You can spend a long time debating the implications of John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan’s words on the quarterback situation at the NFL owners meetings last week.
But one thing is certain, this is not the position most expected Trey Lance to be in when he began the 2022 campaign as the 49ers’ starting quarterback.
Lance will start his preparations for the 2023 campaign facing a fight, and likely an uphill battle, to reclaim the starting job following Brock Purdy’s emergence down the stretch in 2022.
Depending on when Purdy is cleared to return from elbow ligament surgery, Lance may face a competition with last year’s seventh-round pick in training camp for the right to be QB1.
There have been other noises, though, that indicate Lance is facing a battle with Sam Darnold to be QB2 and potentially start until Purdy is ready to return.
Few could have envisaged such a scenario back when Lance was drafted third overall in 2021 but, regardless of how the quarterback competition is being framed, it still represents an opportunity for Lance to deliver a reminder of why the 49ers traded so much draft capital to acquire him.
Given the tools he has at his disposal, it is very plausible he could firmly restore Shanahan and the organisation’s faith in him and enter 2022 top of the pile at QB for San Francisco.
But what does he need to do to turn that possibility into a reality?
Be more decisive
While Purdy was happy to hold on to the ball and extend plays during a seven-game winning streak that was ended by his injury in the NFC Championship Game, for the most part, he exhibited impressive decisiveness when dropping back to pass, a key trait Shanahan looks for in quarterbacks when operating his system.
Purdy’s time to throw of 2.84 seconds was almost two seconds longer than that of Jimmy Garoppolo (2.66 secs), according to Next Gen Stats. However, Purdy was decidedly quicker than Lance at distributing the ball. Across his two 2021 starts and his two quarters of action against the Seahawks in 2021, Lance never had a time to throw under three seconds.
Lance was better in that regard in monsoon conditions in Chicago in Week 1, when his average time to throw was 2.94 seconds, and having had even more time to immerse himself in the offense — albeit without the benefit of playing games — the hope will be Lance will have a better grasp of the scheme that allows him to deliver with more confidence and decisiveness.
His odds of starting will markedly improve if that proves to be the case.
Showcase downfield upside
For as much as Purdy produced some spectacular play down the stretch, he did not push the ball downfield with any kind of consistency. He attempted only 10 passes of 21 air yards or more — completing five of them, with three completions for touchdowns — and his intended air yards average of 6.7 was tied for the third fewest in the NFL.
That is not to say Purdy is not an effective deep passer. He showed enough encouraging signs when attacking downfield last season to suggest it could become a bigger part of his game in year two. However, Lance is still the player considered to have the greater deep upside.
The 49ers drafted Lance in part because of that deep-ball prowess, with his arm strength expected to open up areas of the field that had too often been closed with Garoppolo under center.
To date, he has attempted 14 passes of 21 air yards or more, completing six of them for 245 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, an average of 17.5 yards per attempt. Purdy averaged 14.6 yards per attempt on his 10 attempts last year.
It’s difficult to compare two very small sample sizes but, if Lance can consistently show an ability to push the ball deep with accuracy during the offseason program, it may serve to reinforce the notion that the offense’s ceiling is at its highest with him at the helm.
Prove playmaking ability
From his pinpoint pass to George Kittle after rolling out to his left for a touchdown against the Raiders, to his remarkable scramble drill in the Wild Card win over the Seahawks, last season Purdy demonstrated the kind of second-reaction playmaking ability that many anticipated Lance would provide.
When he has been on the field, Lance’s improvisational impact has primarily come as a runner. Simply put, Lance hasn’t been on the field enough for the 49ers to truly see what he can do operating out of structure.
It is highly debatable whether Lance making such plays in the controlled environment of the offseason program, in which the threat of him being hit is greatly minimised, would make any difference to the 49ers’ quarterback decision.
But in a scenario when Purdy is not ready for the start of the season and the 49ers begin Week 1 with Lance under center, it may only take some pieces of improvisational magic and more consistent demonstrations of his upside for the man the Niners assumed would be their quarterback of the future to wrest the job back from the surprise favorite for the starting job.