The San Francisco 49ers weren't expected to go into the 2021 NFL season with a quarterback controversy on their hands. That may be changing thanks to rookie signal-caller Trey Lance, the No. 3 overall pick who has been spotted lighting up the defense during his first training camp.
According to reports out of Santa Clara—such as Dieter Kurtenbach's in the Mercury News—Lance has looked phenomenal to start camp. Kurtenbach claimed the QB has "taken his game to a new level" early on, while incumbent starter Jimmy Garoppolo has cooled off after coming out of the gate strong. This has many wondering if head coach Kyle Shanahan will walk back his statements that the QB1 gig wasn't an open competition and that Garoppolo would get reps with the starters.
The NFC West lacks a heavy favorite going into the 2021 season, with none of the four teams appearing ready to separate from the pack. Making the switch to Lance gives the 49ers the best chance to rise to the top, setting them up to not only contend right away but also for the foreseeable future.
The rookie, who started just 17 games during his stint at North Dakota State, undeniably possesses the talent to become an elite quarterback in the NFL. After the draft, many wondered how quickly and efficiently Lance could translate his skills into on-field production, but it seems that it won't be taking much time at all for the 21-year-old to make the leap based on his recent showing.
The Niners just wrapped up their first four days of training camp before taking Sunday off, a stretch that culminated in a particularly impressive performance from their top draft pick. ESPN's Nick Wagoner tweeted that Lance spent all his time working in the pocket over the first three days—and did so impressively—but truly turned heads on the fourth day with a series of runs and read-options that the QB executed successfully for multiple big gains.
Considering Garoppolo was responsible for a pair of interceptions on his 14 passing attempts in 11-on-11 drills the same day, it seems that Lance—who went 7-of-12 with no picks on his throws—has what it takes to lead San Francisco back to the playoffs. Lance is already playing well enough to deserve a shot at pushing Garoppolo for the starting job. He could become an even more polished quarterback if he's able to hone his game by practicing with the starters.
The 49ers' schedule wouldn't work against any decision to start Lance immediately. If the team chooses to give him the nod right out of the gate, Lance will have two games to get acclimated against mediocre teams in Detroit and Philadelphia before a crucial three-game stretch against the Packers, Seahawks and Cardinals.
The alternative of playing Garoppolo would by no means doom the 49ers in those games, but San Francisco lost games against the Seahawks and Cardinals last year that the incumbent started. Although he was playing hurt against the Seahawks, it was striking how poor the offense looked with the veteran under center. Lance may be able to expose the defenses of Arizona and Seattle in ways that Garoppolo simply cannot.
Not only is Lance playing better at this juncture, but his presence unlocks more of Shanahan's offensive creativity. While few would say the San Francisco playbook has been bereft of innovation during Shanahan's four seasons at the helm, the coach has been limited in what he can draw up due to the constraints of the less mobile and more pocket-bound Garoppolo.
San Francisco's newest QB certainly won't restrict his coach's ingenuity. He can make all the throws with his cannon of an arm and accuracy that will likely surpass what Garoppolo can bring to the table. The predraft concerns that some scouts and analysts had regarding Lance's ability to thread the needle may not be fully alleviated just yet, but after a few strong days of passing work in camp, it seems likely that he won't have issues fitting the ball into tight windows at the pro level. He can also elude defenders and make things happen with his legs on designed runs, options and broken plays.
San Francisco's running game may also see a major boost with Lance under center. Shanahan did some of his best offensive coordinator work with Washington in 2012, utilizing dynamic rookie QB Robert Griffin III to open things up for a running back platoon led by Alfred Morris.
RGIII finished that brilliant season having passed for 3,200 yards and 20 touchdowns while adding another 815 yards and seven scores on the ground. Morris, also a rookie at the time, took advantage of the defensive attention on his signal-caller and exploded for what would ultimately be a career-best 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns. It's possible these successes could be replicated with Lance and fellow first-year talent Trey Sermon—the running back San Francisco took in the third round—playing the RGIII and Morris roles in Shanahan's system.
As per Matt Barrows of The Athletic, offensive lineman Mike McGlinchey was thrilled about the direction his squad's offense is taking with Lance under center. The fourth-year tackle said the following in wake of Saturday's training camp session: "We ran three or four read zones today, which is three or four more than my career here. It's exciting."
The 49ers defense even felt it benefited directly from Lance running the offense in practice. Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans claimed it will have his players more aptly prepared to face the mobile quarterbacks on San Francisco's schedule this year, including four matchups with Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson, two of the league's best dual-threat talents.
According to Matt Maiocco of NBCSports.com, Ryans said the following after a particularly impressive stretch of play from Lance in camp: "When those put those plays in—zone-read-type plays, QB runs—it's very helpful for us as a defense so when we do face teams like that during the season, it's not the first time we're preparing for it. Trey broke out today on a couple. He's doing an excellent job of running those plays."
With so many apparent advantages to making a change under center, San Francisco should start preparing to transfer the offensive reins over to Lance.
The 49ers are clearly committed to Lance for the long haul. They gave up multiple first-round picks to move up nine spots in the draft to get him and are already seeing returns on that investment. Lance was always going to get his chance to shine, but that timetable should be moved up significantly after the quarterback's performance this week. It's San Francisco's best hope to get back into contention following 2020's Super Bowl hangover and gives the franchise an offense rife with potential.
Garoppolo shouldn't be surprised to lose his job either, as he has been keenly aware that his days in the Bay Area are numbered since the Niners traded up prior to the draft. Relegating him to a backup role now shouldn't change his psyche or hinder his performances if he is pressed into meaningful duty for any reason during the regular season. The team would have one of the more ideal quarterback situations in the league with the young star being backed up by a serviceable vet and could eventually turn Garoppolo into another asset via trade.
With the division lacking a true powerhouse, the Niners can take control and potentially hang onto it for the foreseeable future with Lance under center. If he develops into the player that team brass believes he will, getting him on the field now will significantly raise the ceiling on San Francisco's offense. While Lance still has much to prove, his incredible talent and undeniable upside can lift the organization to long-term contending status.