How 49ers can still win the Trey Lance NFL Draft trade-up debacle

If the Niners could have a do-over with the Trey Lance trade, they would.

But the door on the full experiment isn't fully closed yet.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance (5)
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance (5) / Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021 NFL Draft trade-up for Trey Lance will go down as one of the biggest debacles in recent 49ers history, but there's still a way they can win the deal.

The San Francisco 49ers took a massive swing back in 2021 when they traded two future first-round picks and a third-rounder to move up to No. 3 overall in the NFL Draft, a move that resulted in the team landing quarterback Trey Lance.

There's no other way around it but to say the Niners whiffed.


Lance lasted two-plus seasons in San Francisco, riding backup duties his rookie season before suffering a devastating ankle injury the second week into what was supposed to be his first full year as a starter in 2022.

Only starting four games during his 49ers tenure, Lance failed to impress enough to earn a roster spot entering 2023 and was shipped off to the Dallas Cowboys for a fourth-round pick in the 2024 draft.


Now, the Niners managed some modest wins in the wake of the failed Lance experiment. The emergence of quarterback Brock Purdy helped solidify the position and alleviated the need for yet another exhausting search for a franchise signal-caller. And, in light of the rest of the dreadful 2021 quarterback draft class, San Francisco ended up getting the highest return of any team that traded off its quarterback bust

While that doesn't fully absolve the 49ers of their mistake, the door isn't fully closed on the aforementioned whiff.

And there's still a way for the Niners to emerge victorious from an otherwise bad decision.

Malik Mustapha holds the key to bailing 49ers out from Trey Lance debacle

Let's rewind back to 2017 when San Francisco passed on perennial MVP candidate, quarterback Patrick Mahomes, opting to take defensive end Solomon Thomas at No. 3 overall after trading down a spot in a deal with the Chicago Bears.

Thomas, too, ended up being a bust, yet the 49ers still won the trade because one of the picks they received in the deal with Chicago, a 2018 third-round selection, ended up being used on All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner.

At least that was a win. A big one.

Lance commanded that fourth-rounder from Dallas, a pick used by the Niners on former Wake Forest defensive back Malik Mustapha, whom San Francisco likely envisions as a full-time safety.

While awfully few draft prospects can be classified as "sure things," should Mustapha reach his ceiling, the 49ers can end up feeling not as bad about that infamous 2021 trade-up for Lance.

Mustapha is now the final key to the Niners generating at least some sort of positive result from trading up for Lance, and San Francisco has to hope this particular selection can emerge as a top-quality find that'll help alleviate the sting of one of the worst trades in franchise history.

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