The 49ers begin OTAs on Monday and, while little is usually gleaned from those opening padless practices, they will hope the sessions will be the first steps towards the best-case scenario playing out at quarterback.
With Brock Purdy rehabbing following elbow surgery, that best-case scenario is one contingent on Trey Lance’s ability to take advantage of his opportunity in Purdy’s absence.
Lance is expected to split first-team reps with Sam Darnold in an apparent quarterback competition between the 2021 and 2018 third overall picks. As Purdy is seen by most as the favorite to start, that battle is seemingly one that will decide who would play Week 1 in the event of him not being ready.
There has been plenty of noise surrounding how highly the 49ers think of Darnold. Yet, the likelihood is that, internally, the 49ers will want to see Lance ensure he is at least QB2 in 2023.
The best-case scenario? Lance not only outperforms Darnold and locks up the backup job, but performs to a level that catapults him into a fight for the starting role with a fully healthy Purdy.
At this point, such a turn of events does not appear realistic.
Purdy demonstrated remarkable poise and impressive command of the offense after Jimmy Garoppolo’s injury promoted him to the role of starter last year.
Wins are not an effective barometer of quarterback performance. Still, the fact the 49ers did not lose with Purdy as the starter until injury robbed him of the ability to throw in the NFC Championship Game will understandably carry a lot of weight in the building.
Lance’s resume, which comprises just three completed starts and one win, is distinctly unimpressive by comparison. Still, most would still agree that, between his outstanding arm strength and his running ability, Lance’s upside remains greater than that of Purdy.
And hopes of him harnessing that upside may be higher following recent comments from private quarterback coach Jeff Christensen.
In an interview with Matt Barrows of The Athletic, Christensen praised Lance effusively, having trained the 49ers quarterback alongside NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes.
Christensen said that, after spending four days figuring out the issues with Lance’s throwing motion, he improved Lance’s accuracy and made his delivery more efficient.
By the end of their time together, Christensen said Lance was “25 percent ahead of where I thought he’d be.”
At this time of year, it can be difficult to separate legitimately significant news from the classic offseason tropes. However, if Lance has tightened his release and the benefits of that quickly become apparent during the offseason program, that could quickly change the discourse around the quarterback position for San Francisco.
Purdy will hold on to the ball, but he already has the ability to get the ball out rapidly with an expedient release. Lance — who has previously proven he can fit the ball into tight windows even with an elongated release — doing the same consistently may well help narrow the gap that has developed between the two.
Nice job from Lance holding the safety and MLB with his eyes for that extra second, makes him a little late on the throw but he guns it in anyway and Aiyuk changes his route speed to make sure he can effectively hit it in stride and does the rest after the catch. pic.twitter.com/5CiGCvYciP— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) July 23, 2022
The best-case scenario is also dependent on Purdy recovering quickly from his operation and getting back to full health ahead of the new campaign. The narrative around the 49ers is one constantly dictated by uncertainty at the quarterback position, but that uncertainty will be much more welcome if it comes from Lance putting pressure on a healthy Purdy.
On track to start throwing again in training camp, the overwhelming consensus is that the starting job for 2023 is Purdy’s to lose. OTAs will offer the first indicator of whether Christensen’s work has put Lance in a position to make the quarterback situation even more interesting by bringing that ideal world closer to being a reality.