With the 2022 season nearly upon us, the 49ers enter this campaign with one of the most talented rosters in the NFL from top to bottom. They have one of the most talented edge rushers, the best linebacker trio in the NFL, and arguably the best player pound for pound in the entire sport playing left tackle, Trent Williams.
It is a group that is loaded at nearly every position and, on paper, looks like they have as good of a shot as anyone to hoist the Lombardi trophy at season’s end. But, on the surface, the most critical area of uncertainty that remains is what the 49ers can expect from Trey Lance in his first full season as the starting quarterback.
Lance is just 22 years old and has only attempted 463 passes since the start of the 2019 season, when he was in his first year as the starting quarterback at North Dakota State University. Of those 463 passing attempts, 335 came at the collegiate level. Of the 128 passing attempts Lance has recorded since leaving NDSU, 57 have come during the preseason.
That leaves just 71 regular season passing attempts at the NFL level for Lance so far in his young career. For comparison, Mac Jones, who was taken 12 spots after Lance in the same draft, had 521 passing attempts during his rookie season in 2021. Fellow 2021 rookies Zach Wilson and Justin Fields recorded 383 and 270 passing attempts last season. Lance has 71 under his belt.
I make this comparison because, beyond the common sense logic of a player getting better with more reps, we have tangible proof that Lance has improved with an increased workload despite the aforementioned small sample size we have to work with so far.
Now it’s fair to argue that having a team as talented as the 49ers provides a soft landing for a young quarterback that will face the growing pains that Lance will likely encounter.
They boast a defense that has been a top-five unit for three years running, and many around the team feel like this is the best unit they have had under Shanahan. The offense has one of the most diverse and talented collections of skill position players in the league, with a brilliant play caller in Kyle Shanahan behind the controls scheming these guys open.
Lance should have ample margin for error out of the gate based on the supporting cast around him. It makes sense that because of how deep the roster is, there was more comfortability amongst Shanahan and the front office when they decided to invest three first-round picks when they drafted Lance last season.
The case can be made that while this was a risk, it was a calculated one based on the factors mentioned above. But the thought that I have been dwelling on constantly and cannot seem to shake is, was it a risk worth taking given how talented the roster is?
No matter how much the 49ers fell in love with Lance’s potential, I still struggle to fully understand the thought process of blending the development of a raw quarterback with a championship window of a team that is constructed to win today.
Lance has exceptional physical gifts, and I think his intelligence is underrated and arguably his most impressive trait. When you factor in the athleticism and the human side of things, there is plenty of reason to buy into Lance developing into a special player at the NFL level for many years going forward.
However, the conundrum that I continue to circle back to is whether Lance will take that leap in a timeframe that will overlap with the championship window in which the 49ers currently find themselves.
Now it’s important to remember that the 49ers have been on the cusp of a Lombardi trophy twice in the past three years with quarterback play that has been anything but consistent. This team has shown they can ride a strong running game and a stout defense deep into the playoffs.
Despite this, the added pressure of carrying championship expectations creates a whole other world of problems for a young quarterback like Lance as they navigate the early stages of their development. As talented and hard-working as he may be, it’s fair to assume that there will be some speed bumps along the way as he finds his footing at this level.
This is where I keep returning to Shanahan, the one I hold most responsible for pushing all the chips in here, for better or worse. Shanahan and the powers that be identified as a unit that they felt strongly enough to make a move to upgrade the quarterback position
That was a reasonable decision considering Jimmy Garoppolo’s issues with consistency and injuries during his time as the starting quarterback. However, the absolute risk came when they decided the path forward was to mortgage three years’ worth of first-round picks to take an unknown commodity to be the heir apparent of one of the most talented rosters in the league.
The success of a roster that they carefully crafted is now largely in the hands of a 22-year-old quarterback who has a historically small sample size to work with as a top-five draft pick in the NFL.
On the one hand, you have to respect the conviction that Shanahan and the front office showed when they went all in to make such an earth-shaking move. On the other hand, lance could end up providing the 49ers an elite player at the most important position in the entire sport, which is the most valuable asset a franchise can possess.
Being willing to swing for the fences in search of a franchise quarterback is a risk most teams should be willing to take without thinking twice. The 49ers and their stacked roster are one of the few where I would argue that the risk might be too great, given what is at stake.
This team doesn’t need a transcendent talent at the quarterback position to win as currently constructed. I would argue they just need someone who is slightly better than Garoppolo has been.
While Lance could be that guy in the short term, I also believe that it is more than likely that the same consistency issues that Garoppolo had could also be a problem for a young quarterback with the limited amount of experience that Lance currently has.
On the flip side of things, I also think it does a disservice to Lance, who was already robbed of the reps he would have gotten during his rookie season under the guise of Garoppolo being the better option for the team winning in the present. Which is a fair decision in hindsight, considering the 49ers were three points away from the super bowl.
Nonetheless, it took away valuable snaps that Lance would have aided Lance in his development, snaps that many of his fellow quarterbacks from the 2021 class were afforded on their respective teams.
Ultimately no matter how you feel about Lance, it is hard to take a step back and objectively justify that drafting a rookie quarterback to take over control of a team that is ready to win right now is in the best interest of any team with championship aspirations in the short term. Particularly when it is a quarterback as raw and in need of time to develop as Lance appears to be.
Again this is not an indictment on Lance, the individual. But it cannot be ignored that these windows don’t seem to align in a way that would justify the price tag of the draft capital spent and the cost of potentially missing out on a championship window, which is ever fleeting in the NFL.
As of now, it is way too early to tell how Lance will ultimately pan out. He could be great right away, five years from now, or on the flip side, maybe it doesn’t pan out at all. We do know that this roster is as good as it’s been in the last decade, and it would be an absolute shame to see it not reach its full potential because of a poorly laid blueprint at the most crucial position in the sport.