Will Lance win the 49ers QB competition?
By: Brady Akins
April 29, 2021. The first round of the most recent iteration of the NFL Draft, and the night that the San Francisco 49ers made the franchise-altering decision to select Trey Lance, the 21-year-old quarterback out of North Dakota State, third overall.
This, when just four seasons prior, the 49ers made what was seen at the time as another high-stakes quarterback acquisition, when San Francisco managed to lure the perceived heir apparent to the impossible throne of Tom Brady in Jimmy Garoppolo to the Bay Area.
And in the four seasons that followed, the 49ers have received a mixed bag from the quarterback they gave up a second-round pick to add to the roster. From being a wealth of untapped potential with an unbeaten record in 2017 to an injury-prone player with a limited skillset under center in 2020 and everywhere in between.
Even with an NFC Championship victory and a near Super Bowl victory under the belt of Jimmy G, one franchise-altering decision has led to another. And with OTA’s now well underway league-wide, Garoppolo has come face-to-face with the man set to become the future of the San Francisco offense in Lance.
It’s a football tale as old as football time. One young, unproven but talented hotshot quarterback steps into the fray to take over for an established starter. When that switch happens, however, always varies. It took three years for the reigning league MVP Aaron Rodgers to get the starting nod in Green Bay over Brett Favre, one year for another MVP Patrick Mahomes to take over for Alex Smith in Kansas City, and just a handful of games for yet another MVP in Lamar Jackson to take over in Baltimore for Joe Flacco. But it always happens. The new guy will always get a shot, one way or another.
So the question of Garoppolo’s future in San Francisco is settled. Sooner or later, he will be out and Lance will be in. And that, folks, is the ecosystem of the NFL.
But just because Garoppolo’s long-term fate was sealed with that April 29 decision to draft Lance, nothing has been determined for the immediate present of the 49er’s quarterback job. Rather, Garoppolo has entered a battle to be San Francisco’s Week One starter for the 49ers. A battle of two contenders, where each party has a compelling case.
But between Lance and Garoppolo, who deserves it more?
Who is Jimmy Garoppolo?
No longer is Garoppolo the exciting unknown quantity he once was. He’s not the undefeated starter on pace to be the next Tom Brady anymore. His weaknesses have been documented and used against him, as have his strengths.
The 49ers, along with the rest of the football world, know exactly what they’re getting when Jimmy Garoppolo takes the field, for better and for worse. They’re getting a guy who is accurate, can deliver the ball well and quickly in short to intermediate areas on the field. They’re also getting a guy who has struggled in the past with injuries, has shown a penchant for turning the ball over, and is limited as an athlete.
If you need to win a game, you can count on Garoppolo, just don’t expect it to be pretty. Through seven years in the league, Garoppolo has started in 32 games– all but two of which have come in a 49ers uniform. In that time, he’s gone 24-8.
It’s difficult to argue with a win rate that high. In fact, among active quarterbacks with 10 or more starts, Garoppolo ranks fourth overall in winning percentage– behind three former MVPs in Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, and Lamar Jackson.
But the knock against Garoppolo as a player that has seen great success in his time under center, is that, more often than you would hope from a franchise quarterback, his teams have succeeded in spite of his play rather than because of it.
Take the 2019 season for example, far and away Garoppolo’s most successful year– by more than a few metrics as well. Not only did he experience career highs in touchdowns, passing yards and completion percentage, but he did so while being able to stay on the field, starting all 16 games for the first time in his career. 2019 still remains as the only time Garoppolo has started more than six games in a season.
With that ability to stay healthy came team success. The 49ers won the NFC for the first time since 2012, won 13 games for the first time since 1997, and all was well in the world. Sure, maybe their quarterback finished with one of the 10 highest interception percentages despite finishing 19th in pass attempts, but it didn’t really matter. San Francisco had the coaching to elevate the weaknesses on the depth chart, and the defensive talent to compensate for whatever deficiencies Garoppolo was bringing to the table.
But team success at that level could have been an anomaly. San Francisco, despite not having a big-name talent at running back, finished with the second-most volume heavy rushing attack in 2019, and the eighth-most efficient, all while having a defense that was top ten in points allowed, yards allowed, takeaways and sacks.
With a smothering defense and role players performing above expectation, everything in San Francisco was perfect. What came of it, however, was a step short of the ultimate goal of a Super Bowl victory. Arguably, the one element missing from their potential storybook season was elite quarterback play.
Not that Garoppolo played poorly in 2019– he didn’t. As he’s been his whole career, Garoppolo proved to be an accurate passer, but a poor decision-maker. A winner, but more of a game manager in the passing game– which was on full display in the team’s NFC Championship victory, one where Garoppolo threw just eight passes in a 37-20 win.
But he’s still a player that, with the right circumstances, can get a team right on the doorstep of the promised land. The 49ers have lost some talent on defense since that 2019 run, including defensive coordinator Robert Salah in this past offseason. But recent additions on the opposite side of the ball, ones like wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, give San Francisco’s offensive coaching staff more weapons to play with.
Last season was a down year, but one plagued by injuries to key players. With those contributors returning, San Francisco could have the talent to be one of the league’s better teams. If that is the case, they might not need a high-risk, high-reward quarterback more than one who can quietly get the job done.
Who is Trey Lance
If Jimmy Garoppolo is the living, breathing definition of a known quantity– Trey Lance is the exact opposite. If Jimmy Garoppolo is high floor/low ceiling, Trey Lance is a rollercoaster. If Jimmy Garoppolo is the breakfast food equivalent to plain yogurt, Trey Lance is somewhere in the range of the special at a greasy spoon diner that you’ve never heard of but your friend swears by.
Point being– we know Jimmy G. He’s solid. Decent. Able to win and look solid when he does it, but that’s about it. Lance is, well, we don’t really know. He could very well be the best parts of Lamar Jackson with his immense scrambling ability and Tom Brady with his high football IQ and ability to keep the ball safe. Or, he could be a bust. A lot of raw talent but without the ability to put it all together.
And let’s not get it twisted– Trey Lance is talented. One look at the stat sheet from his final full season of college football will tell you as much. 28 passing touchdowns, 67% completion percentage, and zero, ZERO, interceptions. And that’s just through the air. Lance added another 14 touchdowns on the ground, putting up 1,100 rushing yards on 169 attempts.
But even with the immaculate stat sheets– Lance comes with a laundry list of concerns as a player. One of which being, that year of insane production in college was his only year of production in college. In 2018, Lance attempted just one pass in the role of backup. In 2019, he blew up. In 2020– his team played just one game, in what boiled down to essentially a showcase for his NFL potential, and it didn’t go so well.
The one and only interception of Lance’s college career came in North Dakota State’s one 2020 game against Central Arkansas. Granted, Lance made up for the missed opportunity with some truly special production on the ground with 166 yards and a pair of rushing touchdowns, but against an FCS opponent that isn’t necessarily on the level that Lance will face in the NFL, he struggled mightily as a passer, even beyond the interception.
On 30 passing attempts, Lance completed just 15 for just 149 yards. Lance did enough in 2019 to show that he at least has the potential to be an accurate passer. The sample size is small, however, and Lance did little to put any concerns about his ability to throw the football accurately to rest.
But the player that Lance could be in the NFL is enough to justify drafting him in the first round, even as high as third overall. Particularly when you have a coach on the sidelines in Kyle Shanahan who has made a living on finding the ways to make the most out of his players.
In 2016, one year before Shanahan’s promotion to head coach of the 49ers, he served the role of offensive coordinator in Atlanta, where he helped Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan win league MVP and hit career highs in, well, everything. His 38 touchdown passes were a career-high, his 4,944 yards were a career-high, his seven interceptions were a career-low, and the list went on. Completion percentage, yards per attempt, passer rating and quarterback rating, all as high as they’ve ever been under the watchful eye of Shanahan.
Similarly, Shanahan has helped his cast of running backs reach new heights in San Francisco. Raheem Mostert was an NFL journeyman before joining the 49ers, with quick stops in Cleveland, Miami, Baltimore and Chicago that all resulted in not a single carry. With San Francisco, Mostert has blossomed to produce three seasons of efficient carrying, without a season below five yards per carry.
Shanahan might be able to work his magic once more with Lance. But concerns still remain. Lance is an inexperienced player from an FCS school. A perfect 2019 season? Sure. All the potential in the world? No question. Lance has the tools to be one of the all-time greats. But can he do it in year one?
Lance vs Garoppolo: The Final Verdict
The one and only time that Jimmy Garoppolo started 16 games in a season– he won 13 of them.
Yes, he had the help of a transcendent defense. Yes, looking at his numbers in a box score isn’t as exciting as it would be for a player like Aaron Rodgers. And, yes, in the future, Trey Lance can and likely will be a better player than Garoppolo.
But Lance doesn’t need to be that player immediately. Garoppolo isn’t going to make highlights like a rookie Lance would, but he can be exactly what the 49ers need in the short term. A player who can distribute the ball with ease to talented pass catchers like Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle. A player who can run Shanahan’s offense well enough to win, with years of familiarity with the scheme.
Most of all, he can be a smart guiding hand for the 49ers quarterback of the future. A veteran to show Lance the ropes, the same way that Alex Smith taught Mahomes before him. The future lives with Trey Lance, but the present of the 49ers franchise can still be Jimmy Garoppolo.