The San Francisco 49ers are going to have a quarterback competition this summer. While the organization has insisted that Brock Purdy will return to the top of the depth chart whenever he’s ready to return from offseason UCL surgery, former third overall picks Sam Darnold and Trey Lance will be competing for playing time in his absence.
Lance, of course, seems like he should be the clear favorite. This 49ers regime traded three first-round picks and a third-round pick to acquire the third overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft that they used to draft Lance out of North Dakota State. He was the team’s starter heading into last season and likely would have finished the year at the helm if not for a season-ending injury in Week 2.
Darnold, on the other hand, signed a one-year contract with the Niners this offseason and will be joining the third organization of his career. The Jets drafted Darnold with the third overall selection back in 2019, and they traded him to the Panthers after he failed to develop. Carolina gave up several valuable draft picks to acquire Darnold, and they seemingly made no attempt to re-sign him after two seasons.
Yet, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan has fueled speculation that Darnold will receive more than a passing opportunity to be the team’s Week 1 starter. If Shanahan has made anything abundantly clear over the course of his tenure as head coach, he is not afraid of a quarterback controversy.
Shanahan: “I truly see Sam talent-wise as a top pick in the draft, just like he was. You watch his whole career and there’s no reason to think differently. He hasn’t been in the best situations, so we’re glad to have him here. And I’m so glad he wanted to come here. He could’ve…— David Lombardi (@LombardiHimself) May 11, 2023
✅Shanahan thread, Purdy/Lance/Darnold quotes. #OptionPower— David Lombardi (@LombardiHimself) May 11, 2023
"I do believe we have 3 quarterbacks talent-wise who are all capable of being franchise-like quarterbacks ... Brock’s done that in his 8. And we have 2 other guys on our roster who we strongly believe can do that also." https://t.co/5UMTK1U8sa
So, how have Darnold and Lance performed on the field over the past two seasons?
In his two years with the Panthers, Darnold completed 59.5% of his passes for 3,670 yards, 16 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions with 328 rushing yards. Lance, in his first two NFL seasons, recorded a 54.9% completion percentage with 797 passing yards, five passing touchdowns, and three interceptions alongside 235 rushing yards.
But how does their production compare when adjusted for the disparity in playing time?
Sam Darnold vs. Trey Lance (21-22)
Even in Lance’s limited experience, which almost all outside observers have acknowledged left a lot to be desired, he was more productive than Darnold. Despite his low completion percentage, Lance still threw touchdowns at a higher rate, racked up more yards on his throws, avoided negative plays (like interceptions and sacks) at a better rate, and added another dimension on the ground.
Circumstances in the NFL mean a lot, and Lance has obviously had a superior supporting cast. However, Darnold was not lacking skill-position talent in Carolina in the way he was early in his career with the Jets. For most of his tenure, the Panthers had Christian McCaffrey, who the 49ers would trade four draft picks to acquire (and who Lance has never played with), and impressive young receiver D.J. Moore.
Yet, Lance seems to have a trump card for every potential excuse for Darnold’s inferior production. After all, Darnold is entering his sixth NFL season and was the clear starter heading into the season with the Panthers. Lance backed up Jimmy Garoppolo during his rookie season in 2021 and suffered a season-ending injury just two games into last season. Lance turned 23 on Tuesday and still has not started three consecutive NFL games.
More advanced stats that attempt to control for circumstances better than traditional counting stats basically grade Lance and Darnold as equally effective over the past two seasons. Both Pro Football Focus’ grades and Total QBR favor Lance in 2021 while leaning toward Darnold in 2022.
Does that mean that Lance is guaranteed to be a superior quarterback than Darnold in 2023 or beyond? Of course not. Lance is coming off a season-ending injury and has appeared in fewer than 30 games between college and the NFL combined. Moreover, Darnold, like Lance, was a young draft prospect. Despite his experience, he will not turn 26 until next month.
Uncertainty is justified, but when you have two quarterbacks with similar draft pedigree who have had underwhelming early careers, it’s not difficult to say that the better bet is the younger one with a smaller sample of being bad.