The San Francisco 49ers are hopeful Trey Lance will man the QB position for the foreseeable future. The No. 3 overall pick caught the eye of head coach Kyle Shanahan with his accuracy and athleticism during his time at North Dakota State.
Lance only threw one interception over his final 17 games at the collegiate level and showcased what he could do as a runner. Lance had 169 rushing attempts for 1,100 yards and 14 touchdowns for the Bison during the 2019 season.
Shanahan told The Athletic’s Tim Kawakami that Lance’s ability to make plays with his feet was one of the characteristics that drew him in.
“Just watching him in college, everyone knows how good of a runner he is and how good of an athlete he is ...” Shanahan said.
“When stuff broke down, [Lance] could very quickly turn himself into an athlete and go from a quarterback to a runner. But it’s always neat when you watch a guy who’s got that athletic ability, who still, especially the level he played at, he was able to take over games with his legs a lot.
“But he never forced it. He sits there and scans the field and really can play in the pocket. And then he can play from numbers to numbers when he gets outside of it.”
One of Shanahan’s closest friends and current NFL analyst for NBC isn’t as high on Lance’s running abilities. Former NFL QB Chris Simms received a question from a listener during his recent podcast asking what he thought of Lance’s playmaking abilities as a rusher (h/t 49ers Web Zone):
“I’ve always liked his running ability,” Simms explained. “I think it’s overrated, I guess is what I’m saying. I’d like to see it, yeah. ... The competition was less than (great). I mean, he’s playing linebackers that are me. Sorry. And me is not that impressive at linebacker.
“I felt like [his running ability] was overblown during the draft process. He’s certainly athletic and can be, yes, a really dangerous runner running the football on, especially with (Kyle) Shanahan’s schematics behind it and all of that.
“I mean, people at first were trying to make him like he was Lamar Jackson. That’s probably where I got this guy (asking the question) thinking the wrong thing, where I was going, ‘Wait, everybody pump the brakes. He’s not Lamar Jackson here.’ I mean, Lamar Jackson was doing it against Florida State with Jalen Ramsey and Derwin James. And they were chasing him, and they couldn’t tackle him. Sorry, I haven’t seen that from Trey Lance.”
Lance averaged 6.9 yards per attempt at FCS level, while Lamar Jackson averaged 6.3 against tougher competition. Jackson has been dominant with his feet at the NFL level. He led the league in yards per attempt the last two seasons and has morphed the Baltimore Ravens into the best rushing team in the NFL.
While Jackson has been a beast running the ball, which helped the Ravens three consecutive playoff appearances, his deficiencies as a passer have been highlighted when the stakes are at their highest.
Opposing defenses have held Jackson to fewer than 200 yards passing in three out of four playoff games. Baltimore is 1-1 in postseason games that Jackson ran for more than 100 yards.
The 49ers didn’t draft Lance just to make plays with his feet. Shanahan has routinely praised Lance’s accuracy and arm strength since the draft and hopes the rookie can continue to learn the nuances of the NFL passing game.
Shanahan alluded to what he saw from some of the young, successful NFL QBs before this year’s draft.
“I look at everything. I think the whole thing of the success of people like [Kansas City Chiefs QB] Patrick Mahomes and [Buffalo Bills QB] Josh Allen, [Houston Texans QB] Deshaun [Watson], [Baltimore Ravens QB], Lamar [Jackson], those guys are unbelievable. They can play the position and are obviously very, very talented and running around and doing stuff ...
“A lot of much better athletes are also learning how to play the quarterback position. So, man, you want to find Drew Brees who can move like Lamar Jackson. Mahomes, he’s maybe in the middle. I’m just not being exact, but like there’s no, ‘This is where it’s going. This is where it’s been.’ It will always evolve. That’s why sometimes the wildcat would be good. Sometimes it won’t. Sometimes no huddle will be good. Sometimes it won’t.”
It remains to be seen how Lance develops in Year 1. The assumption is that Jimmy Garoppolo will be the starter come Week 1 in Detroit. Still, if Lance outperforms Jimmy G during training camp, he could certainly be under center against the Lions.
Lance has all of the physical tools to be an effective dual-threat QB at the NFL level. At 6-4 and roughly 220 pounds, the rookie’s size should also give opposing defenses fits with the ball in his hands.
For his part, Simms acknowledged that he thinks Lance will develop as a runner but that he also believes the North Dakota State product is behind two prolific running QBs.
“Yes, I think [Lance is] going to be a good runner,” Simms said. “I’m just saying, let’s pump the brakes on calling him Lamar or Michael Vick quit yet.”
Although he may not be at the level of Jackson coming into the league, Lance has the luxury of learning the pro game while sitting behind a veteran who has won a ton of games when healthy.
In the meantime, Lance will learn the speed at the NFL level, and Shanahan will have some extra time to make sure his prized pupil is in a position to succeed once he takes over the starting role.
What do you think of Lance as a runner based on what you have seen from his college games? Do you believe his rushing ability will carry over successfully to the NFL?