The 49ers actions have told us that they intended on Sam Darnold being the backup quarterback all along. The team inked Darnold to a one-year deal on Monday, March 13, which was when the tampering period began. So, technically, they signed Sam before free agency even started.
At the time, it felt like the most Kyle Shanahan signing ever, as San Francisco had been linked to Darnold on multiple occasions. There was one report that said the Jets turned down a first-round pick from the 49ers for Darnold one offseason. The following year, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport said the Niners took a hard look at Darnold in free agency.
This is a player the team has had their eyes on for multiple years, and they finally bought low on Darnold this past offseason. Why Darnold? Well, he’s 26, athletic, has a strong arm, and has flashed just enough throughout his career to make a coach like Shanahan salivate over his talent.
Going through my training camp notes, there were multiple days when Sam looked like the best quarterback at practice. Now, it’s practice, and Darnold hit a wall in the second week of August where the inconsistencies that led to him to not being retained by his previous two teams showed up.
Those flashes are difficult to ignore, though. There was a series last Saturday against the Denver Broncos where Darnold made three plays, one was called back, that were comfortably the best throws by a 49er quarterback this preseason.
But you can’t gloss over Darnold leading the offense to one scoring drive in eight chances, with a QBR of 15 on third downs. Which, again, leads you to believe the 49ers were convinced Darnold was QB2 the minute he signed his name on the contract.
Now, San Francisco probably gave Trey Lance an opportunity to win the job from Darnold. And while Lance has greatly improved from a year ago, he still put the ball in harm’s way too often in a small sample size during two preseason games.
Lance dug himself too deep of a hole to come out of after the first preseason game. For as much upside as there is, the game was too fast for him and there were layup throws that he passed up that can’t happen if you’re in a QB competition.
This is a nuanced situation where multiple things can be true.
But, it’s still Darnold, and we have a lengthy track record of who he is, even if Sam didn’t play in the most favorable circumstances. Don’t forget, he lost a QB competition in Carolina last year to Baker Mayfield!
One argument that I’ve seen in favor of Darnold over Lance has been for injuries. Lance had the finger injury as a rookie and an ankle injury that ended his season in 2022. So, the 49ers need someone reliable behind Brock Purdy, right?
Almost a year ago to the date, Darnold suffered the dreaded high-ankle sprain in the preseason that caused him to miss 4-to-6 weeks. The injury ended up keeping Darnold out until the middle of November, not the beginning of October.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. Darnold was diagnosed with mono in Week 2 of 2019, causing him to miss three games. He suffered a sprained right foot in 2018, forcing him to miss another three games. And an ankle injury in September 2017 forced him to be pulled from a start, although he didn’t miss any time after.
We are talking about a player with an extensive injury history. A player who hasn’t had a season where he hasn’t missed any time. Now, that could be different since Darnold isn’t in the lineup every game, but history suggests that if Darnold plays, the injury bug will find him.
When you have a quarterback who is a hair over 6’ and 210 pounds, fresh off a severe elbow injury. This quarterback, albeit successful, had five regular season starts, mind you. And his backup is Darnold, a quarterback who is king of variance and oft-injured, the 49ers should be in no hurry to trade Lance.
It would take a player who could help me and my roster tomorrow. Danielle Hunter. Josh Uche. Marcus Davenport. Joe Tryon-Shoyinka. Arnold Ebiketie. All pass rushers who, outside of Hunter, I’d have cost control over on a rookie contract.
The value of a quarterback, especially a 23-year-old one who oozes with talent, is simply too high to give away for pennies. There’s no guarantee that Purdy plays to the level he did a year ago, or that Darnold stays healthy. Even as a QB3, history suggests that Lance isn’t far off from playing.
Because of that, unless the 49ers are getting back a young pass rusher or offensive tackle, No. 5 should remain in the Bay Area in 2023.