Who is the front runner for the 49ers QB position?

Will Trey Lance or Jimmy G start for Kyle Shanahan?

By: Steph Sanchez

It feels like not too long ago, we were speculating about Jimmy Garoppolo’s future in San Francisco after a turbulent 2020 season derailed by an ankle injury. The questions would not stop after John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan traded up to No. 3 overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. Still, 49ers brass went out of their way to assure the media that Garoppolo wasn’t going anywhere. When the 49ers selected Trey Lance, it made sense to many why the team would feel comfortable keeping a proven veteran presence such as Garoppolo. Lynch and Shanahan cited the Alex Smith, Patrick Mahomes model several times, adamant that Jimmy Garoppolo is their starter. At the start of training camp, Shanahan even said there was “no open competition [at quarterback] right now.” 

By now, we shouldn’t take everything this team says at face value. Let’s not forget the way Shanahan had the NFL media convinced that they were interested in drafting Mac Jones at 3. Trey Lance’s camp performances had local media raving early. So much so that it felt that not considering Lance as the Week 1 starter seemed nearly impossible. 

So far, it seems that there is at least some truth to Shanahan’s words. It’s clear that the starting job will not, in fact, be handed over to the 21-year-old rookie. He will have to earn it. And not only that – Garoppolo will have to lose it. The 49ers are doing a great job of playing both sides and tempering national media and fan’s eagerness to see more of Trey Lance. John Lynch joined ESPN Adam Schefter’s podcast and when asked about Lance said he’s been “tremendous”. He then immediately shifted the discussion toward Garoppolo: “Lance being here has brought the best out of Jimmy Garoppolo…in practice in the offseason and practice in training camp thus far, he’s playing the best football since he’s been here.” Quite the ringing endorsement.

Through training camp, the “non” competition has been fierce. The first few days seemed to belong to Trey with reports like the ball “jumps out of his hand”. He takes risks downfield, he can run. Do these things sound familiar? No, because Jimmy Garoppolo doesn’t do these things. It’s not Jimmy’s fault that Trey Lance’s strengths are Garoppolo’s weaknesses. But it’s likely no coincidence either. Being that as it may, Garoppolo is still doing what he does best. He strung together a number of solid practices, usually on days where the rookie struggled. 

Trey Lance’s struggles are the kind you would expect from a rookie still learning and adjusting to life in the NFL. A couple of botched handoffs, sometimes throwing too high and above his receivers are just a couple of the mistakes we’ve heard of Lance making. Garoppolo’s struggles are the same we’ve seen from the veteran before – throwing behind his receivers, no velocity on his throws, interceptions, no deep ball accuracy or power. Garoppolo is who he is. He can do the things he does well but we know (because we’ve seen) that he will mix in a few mistakes largely due to his limitations. 

Jimmy Garoppolo finished training camp with the following stats 128 completions out of 204 attempts, earning him a 62.7% completion rate. Of those 128 attempts, he threw seven touchdowns and six interceptions. Trey Lance on the other hand finished with 115 completions out of 167 attempts. This gives Lance a 68.9% completion rate with 11 touchdowns and two interceptions. Two of Lance’s touchdowns were rushing touchdowns. 

It is important to note that Garoppolo has spent camp with the first-team offensive line and most of the first-team skill position players. Lance had a total of two snaps with the first-team offensive line in all of camp. The rest of his time was spent behind the reportedly abysmal second-team line. It’s also important to put into perspective that the second-team defensive line has players that could be starters on other teams. 

It’s hard to gauge Lance’s performance if he and Garoppolo are not given equal opportunities. It seems like Shanahan wants to put Lance through the NFL gauntlet before deeming him “ready”. The tough question is what constitutes as “ready” in Kyle Shanahan’s mind. We may never know the answer to this question until Shanahan names Lance the starter. Recent quotes from John Lynch and Shanahan may be an indication as to how they’re currently leaning on their decision. Just within the week before the team’s first preseason same, Kyle Shanahan said “Trey Lance is going to play for us this year”. When asked about the quarterback starting job, John Lynch said “It’s Jimmy’s right now and Trey’s pushing.” 

In the team’s first preseason game against the Chiefs, Jimmy Garoppolo played just one series to start the game. It was a serviceable, classic Garoppolo performance.  He hit his guys for short yardage throws and let his receivers do the rest with their YAC abilities. Trey Lance played 29 snaps which felt like a good chunk of the game. He only played a couple of snaps with the same offensive line that Garoppolo played behind. Lance made the most of his time in the pocket, escaping out to his left and delivering a 49-yard throw that would result in an 80-yard tuddy to WR Trent Sherfield. Lance was in command and showed why he has more upside than Garoppolo. At one point, his only incompletions were on drops.

Unfortunately for the rookie, however, the second-team offensive line could not hold up their end of the deal. After a couple of impressive series, Lance had a difficult time escaping pressure or making accurate throws under duress. 

I imagine this is exactly what Kyle Shanahan wanted him to go through to see how he would respond. It could have gone better but you could certainly make a case for Lance on his upside alone. If he can improve his under-pressure performance in following preseason games, it might be time to call the fight.

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