It’s been a while now since the NFL Draft when the 49ers shocked the media — and the world — by selecting North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance. But then, nearly every day before the draft and after the 49ers traded up to the number three pick, analysts — both local and national — were adamant that the trade was made to move up for Alabama quarterback Mac Jones because the conventional wisdom was that Jones fit the mold of a Shanahan-style quarterback.
The rest of us (including me the day of the draft here on this website) were convinced the pick was Justin Fields due to the big-play ability, the arm talent to throw to all levels of the field, and the connection to his past training with Kyle Shanahan’s Quarterback Collective.
Nearly all of us ended up being wrong about the pick, but one thing seemed certain: it was never going to be Mac Jones. The near-universal relief that the pick wasn’t Jones overshadowed the pick itself, at least among the fan base online. Not a day or week goes by that someone reminds us that the media got the Mac Jones prediction wrong, whether that’s the fans or Shanahan himself.
Trey Lance is no consolation prize, though. Far from it. This young quarterback is going to be a star in this league with Shanahan as his head coach. Shanahan knew the minute he threw on his tape in January when the season ended unceremoniously with a loss to Seattle in Arizona. Everything Shahanan and general manager John Lynch have said so far indicates that Lance was their guy all along, and the move to number three overall was to make sure of it.
Sure, they attended Fields and Jones pro day. But Lynch said after visiting with Fields that Shanahan was drawing up plays on the plane ride home, specifically with Trey Lance in mind. So what was missed in the analysis of the draft quarterbacks that led to so many of us being wrong about Fields and Jones? For me personally, I think I overthought the scheme fit and opted instead to go with who I viewed as the number two overall quarterback in the draft. If Lance was a scheme fit, then surely Fields was that and more.
No one knows why Fields fell as far as he did, but some teams should not have passed on him. It could’ve been the medical history surrounding his epilepsy, which has not affected him in years. Still, NFL teams are generally more risk-averse and conservative when it comes to making these decisions. Any little thing that could negatively affect their long-term future, especially in the draft, will push teams away even when they should take a chance.
Whatever the case is with Fields or Jones, we’ll never know the full story for a long time. Either way, fans who wanted Fields or Jones should be excited to have a quarterback who checks all the boxes that the current starting quarterback does not check: durability, arm strength, and arm talent, pocket presence, patience in his reads, poise, and confidence in his own abilities.
But what did we miss in our predictions on why we thought they’d prefer Fields over Lance? Maybe it really was as simple as scheme fit. Thirty percent of Lance’s passing snaps at North Dakota State came from under center, with 24% of his dropbacks coming from under center play action. Contrast that with Mac Jones, who had 1.9% of his passing snaps come from under center, all play-action (11 snaps). In 2020, the 49ers passed from under center 31% of the time.
Scheme fit is sort of an overrated aspect of an evaluation because if a player is good enough, they can transcend the scheme and run whatever offense they’re asked to. But there is value in bringing in a rookie quarterback from an offensive system that is in some ways similar to the offense a team runs. Lance’s offense at North Dakota State put him in situations with passing concepts and play action that he’ll be asked to run with the 49ers.
Whether it’s running leak, all-go, double stick, or other play-action passing concepts, Lance has experience with the route distribution and the knowledge to know how the coverages respond to formations and those routes and can fit the ball into tight windows by knowing where to go with it on time and in rhythm. Knowing that Shanahan values that heavily in a quarterback makes his job easier and allows him to scheme in other ways he previously couldn’t.
Arm talent is not just about having a quick release. It’s the ability of the quarterback to hit throws at every level of the field by manipulating the velocity, trajectory, angle of throw, etc., so that passes arrive on time and give receivers a chance at making catches.
While much is said about the competition Lance played against at the FCS level, that same criticism is not leveled equally at the level of talent of the players he’s throwing to, and he often had to make tight-window throws to all levels of the field.
This first throw is a beautiful moon ball that Lance manipulates the trajectory on because he cannot throw it anywhere else but ahead of the receiver. So he has to place the ball in a spot where only his guy can catch it, and as the route develops downfield, that window becomes smaller and smaller.
Giving the pass a high trajectory with some velocity ensures it will be out in front for the receiver to run under. Additionally, the high trajectory allows the ball to be protected from the potential pass break up/swatting arms of the defensive back because he cannot track the pass and effectively bat it down in the passes terminal phase of flight.
As far as placing the pass where you want it, it doesn’t get much better than this touchdown throw versus Northern Iowa, and this is probably his most impressive pass as a quarterback.
The play-action pass is a three verticals concept against man coverage, creating a tight window throw that requires precision downfield in a compressed space. Yet somehow, Lance can put the pass where he wants it, between his receiver and the end line of the end zone. The receiver toe-taps in bounds and hauls the pass in. Notice the terminal angle of flight again. It’s never in a position to be batted down because of the angle it drops in the receiver’s hands.
It’s not just deep passes that he has the ability to place wherever he wants. He can do it from the pocket on far hash out throws too.
Southern Illinois shows quarter/quarter/half coverage pre-snap that morphs into 3-cloud (boundary corner to the flat, safeties and field corner rotate to deep thirds). Lance sees the rotation post-snap and immediately knows he’ll have the out route open under the field corner’s deep third zone drop. Lance hits the top of his drop, sees the route, hitches once, and throws a perfect strike. The play above represents his ability to understand what he sees quickly, process the information, and make a quick decision.
Pocket movement and second reaction ability
A third area that stands out is his pocket movement and second reaction ability. Second reaction ability is the ability to extend plays behind the line of scrimmage when a quarterback is forced off his original throwing platform. Lance shows a good ability to move around, not be rattled, and still find ways to get the ball downfield.
Versus Youngstown State in the clip above, Lance shows an ability to manipulate the rush to buy time to climb the pocket and throw a far hash out route on a mesh concept. Lance hits the top of his drop as the defensive end looks to take an outside path to prevent Lance from escaping to the left. As the end takes the edge, Lance steps up quickly with one step into the throwing lane and throws a dart to the out route for a first down along the sideline.
The first read (running back wheel) ends up being wide open for a touchdown, but it’s likely the pre-snap coverage read eliminated this read for Lance with a potential bracket on the running back. The defense coverage busts, but Lance is already working the progression to the left to the second through fourth reads in the mesh concept.
Here, the defense dropped eight into coverage, with the ends dropping into zones and the boundary corner adding to the rush as the 3rd rusher. Lance sees the corner come free and works that side of the field, keeping his eyes there and moving the defense as he climbs into the pocket to give himself a throwing lane. He moves the middle hook defender with his eyes as he does, finds the tight end sitting over the middle of the field, and throws a strike.
Lance does a nice job of being patient versus another drop eight coverage scheme on the pass above. Typically, you want to see the quarterback stand back there and find an open receiver, but he climbs through the pocket and finds one on the sideline for easy completion. This would’ve been a more difficult throw to make from the pocket. Instead, he slides up with ease and fits the pass in over the jumping defender for a first down.
This play inside the red zone ended up not counting due to a holding penalty but showcases his second reaction ability in compressed spaces.
North Dakota State’s favorite option running game concept was the inverted quarterback veer play. The play call is designed to put the defensive end in conflict with a sweeping running back to the edge.
If the defensive end chases the back, the quarterback keeps. If the defensive end crashes the quarterback/stays home on the line of scrimmage, the quarterback will carry out the “give” read.
Lance can be seen in many of these cut-ups running over defenders en route to a big gain or touchdown. However, it’s typically pointed out he played against inferior competition and won’t be able to hit stick defenders in the NFL. Whether or not he will be able to truck defenders in the NFL is not the point, though. Instead, his running ability will open up Shanahan’s running game and force teams to prepare for 11-on-11 football truly.
The last time Shanahan’s running game had a dual-threat quarterback, rookie Alfred Morris ran for 1600-plus yards and 13 touchdowns. In comparison, Robert Griffin III added another 815 yards rushing and seven rushing touchdowns.
It’s tough to say just how much Shanahan wants to use Lance’s legs in the running game and risk his quarterback’s health. But his running ability extends to the passing game, too, and part of being a viable quarterback in the NFL today has the ability to create offense when there is nothing available, and his scramble ability to get yards when nothing is open in the passing game cannot be overlooked. So sometimes you need a guy who can create with his legs and keep the offense on schedule.
Where Lance can improve
The biggest issue with Lance coming out of college is his mechanics, specifically his longer wind up and delivery.
On his delivery, the extra hip dip in his wind-up can put him in situations where his pass arrives a split second too late and allows defenders to recover and make a play on the ball. This should be correctable, and in the videos of his pro day and the individual training post-OTA’s posted online, it looks like he’s remedied this issue. The only question is whether or not he reverts to old habits when he gets into live games, as quarterbacks have a tendency to do.
There is no doubt in my mind Trey Lance will finish the season as the full-time starter. When that happens or when it should happen is up for debate. I personally think he should be the week one starter, but no one knows how training camp will pan out or what Shanahan is thinking. There definitely will be a quarterback competition. Shanahan has left the door, either way, alluding to his possible usage in certain high leverage situations in the red zone or short-yardage downs. But, no matter what happens, the 49ers got a quarterback that’s going to be a star for years to come.