Trey Lance: What 49ers QB has to do to justify NFL Draft investment

Trey Lance #5 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Trey Lance #5 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) /

49ers rookie quarterback Trey Lance hasn’t seen the field since Week 5, raising questions about his NFL Draft investment, but there are ways he’ll justify it.

The San Francisco 49ers have elected not to play their top investment from the 2021 NFL Draft, quarterback Trey Lance, ever since he got his first start at the pro level way back in Week 5 against the Arizona Cardinals, thanks to veteran starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo being out with a calf injury that game.

Lance went 15-of-29 for 192 yards passing and an interception in that game, also rushing for 89 yards, flashing both the pure potential that made him the No. 3 overall pick last spring but also the rawness from a player who had only one full year as a starter at the collegiate level.

And the various one-off snaps he received earlier in the year haven’t played out in the weeks since.

Head coach Kyle Shanahan described why Lance hasn’t seen the field as of late following the Niners’ one-sided 31-10 victory over the Los Angeles Rams:

"Going into this game, we didn’t like a lot of the stuff, just matchup-wise in terms of what the Rams did, so still had it up. But we didn’t see [inserting Lance] as changing the defense or giving us too big of an advantage, so that’s why we didn’t go with it."

Considering the “what have you done for me lately?” nature of the NFL, it’s understandable why there are both local and national grumblings about Lance’s lack of impact. After all, he’s the last of the first-round quarterbacks selected last April who has yet to be named a full-time starter. Additionally, one signal-caller once potentially linked to San Francisco, now-New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones, is having the most success out of any of those rookies, prompting even more questions about whether or not the 49ers got their pick of Lance right.

Magnified, considering the lofty investment the Niners made by moving up from No. 12 to No. 3 overall by sending away two future first-round picks and a 2022 third-rounder.

Those talking points aren’t likely to go away anytime soon. Not until Lance is the full-time starter at least.

49ers don’t appear poised to start Trey Lance anytime soon

It was one thing when San Francisco was riding a four-game losing streak, then having lost five of six games. Over their last three contests, however, the 49ers have watched Garoppolo play well, enough to the point where he likely won’t see his grasp on the starting job taken away. And with the Niners now having won two of their last three games, that has some merit.

At least as long as the playoffs are within reach.

This is something NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport told KNBR 680’s Murph & Mac Show (h/t 49ers Webzone) earlier this week, stressing 2021 wasn’t going to be Lance’s year anyway:

"That’s not what this is about for the 49ers. They took a quarterback that they planned to sit for a year, make the playoffs, and then have him take over. Now, the playoff thing hasn’t worked out yet, but this was never about this year because Trey Lance was always a project with incredible tools, who they liked, who they believed in, and I haven’t seen anything yet to indicate the 49ers should have any reason for regret.If we’re four years down the road and Trey Lance is not playing, then [there should be regret]. But this year doesn’t mean anything for Trey Lance."

Whether or not this is the right move on San Francisco’s behalf is debatable, and league circles will continue to bring it up, especially if the 49ers are losing games.

But the bigger question is how Lance will ultimately justify being the No. 3 overall pick if he’s not playing right now.

No one will care about 49ers draft investment if Trey Lance plays well in 2022 and beyond

Let’s face it, Garoppolo is gone in 2022. Unless Lance is completely flopping in practices right now, and Shanahan’s subsequent reports are covering it up, there’s no reason for the Niners to retain the veteran over the rookie.

There’ll soon be question marks about San Francisco’s aggressive trade-up for Lance that isn’t producing immediate results, if there haven’t been already, again highlighting the recency bias the NFL always has. Yet, should Lance wind up showcasing his talents and value next season, those will dissippate awfully quick.

Related Story: Justin Fields is showing why 49ers must start Trey Lance now

That’s the kicker, though.

Lance will likely have his struggles in 2022, the latest point where he can be named a full-time starter. But if those are extensive, and if he fails to show any noticeable improvement over his second NFL campaign, then the focus will highlight everything the 49ers gave up in last spring’s trade.

As well as the many players, including Jones, the Niners passed on and missed out on in 2022 and 2023.

If Lance performs well enough, though, no one will even remember what San Francisco gave up in the trade. It’s that simple.

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