How 49ers botched Trey Lance's trade value (a 2-step plan)

If the 49ers had done a couple of things differently, they may have gotten more than just a fourth-round draft pick for Trey Lance.
San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan (L) and quarterback Trey Lance (R)
San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan (L) and quarterback Trey Lance (R) / Michael Zagaris/GettyImages

Trey Lance may have never worked out for the 49ers, yet the Niners didn't do themselves any favors by tanking his trade value.

The San Francisco 49ers needed three first-round picks and a third-rounder to select quarterback Trey Lance at No. 3 overall in the 2021 NFL Draft.

A little over two seasons later, the Niners traded him away to the Dallas Cowboys for a mere fourth-round pick. If that's not the definition of "pennies on the dollar," what is?

There are plenty of reasons why things never worked out with Lance and the Niners, starting with the very simple fact they ran out of patience with a quarterback who was raw to begin with, having attempted a mere 318 passes in college with just one full year as a starter (2019). Broken fingers, broken ankles and the emergence of one, Brock Purdy, also helped push Lance to the periphery of being traded.

That botched attempt to make Lance the featured centerpiece of the franchise will be discussed for years.

However, San Francisco did itself no favors by legitimately destroying Lance's trade value over the course of 2023. Even if the 49ers were prepared to cut bait on Lance, they could have taken some drastically different actions to keep the quarterback's trade value moderately high. Even in light of numerous rumors and reports about there not being much of a trade market for the North Dakota State product.

As if there'd be much of one anyway, particularly for a quarterback with just four regular-season starts over two years.

Still, as it turns out, there were two specific elements that led to Lance's next-to-nothing-for-value trade to Dallas.

1st part of how 49ers destroyed Trey Lance's trade value: John Lynch, Kyle Shanahan publically endorse Brock Purdy

Lance's broken ankle in Week 2 of the 2022 season was devastating. It ruined his first year as a starter, and in hindsight, probably ruined his chances of being the Niners' franchise signal-caller.

After fellow quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo suffered a season-ending injury of his own late in the year, Purdy's ascent and five-game regular-season win streak aided in Lance's demise. Yet Purdy's own elbow injury in the NFC Championship game opened the door for Lance to reclaim the starting job, especially if Purdy wasn't cleared to start the regular season or even participate in training camp.

But general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan didn't have to call it out that way.

Last March, Lynch told reporters the following, via 49ers Webzone:

"I think Brock has earned the right with the way he played that he's probably the leader in the clubhouse at that. I'll let Kyle make those kind of decisions, but I know, when we talk, I think Brock's probably earned that right to be the guy. If we were to line up, he'd probably take that first snap."

One key (and very public vote) in favor of Purdy, not Lance.

Later in training camp, at a point when Lance was desperately trying to outperform Purdy, Shanahan echoed similar endorsements of the latter, via Niners Nation:

"We’re not worried about Brock. Brock’s the real deal. He knows how to play and we’ve just got to have our team keep getting better and he’ll keep getting better as we go."

There are plenty of other comments, too, in favor of Purdy. Like this one, told to Sports Illustrated:

"He would have to melt in practice to lose it. And Brock’s too good of a player to melt in practice—and so are the other guys."

Nice catch there at the end, coach. But the rest of the NFL world heard it loud and clear: The final pick of the 2022 draft was far outpacing the No. 3 overall pick from 2021.

And it wasn't even close. Lynch and Shanahan were publicly saying as much.

Instead, the pair could have easily reinforced the idea that the QB1 job was nowhere close to being determined heading into 2023. Lynch and Shanahan, even if they already knew Purdy was "the guy," could have simply stated it was an open-ended competition that would be both entertaining and revealing.

Endorsing Purdy from the get-go did plenty of harm to Lance's trade value, but it wasn't the final blow.

2nd part of how 49ers destroyed Trey Lance's trade value: Giving Sam Darnold all that guaranteed money

Remember, there are two parts to the mismanagement.

The Niners had plenty of reasons to worry about Purdy returning in time from offseason elbow surgery. And they inked two veteran quarterbacks to reinforce the depth chart, Brandon Allen and Sam Darnold, the latter another former third-overall pick in the draft.

Allen seemed to be an afterthought for much of the offseason and into training camp. Yet it was Darnold, a player whom Shanahan had always liked, who helped further the derailment of any significant return for Lance.

Signing Darnold as a free agent wasn't the problem in itself. No, rather, it was the amount of guaranteed money San Francisco elected to give the former New York Jets and Carolina Panthers signal-caller: $3.5 million out of $4.5 million.

That amount assured Darnold a spot on the 53-man roster no matter what.

It didn't take long for experts to read into the situation either. On day three of the 2023 draft, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport speculated that Purdy would claim the 49ers' starting job, while Darnold's guaranteed cash would make him the No. 2 guy on the depth chart, both aspects turning Lance into an "awkward" third-stringer who could be traded later in summer.

Turns out Rapoport was correct in his assessment. And 31 other teams saw that, too.

What the Niners revealed in giving Darnold so much guaranteed money is that Lance was unequal on the depth chart. He wasn't going to catch Purdy, as the comments by Lynch and Shanahan already stated, and then Darnold's value further pushed Lance down even further.

Should a third-string quarterback command much by the way of trade value? No.

Instead, Lynch and Shanahan could have easily said "no" if Darnold's camp was asking for significant amounts of guaranteed money. Plenty of other veterans would suffice as a QB2 instead of Darnold getting that $3.5 million.

Yet San Francisco made that public, and in doing so, it acknowledged that Darnold had far more value than Lance on the 53-man roster.

And that sealed the deal on ruining Lance's trade value.

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