When should the San Francisco 49ers turn to Trey Lance?

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - DECEMBER 23: Trey Lance #5 of the San Francisco 49ers warms up before the game against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium on December 23, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - DECEMBER 23: Trey Lance #5 of the San Francisco 49ers warms up before the game against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium on December 23, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images) /

As the San Francisco 49ers are on the cusp of another playoff appearance, questions surrounding the team’s quarterback situation continue to emerge. When is it Trey Lance time?

Trey Lance was far from your conventional quarterback prospect. He had played one season of football since graduating high school against subpar competition and had accuracy concerns, but at the same time, he was arguably the most physically gifted prospect since Cam Newton.

Lance’s unique profile made him one of the most polarizing players in his class. He was not nearly as polished as the other first-round quarterbacks, but his size, athletic ability, and arm strength had scouts raving about his potential.

Ultimately, The San Francisco 49ers were the team that bought into Lance’s upside and traded away three first-round picks to move up to the third spot in the draft, where they selected the North Dakota State product. The pick signaled a changing of the guard at quarterback and made it clear that Jimmy Garoppolo’s days as a starter were numbered. It was never supposed to be a matter of if Lance would start; it was a matter of when. But as the 2021 regular season is coming to a close, the 49ers’ quarterback situation is filled with unknowns.

The primary obstacle in Lance’s path to becoming a starter has always been Garoppolo. While other rookie quarterbacks competed against the likes of Andy Dalton and Cam Newton for starting jobs, Lance had to battle a more established player, who had started for the franchise in a Super Bowl not two years ago.

Even though Trey Lance was a top-five pick, he wasn’t expected to start for the team until later in the season, at the earliest. However, Garoppolo sustained an early-season injury and forced Lance to finish the team’s week four game against the Seahawks and start the following week in a loss to the Cardinals.

In those games, Lance had his fair share of rookie moments but also showed flashes of the quarterback he could be going forward with his rushing ability and arm talent. Lance had to miss time due to a knee injury sustained in the Cardinals game and has only made one appearance in the several weeks since.

As the San Francisco 49ers are pushing for a playoff appearance, it is unclear if we will see Lance for the remainder of the year. But after Garoppolo’s latest performance in a loss to the Tennessee Titans fans are starting to lose their patience, and many believe the 49ers should make the switch at quarterback sooner rather than later.

The issue with Jimmy Garoppolo

While Garoppolo is certainly the safer play, he has clear limitations, and they have become increasingly apparent in critical situations. Garoppolo has been productive when his receivers are open and has a clean pocket to operate from. However, he lacks the physical talent to create outside of structure and is unable to make consistent throws under pressure, off-balance, or into tight windows. In other words, Garoppolo can make the basic plays you expect an NFL quarterback to make but is unable to improvise and create in tough situations. At 30 years old, it’s hard to see any of this changing, and there is little growth that can be seen in Garoppolo’s game since he joined the 49ers back in 2017.

There is a big difference between winning games with a guy and winning games because of a guy, and Garoppolo is the former. He’s been able to win when he’s had help from his defensive and running game but has rarely been the driving force in the team’s success. Continuing to stick with someone who hasn’t proven himself to be anything more than a game manager when there you have a top-three draft pick on the bench will only be tolerated for so long.

What does Trey Lance bring to the San Francisco 49ers?

From day one, Lance will add another wrinkle to the 49ers rushing attack. They would go from having one of the least mobile quarterbacks in football to one of the most. Lance isn’t just fast, he’s also very powerful and could help Shanahan expand his playbook for short-yardage situations.

Lance is not as comfortable of a passer as Garoppolo and has some accuracy concerns, but it may not be costly in the 49ers’ offense. Shanahan’s system mainly predicates on getting pass catchers open in space and creating high percentage throws for the quarterback. Lance’s athleticism and arm strength would also help him do more outside of structure.

Final thoughts

At this stage of the season, it doesn’t make a ton of sense for the 49ers to start Trey Lance. He has limited in-game reps and will likely experience the same growing pains that the other rookie quarterbacks suffered this season. The problem with that is the 49ers find themselves in the thick of a playoff race and their margin for error is too small to take such a gamble.

With that said, the San Francisco 49ers have spent this season only prolonging the inevitable. Trey Lance is their quarterback of the future and the sooner he gets in-game reps the sooner he can take the necessary steps in his development. Garoppolo may be able to game manage the 49ers into the playoffs, but he isn’t the answer, and the team should be willing to hand the wheel over to someone who could be.