Trey Lance can’t be overly happy with the 49ers inking a former top-three NFL Draft pick, Sam Darnold, as a free agent this offseason, right?
There is nothing now-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Sam Darnold wants more than to wholly outperform and outshine fellow Niners signal-caller Trey Lance in training camp and the preseason.
Granted, the opportunity to do just that is months away, but the speculation about how that’ll unfold has already started.
It started mere minutes after news broke that San Francisco was inking Darnold, the 2018 NFL Draft’s third-overall pick, to a one-year deal worth $4.5 million. Considering $3.5 million of that is guaranteed, and the deal took place in the opening wave of NFL free agency, it’s not as if the 49ers were merely grabbing the former New York Jet and Carolina Panther to be a camp body.
No, the Niners intend for him to stay.
But, will that role be as Lance’s backup? Or will Darnold actually threaten another No. 3 overall pick’s projected status as a starter?
Are 49ers uncomfortable with Trey Lance as their future starter?
2022 was supposed to be the year in which Lance finally emerged from the shadows of now-Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, only Lance suffered that season-ending ankle injury in Week 2.
While the legitimate truths remain murky, there are multiple reports out there that have stated that head coach Kyle Shanahan and his staff have been “underwhelmed” with Lance since he arrived in 2021, including that one from Heavy.com’s Matt Lombardo entering 2022:
Maybe. Maybe not.
While San Francisco finally closed the door on the Garoppolo era this offseason, 2022 rookie Brock Purdy’s ascent prior to a torn UCL in the NFC Championship game only clouds Lance’s future even further.
Even though Lance is closer to playing, Purdy might not be ready until the regular season begins. Perhaps later.
Regardless of the speculation, the fact is Lance hasn’t played a full season at any level since he was at North Dakota State in 2019. Three full years have passed with him seeing just five regular-season starts, one of which was at the collegiate level.
That’s not a lot. And, honestly, the 49ers should be concerned. But is that why they targeted and signed Darnold?
Is Sam Darnold merely insurance for the 49ers, or will he threaten Trey Lance?
Darnold wants to beat Lance in camp. That’d be the best way for the former USC product to resurrect his otherwise unimpressive career.
Considering Shanahan’s presence and abilities, plus the roster the Niners have, Darnold’s context couldn’t be better. Tack on the seemingly back-and-forth conversations Shanahan has had with the media, combined with the actual act of signing Darnold, it seems as if the door would be open for Darnold to do just that over Lance.
The San Francisco Chronicle’s Eric Branch explained:
"The decision to add Darnold, 25, the No. 3 pick in the 2018 draft, and the details of his one-year deal, invite more questions about Lance, 22, whose four uneven career starts mean he remains a mystery two years after the 49ers traded up to select him with the No. 3 pick.The addition of Darnold suggests a disconnect between the 49ers’ words and actions on how they view their QB position in 2023 and, by extension, Lance’s ability to lead a Super Bowl contender, if necessary."
That all said, Shanahan has dealt with more than his fair share of injuries to quarterbacks, including Garoppolo having landed on season-ending injured reserve in three of his six seasons with the 49ers.
Purdy is working his way back from a serious injury, while Lance is only just getting back to action after that broken ankle.
Darnold, a highly motivated player on the brink of forever being associated with a “bust” moniker, will push Lance regardless. That’s a given. But the simpler reality is that Purdy won’t be available during training camp and likely through the preseason. Even the opening weeks of the regular season are in doubt for him, too.
Considering Lance’s inexperience, what the Niners are doing here is effectively covering their behinds in case things go sour under center.
Nothing more, even if Darnold thought otherwise.