Deep Dive: Making the Case for the 49ers to Start Trey Lance Week One
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Today you woke up feeling confident and ready to attack this day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.
How do I know this?
Because you’re a 49ers fan who’d been tortured by month-long rumors of Mac Jones before San Francisco pulled an M. Night Shyamalan twist, drafting Trey Lance and sending renowned NFL insiders back to the dark ages of information.
The North Dakota State alumni will add his name to an illustrious list of household quarterbacks that wore the red and gold uniforms, inspiring entire generations of football players.
The stage seems entirely set for Trey Lance to perform and have success right away. From an innovative play-caller in Kyle Shanahan to a stacked roster two years removed from a Super Bowl run, the 20 year-old could not have landed in a better spot.
However, the 49ers’ front office has been adamant that Jimmy Garoppolo is still their starter and the same people who had Mac Jones mocked to number three in the draft have once again come in unison to declare Trey Lance a “project” who is not ready to start.
These opinions are not fact-based, here is why:
1. Trey Lance is the most pro-ready quarterback of the draft
Pro-style offense: North Dakota State, a.k.a “QBU,” is known for running a pro-style offense in the FCS. The Bisons ran leaks and play-action rollout concepts very similar to those in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Yes, an NFL playbook is very heavy and complex, but Trey Lance, known for being an astute student of the game, will already be familiar with those concepts.
Quick game: Trey Lance’s completion rate in the quick game was about 80 percent according to North Dakota State, best in college football. This metric not only accounts for accuracy, but also play-execution and decision-making. This is a staple of success in the 49ers offense.
Turning back to the defense: The 49ers head coach has often alluded to how important it is for young quarterbacks to play while turning their backs to the defense. This is one of the things that jumps out on Trey Lance’s tape.
Protection: Lance was tasked with reading the defense and calling his own protection, while most other draft prospects just had to look at the sidelines for directions from their coaching staff. The cerebral part of the game is an area where Trey Lance has an edge - More on that later.
Pro-readiness: According to most NFL pundits, Trevor Lawrence is the most pro-ready quarterback of this draft class.
Between 2019 – 2020, Trey Lance’s under-center usage rate was by far the highest 30.3 percent of this QB class (Justin Fields was 5.4; Mac Jones, 1.6; and Trevor Lawrence, 0.0).
Unless Urban Meyer is planning on running a college offense with obnoxious hand-clap snaps (I’m looking at you Kliff Kingsbury), Trevor Lawrence will have to go through major adjustments this offseason.
Trey Lance will not. He’s pro-ready.
2. Learning by doing: The new quarterback trend
QB-friendly offenses: NFL offenses have adapted to accommodate top quarterback prospects coming out of college. While it used to be common to let a top-drafted QB pick sit on the bench for one or more seasons, the 2010s saw the rise of Week-1 starter rookie quarterbacks.
Starting rookies – a common trend: While most analysts will try to compare the 49ers’ situation to that of Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes, other examples like Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Carson Wentz, Deshaun Watson or Justin Herbert are more common.
Yes some of the names cited above had more experience coming out of college, but none of them played in a pro-style offense that involved calling their own protections. Lance is a natural thrower of the football. The cerebral side of the game is the toughest thing to learn for young quarterbacks but is one area that Trey already has a head start in.
Training wheels: The best way for Trey Lance to get acclimated to his new team will be to play meaningful snaps in the NFL. Shanahan has shown with RGIII that he can roll out a condensed offense with “training wheels” for a young QB and still be extremely successful. The same can be done around Trey Lance who has shown he can already make all kinds of throws; accurate, laser fastballs, touch and anticipatory.
Best practice: Much has been made of the fact that Lance only played one game in 2020. If he were to sit the entire upcoming season, that would make it almost two full seasons before Lance gets to play in a meaningful game. There is nothing quite like learning by doing in the NFL. The sooner he gets to see the field, the longer the 49ers will be able to ride the wave of his cheap rookie contract to surround him with talent and extend their Super Bowl window.
3. 2021 draft class shows a change in offensive strategy
A new emphasis in the passing game: San Francisco drafted Aaron Banks in the second, a guard with the highest PFF grade in pass blocking in college football. At 6’5” and 325 pounds, this signals a clear departure of the 49ers’ prototypical agile zone-blocking lineman.
It feels like the 49ers are preparing to air it out on the field and Trey Lance offers them the best chance to do that at this stage, unless Garoppolo is somehow able to improve his deep throws.
Bringing the power-run game back: Kyle Shanahan’s offense is tailor-made for one-cut backs who have an acceleration burst to take advantage of running lanes at the line of scrimmage. Over the past three seasons, Jeff Wilson filled the role of the goal line bruising back. He did well, becoming a a touchdown-scoring machine, but Jeff Wilson’s style is more similar to Raheem Mostert.
Enter Trey Sermon, a prototypical bruising back who will provide the 49ers with physicality and power out of the backfield, something that team has lacked over the past two seasons. Will Mike McDaniel, the running game guru turned offensive coordinator, bring back the power run game?
Do you know any quarterback prospect who used to run a power-run offense in college? Hint; He was born in Minnesota.
Lance will fit right in.
4. Kyle Shanahan can finally open up his playbook
Smart football player: One of the reasons San Francisco fell in love with its new quarterback is because Trey Lance is a film junkie who is always looking to learn more and improve. There were numerous reports leading to the draft that talked about how Trey Lance reached out to NFL personnel for feedback on things to work on to improve as a football player.
A moldable quarterback: At 20 years old and with a lack of experience, Lance hasn’t had time to pick up any bad habits that will stick in the pros. With outstanding physical abilities, a bright mind and the right attitude, Kyle Shanahan can mold him from the ground up and turn him into the quarterback of his dreams.
Breaking news for NFL insiders; it won’t resemble anything like Kirk Cousins.
Unlimited play-calling: Whether it comes from head-scratching decisions, high risk of interceptions or lack of trust in general, it feels like Kyle Shanahan is limiting his offense. This is especially true in drives after a Garoppolo interception where the 49ers will focus on run-heavy play calling.
Trey Lance can unlock this offense to new heights with more throws down the field, bootlegs, quarterback runs and…
Extending plays: Still scarred from the Super Bowl loss to Mahomes, Shanahan has spoken on the record that he’d love to have a quarterback being able to extend plays whenever those break down.
This is not an area where Jimmy excels (nor does Mac Jones). On top of being supremely athletic, Trey Lance constantly keeps his eyes down the field when scrambling or circling out of the pocket. He will bring a dimension the 49ers have never had under Kyle’s tenure as a head coach.
Position-less football: Kyle Shanahan has often talked about playing 11-versus-11 position-less football. Trey Lance will provide San Francisco with the ability to make defenses account for the quarterback to run the ball. The young QB had a GPS track him at 21.54 mph on one of his runs in 2019.
5. The tone around Jimmy Garoppolo is constantly pivoting
When last season ended, all signs pointed to the 49ers parting ways with Jimmy Garoppolo. His numerous nagging injuries as well as his poor play last season did not justify his salary.
There were also rumblings of frustration running high within the coaching staff after they believed Garoppolo could have come back from his injury late in the season but spent the last few games in the press box taking notes.
After the free agency window, the 49ers’ front office said all the right things about Garoppolo, in a move to try to prey on potential trade suitors.
The week leading the draft, the tone felt much different during Kyle’s infamous doomsday press conference. It really felt like Jimmy’s days were numbered.
Fast-forward to after the draft, when the only desperate teams made quarterback moves, including the Patriots, Garoppolo’s most likely trade destination. Now all of a sudden, Garoppolo is the official starter for next season.
The tone is constantly changing, which makes Garoppolo’s situation unpredictable.
Garoppolo will enter camp with a head start over Trey Lance, but expect the rookie quarterback to turn heads and make a strong push for the starting job.
Regardless of what the team says, this will be a competition and Trey Lance has an opportunity to seize.
6. Why delay the inevitable?
The end of an era: Garoppolo’s contract is set to expire in two years, and his no-trade clause is set to expire next year. With Trey Lance on the roster, the 49ers have invested a very steep price into their quarterback of the future. It is only a matter of time before he gets to see the field.
I will forever be thankful to Jimmy Garoppolo for bringing back hope after decades of poor to average quarterback play. Unfortunately for him, the 49ers have decided to upgrade at the position and Garoppolo’s clock with the team has already started to tick.
A rightful heir: San Francisco hasn’t had a Pro Bowl-level quarterback since the Jeff Garcia era. Trey Lance picked a great number to inherit.
The last time the 49ers won a Super Bowl, they had a Shanahan calling plays on the offense and a Hall-of-Fame dual-threat quarterback in Steve Young. If Lance can become everything the 49ers hoped for when they traded up for him, history is bound to repeat itself.
Taking advantage of a wide Super Bowl window: When will the 49ers have the best odds of winning a Super Bowl? Over the next five years.
The 49ers will benefit from a rookie quarterback’s cheap contract to be able to re-sign rising star players who will be due for an extension soon, such as Fred Warner, Nick Bosa, and Dre Greenlaw. The sooner Lance gets to play, the longer they will be able to keep this window open.
Open competition: If Trey Lance is ready to start, then there is no point in keeping him on the bench. The training camp stories over the summer will be fascinating. Buckle up!
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