter into life in the NFL. All he can do is keep grinding.
The best thing for Lance’s career as well as the 49ers is that he sticks around in 2023 to see where the journey takes him.