Why Trey Lance is 'destined' to shine in San Francisco

He was the draft's greatest mystery. An unknown from North Dakota State. But with Kyle Shanahan? In San Francisco? Lance has a shot at greatness. Here's why...

The selection of Trey Lance was handled with the tender love and care of nuclear launch codes. You can’t help but chuckle when any sports franchise is paranoid to this extreme. We all knew Jacksonville was going to take Trevor Lawrence and that the New York Jets would draft Zach Wilson yet Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch ensured absolutely no one else on the planet knew they wanted Lance third.

One of the head coach’s best friends, Chris Simms, had no clue.

All coaches were kept in the dark. All scouts, too. Never mind the fact that the 49ers traded away three firsts and one third for this pick. Never mind that this decision was guaranteed to change all of their families’ lives for better or worse. The 49ers acted as if their building was full of backstabbers and scoundrels which likely did not do wonders for morale.

Then, there was the quarterback himself. Lance had zero clue the 49ers would take him. Right up to getting a call from Lynch seconds before commissioner Roger Goodell announced his name on national TV, even he was in the dark.

Once the pick was official, Shanahan told the world how much he loved the quarterback.

So, apologies if I cannot put any stock whatsoever into the head coach’s daily gushing of the quarterback ahead of Lance on the depth chart. Seriously, you’d think Jimmy Garoppolo was part-Joe Montana, part-Steve Young. Repeatedly, the 49ers’ boss has maintained there is zero competition in San Francisco. Shanahan even said that Garoppolo, at his best, would beat out any rookie and then added that he’d be “very surprised” if Lance was the team’s Week 1 starter. Lynch chimed in, too. On Adam Schefter’s podcast, the GM said Garoppolo has never looked better in San Francisco.

Jimmy. Jimmy. Jimmy.

Nothing to see here. Move right along, folks.

OK, guys.

Here’s guessing there’s a 0.1 percent chance Garoppolo finishes the 2021 season as the 49ers’ starting quarterback. You don’t decimate your draft capital for one player only to surgically implant a clipboard to that player’s right hand for an entire season. Know this: Garoppolo’s days are numbered. As they should be. The 49ers will rightfully move on from a quarterback who won the NFC Championship just one year ago, who has averaged 253 passing yards with 27 touchdowns his last 16 regular-season games.

It’s proven he can only take this offense so far. One overthrow of Emmanuel Sanders with the Super Bowl on the line was all we needed to see.

The Lance Era is coming and, right here, is a chance at the NFL dream: The marriage between Supernatural QB and Brilliant Playcaller.

Oh, he’s a mystery to most. Shanahan is tip-toeing around quite a few landmines. Lance has played one football game the last 571 days. Before that, he played all of one college football season. And it was in the FCS. We’re not talking ‘Bama or Clemson or Ohio State, no, this was North Dakota State. And it’s not like he was throwing the ball 40+ times each Saturday. This was a run-first, run-often offense. Yet this risk was needed and this risk could completely tip the balance of powers in the NFC — for good.

Everyone who knows Lance best is buzzing with excitement over this marriage, too.

From one of his former NDSU wideouts Jimmy Kepouros: “His ceiling is limitless.”

To another NDSU wideout, Phoenix Sproles: “Trey is a fit, tight end body who can run a 4.5 and will run through your operation and throw the ball 80 yards down the field. It’s scary. Because you don’t know what his capabilities are.”

To the 49ers’ locker room. One veteran who’s in San Francisco clearly to win now texted back in 27 seconds with his official Trey Lance report: “F----r looks really good!!!!”

To private QB coach, Quincy Avery, a man who also trained Justin Fields before the draft. And Avery is asked all the time: Who’ll be better in the pros — Lance or Fields? Now that he knows where both landed, his answer is simple. In Chicago, he believes Fields “has his work cut out for him.” In San Francisco, he believes Lance is “destined to be successful.”

A storm may be building. Shanahan wanted full power in running an NFL team and, in San Fran, he got it. Shanahan has never lacked confidence himself. As far back as age 27, as the youngest coach in the NFL, Shanahan told the Denver Post he had “studied every potential X’s and O’s play and issue possible” and that his goal was to have every possible answer for every possible question a player could ask him. He believes in himself.

Despite a 31-36 record, he’s universally praised as a genius, too.

Now, it’s showtime.

I love that Shanahan put his money where his mouth is. Most people don’t know if Lance will be Patrick Mahomes or Tim Tebow, but the guts this all took? The brazen swing for the fences? Love it. Give me this ballsy approach over what the Patriots did in overpaying for tight ends and pass rushers and C+ receivers before drafting Mac Jones at No. 15 to compete with the ruins of Cam Newton. Or what the Vikings did in extending Kirk Cousins. Again. Or the Falcons new front office sticking with the 36-year-old Matt Ryan over Fields. The worst place to live as an NFL team is in a cocoon of fear, in doing everything you can to get to .500. You’ll sell hope. You’ll fill your stadium. Everyone will keep their jobs but you’re not accomplishing anything.

The goal, always, should be to win the whole damn thing.

We’ve seen quarterbacks like Jones, like Cousins, like Ryan before and they fall short

Quite possibly, we’ve never seen a Trey Lance.

The teams willing to roll the dice on such a tantalizing unknown are the teams that have a shot at building a winner that lasts. The Chiefs traded up for Mahomes… when he was dismissed as far too reckless. The Bills traded up (twice) for Josh Allen… when he was dismissed as gangly and comically inaccurate. Nowadays, you should be pissed if your favorite team doesn’t do everything it can to trade up for a stud QB in the draft. And, so far, Lance is already dropping jaws.

Right now, Shanahan should call Indy, call whoever he can to recoup a draft pick for Garoppolo or, at least, demote the quarterback he clearly does not believe in for the one he most certainly does.

Then, he shouldn’t look back.

The risk

Of course, he could flop. History tells us that at least two of these five quarterbacks drafted in the top 15 will be disasters.

The 49ers might’ve flushed three first-rounders right down the toilet.

Take it from one of Shanahan’s best friends, the one with a matching tattoo. On the Go Long Podcast, Simms didn’t hold back. He said that if he were running the 49ers, he would’ve taken Jones. And given everything he knows about Shanahan, the former NFL QB fully expected his buddy to take Jones at No. 3. As he put, Shanahan has historically gravitated toward “that Drew Brees-, Matt Ryan-type of guy.”

“Kyle’s one of my best friends in the world,” Simms said. “But I’m still shocked they drafted Trey Lance at 3. I can’t lie. Nor would I have traded three first-round picks to trade up to 3 to get Trey Lance, either. I see Trey Lance’s talent and all of those types of things, too. But there’s also things that scare me, too, to where I wouldn’t have made that type of move to go get him. … They could’ve stayed (at 12) and got him. From everybody I know in football — right before the draft — Trey Lance’s agent was calling every team in football, going, ‘If the 49ers don’t take him at 3, I don’t know who’s taking him.’ He didn’t have a place for him.

“And, of course, he’s a player who, yes, has a lot of high-end talent but hasn’t played a ton of football. Played I-AA football. They never had a game in his career where they said, ‘You’ve got to drop back 30 times today and dice the defense up or we can’t win.’ No, they were the best running team in I-AA football. So, he got to always play off of that. He never ran a two-minute drill his whole college career. Let alone there are some things — mechanically — that I have to see fixed throwing the ball to where I can totally buy in.”

Flip on the Red Zone Channel around 3:45 p.m. (EST) every Sunday. As Simms put, six of the eight games being played are likely boiling down to a last-minute drive… a drive Lance is unfamiliar with. He believes every offense should seek a quarterback built for that moment. Lance’s lack of pass attempts is worrisome, too. It’s the same logic Kurt Warner used in detailing his rise. The Hall of Famer said he was ready to bust onto the scene in 1999 because of the 1,320 throws in the Arena League and 326 in NFL Europe. There’s no substitute for real experience. In part, this was the Bears’ mistake in choosing one-year-starter Mitchell Trubisky over Mahomes and Deshaun Watson.

You don’t know what you don’t know as a quarterback. How much has Lance really learned through 318 total collegiate pass attempts?

Which is all why Simms ranked Lance as the 38th-best QB in the NFL, behind Kellen Mond and Marcus Mariota.

Having said this, he also knows Shanahan cannot wait to warp his playbook for a guy like Lance.

“Shanahan’s a genius,” Simms says. “Shanahan’s going to find ways, when he does play, to run him and do things with his great running game and now add him to this element that I think can make the 49ers very dangerous. Whether he’s the starting quarterback or Jimmy Garoppolo, I don’t know. It sounds like it will be Garoppolo but I would be shocked if there’s not a Trey Lance package in a handful of games this year where he gets in there to give the defense a different look.”

Lance did play one game in 2020, a pro audition that didn’t do much to change Simms’ mind. Against Central Arkansas, he completed only 15 of 30 passes for 149 yards.

Then again, there are two ways to view that game. Lance also led a furious comeback in which the Bison scored 21 fourth-quarter points to win. Lance also rushed for 143 yards with two scores through the air and two on the ground.

Avery kindly disagrees with Simms.

“That says more about you,” the QB coach says, “than if you just came out there and it was just easy.”

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The reward

The man who has coached Watson for years puts the 49ers quarterback situation best.

To Avery, the quarterbacks who possess two exceptional traits have a true shot at greatness and he believes Lance most certainly does.

He gets the idea of rolling with Garoppolo for now because, sure, Garoppolo has proven he can win. But Avery also knows Lance’s talent will prove too undeniable day-in and day-out. Lest we forget, the Houston Texans once had Tom Savage perched above Watson on the depth chart. To Avery, it’s only a matter of time before Lance leapfrogs Garoppolo.

“There’s things that Trey can do that Jimmy can’t,” Avery says, “and it’s not vice versa. There’s nothing that Jimmy does on the field that Trey wishes he had the ability to do.”

To all of us, Lance is a mystery. A Manchurian candidate dropped into the 2021 draft to dissuade GMs from taking a more polished, more accomplished Fields. To this crew, however, he most certainly is not a mystery.

Those who’ve been around him most can pinpoint a specific moment their minds were blown.

Sproles, first, cites Lance’s body type. This is a QB who’s 6 foot 4, 225 pounds of muscle. In 2019, Lance treated tacklers as bowling pins for 1,100 yards and 14 touchdowns on 169 attempts (6.5 avg.) and there was no need to run the 40 at his pro day. On one 44-yard scramble in the FCS National Championship, Lance was actually wearing a GPS tracker and told NFL Network it clocked him at 21.54 MPH… which would’ve ranked No. 1 amongst all NFL QBs last season (ahead of Mr. Dimes) and No. 12 amongst all ball-carriers.

“Dude’s a tank,” Sproles says. “He’s going to run through linebackers. He’s going to run through grown men in the NFL.”

True, Lance had the benefit of working off play-action in throwing 28 touchdowns with zero interceptions on 287 attempts in 2019 but Sproles’ holy-bleep moment came in practice when Lance would simply launch the football as far as he possibly could.

Press him. Tell him this “80 yards” claim sounds like exaggeration, like nothing but a fishing story that’ll grow to 100 by the fall and Sproles doesn’t back down. He insists he’s seen Lance throw the ball 70 to 75 yards with his own eyes and knows his arm has only improved since then. Hence, 80.

“It’s scary,” Sproles adds, “because you don’t know what his capabilities are.”

Sproles vividly remembers Lance breaking teammates’ fingers in practice. One running back was particularly pissed to injure his pinkie on a short pass from Lance. Even on five-yard hitches, Sproles says, “the ball’s coming at you at 60 MPH.”

It arrives… “in a blink.” Lance has the strongest arm he’s ever seen… “a cannon.”

Granted, we’ve seen quarterbacks with Freak Show arms bust. On one knee, Kyle Boller once threw a perfect spiral 60 yards through the goal posts. JaMarcus Russell’s right arm was more bazooka than appendage. Both stunk on Sundays. That’s why Sproles is also quick to explain how Lance’s arm actually translates to the field. There’s velocity and touch.

Take the 47-yard touchdown to Sproles in the ‘19 opener.

“It was literally in the air for like five seconds,” Sproles says. “It was just a bomb. I was looking everywhere for this ball and I couldn’t find it until it started getting closer and closer to me. It landed perfectly, away from the defender, because the defender was on my hip. … After that game, I was like ‘We’re going to have a fun season.’ And we ended up winning the national championship that year.”

This rushing ability is probably what has Shanahan devising plays all hours of the night.

Kepouros points to the third-and-23 in the 2019 FCS national title game.

“We had a concept where everybody drags across to the side,” Kepouros says. “We switched up the routes to confuse the defense. And this man just took off and ran. I was off to the side so I had to make a good block for him and he just ran down the sideline and scored and we sealed the game. I remember tapping him on the head and thinking, ‘Wow, this kid is something special.’ He’s a running back and a quarterback. Believe me: He can do it all.

“He’ll run right through you. There were so many times when I said, ‘Wow, he hits harder than our running backs.’”

One other massive benefit to starting an ultra-athletic QB? Less turnovers.

Garoppolo, a statue by today’s standards, too often forces throws with pressure in his face. With one juke… one lowered shoulder… or one slam of the gas pedal, Lance escapes. Lance gains 10, 15, 20+ yards in that same jam. For all of his gushing over practice performance, you better believe Shanahan hasn’t forgotten Garoppolo’s worst habit. One or two picks in, he’ll be eager to pull the plug.

Typically, you trust the veteran over the rookie when it comes to turning the ball over. That logic flips here.

And thinking back to when he knew Lance was a cut above, Avery pauses. He could cherry pick a specific play but — to him — it’s the 21-year-old’s mentality. The fact that Lance is the “best teammate” and “best person” a team could select as its franchise guy. To him, the QB’s personality is such that failing is not even an option.

You hear that often about Lance. He’s someone you want representing your business in every conceivable way.

At NDSU, Lance routinely woke up at 6 a.m. to watch film. With the 49ers, he’s already studying more than anyone. That’s no rookie quarterback trope, either. That’s reality. As NBC Sports’ Peter King reported, each player on the 49ers has an iPad they can use to watch film of practice and coaches track how much time everyone spends on the iPad.

Lance has logged more hours than anyone else.

Says Avery: “He’s that locked in.”

The best coaches learn, too. Shanahan surely has not forgotten how thoroughly his team’s ass was kicked by Josh Allen on Monday Night Football in 2020 and wanted to create his own monster at quarterback. You’d sure as heck prefer this hubris over an old-school coach staying stagnant. Shanahan likely views Lance as a massive ball of clay that he — and he alone — can mold into anything he wants.

Maybe it’s Week 1. Maybe Week 8.

Schematically, coach and QB are scheming something special on that iPad.

“He will put Trey on a whole other level,” Kepouros says. “He’s doing that right now. And Trey’s young so he’s got so much potential, so much upside, the ceiling is limitless. And I’ve seen some highlights. He’s balling in camp right now. You shouldn’t be surprised. He can really do that.

“I’m confident he’ll ball out when he gets the opportunity. When the spotlight’s on, that’s when he shines.”

Don’t look back

The 49ers have received very good quarterback play.

Very good wasn’t enough.

When Garoppolo’s bomb sailed long in the Super Bowl, Shanahan’s soul appeared to levitate out of his body on the sideline. Here the head coach called the perfect play for the perfect moment and his quarterback failed to deliver. It didn’t matter that the 49ers’ roster was deeper. It didn’t matter that they physically punished KC for 3 ½ quarters.

The massive disparity at QB — Mahomes vs. Garoppolo — eventually caught up to San Francisco.

Thus, the blockbuster trade and the shocking pick was necessary. Not reckless. Necessary. This was a team realizing it was in a perfectly fine relationship. The date nights. The conversation. The happiness. Everything’s been just, eh, fine. Nothing special. No fireworks. No “I’m gonna marry this girl” texts to your best friend. It’s time for Shanahan to give Garoppolo some variation of the It’s not you, it’s me routine if he hasn’t already.

One week in, Lance has supplied those fireworks.

The vet blown away by the rookie’s game also texted that it only took a couple practices for him to see why the team unloaded so many picks for him. Then there was linebacker Dre Greenlaw calling this the best arm he’s ever seen — “hands down.”

Maybe the 49ers are doing everything in their power to temper expectations and keep those training wheels on Lance as long as they possibly can. If you’re special, you’re special and you need to start ASAP. In retrospect, it’s crazy that the only reason Justin Herbert saw the field as early as he did in Los Angeles was because the team doctor punctured Tyrod Taylor’s lung.

Herbert was lights out. And in his own unique way — piloting an offense loaded with equally unique threats — Lance could be lights out in Year 1, too. Shanahan likely cannot wait to unleash the speed of Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and Raheem Mostert across every square inch of the field with a quarterback that coordinators must respect as a runner.

Unpredictability will reign.

So while Simms and most everyone else in sports media — *slowly raises hand* — expected Shanahan to draft the ‘Bama quarterback straight out of 1997, in truth, Lance made the most sense all along. Ask anyone around the league about Shanahan and, first, they’ll probably say how smart he is. Next, a few may note that Shanahan knows how smart he is. An air of cockiness turned off some people in NFL front offices when he interviewed for head-coaching jobs.

That can be a bad thing.

That can also be a good thing. Especially in an offseason with unprecedented quarterback movement.

The teams willing to be bold will win out and nobody acted bolder than the 49ers.

After whiffing in 2017 by choosing defensive tackle Solomon Thomas over Mahomes and Watson and after whiffing again in giving Garoppolo a $137.5 million dollar contract, Shanahan needed to think outside the box. For all of the mystique around his football mind — and, yes, injuries have slammed his roster — this son of a two-time champ has a losing record as a head coach. He blew a 28-3 lead as a coordinator in one Super Bowl and squandered a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter as the head coach in another.

To bust through, once and for all, he needed to bet on himself.

In Lance, he most certainly did.

This division will be ruthless. Sean McVay made his own move in trading for Matthew Stafford. The Seattle Seahawks were able to cling to Russell Wilson for at least one more season. And don’t sleep on Kyler Murray. In what may be a do-or-die season, Kliff Kingsbury isn’t going to hold anything back. Shanahan could not bring a plastic butter knife to this gun fight.

He needed a QB with a legit shot at greatness. Teammates don’t hesitate for one second in saying Lance will be a Hall of Famer one day. Like claiming that Lance can throw a football 80 yards, this lofty of a prediction may be no exaggeration.

Any Donovan McNabb comparison is quickly Dikembe’d out of conversation.

They promise he’ll be better. Much better.

We’ve seen Fields compete in the college football playoff, bouncing back from a vicious hit vs. Clemson to throw for 385 yards and six touchdowns in a 49-28 win. We’ve seen Lawrence win it all. We’ve seen Jones win it all. Yet the fact that we haven’t seen Lance in such a pressure-packed, hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck environment could be a good thing. He wasn’t surrounded by five-stars, no, Lance played with fellow Power 5 rejects.

Sproles explains.  

“Now that we get to see him on the same field with the rest of the professionals,” the NDSU receiver says, “I think that’s where things will take off. Trey will show what he can do. Whenever the time does come, we’ll all be able to witness it and those comparisons will no longer be comparisons. It’ll be ‘This is why Trey was the No. 3 pick in the draft and, potentially, could’ve been No. 1.’”

He won’t be sitting for long.

Lance will give Shanahan no choice.

Then, the fun begins.

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