Credit the 49ers. Seriously, everyone knew that San Francisco, after trading into the draft’s no. 3 slot last month, was ready to choose a new starting quarterback. Kyle Shanahan made it deafeningly clear as recently as Monday! Even then, no one had any idea whom the Niners—a franchise that’s had its intentions telegraphed ahead of each of the past four drafts—would pick this year. Not even the oddsmakers in Vegas could figure it out. I’m sure the NFL was grateful for San Francisco maintaining suspense about its choice. Our collective anxiety in the past few weeks, however, has skyrocketed trying to make sense of the Niners’ direction.
North Dakota State’s Trey Lance is the Niners’ new QB. After months of smoke screens and reported internal debate, San Francisco finally landed on Lance, choosing him over Alabama’s Mac Jones. The selection was the first unknown in the 2021 NFL draft after the Jaguars and Jets chose Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson, respectively, as expected. Now, a 20-year-old QB prospect who played one game at the FCS level last year and wasn’t recruited at all by any Division I schools is set up to have the best chance at immediate success of any rookie signal-caller next season. The pick also represents a shift in Shanahan’s philosophy. Lance could unlock a 49ers offense that appears to boast boundless potential, and San Francisco now features a playmaker behind center who is capable of stretching the limits beyond the structure of its play calls.
As a prospect, Lance is an anomaly. He followed in the footsteps of former NDSU QBs and NFL-caliber passers Easton Stick and Carson Wentz to emerge from the FCS powerhouse. He’s been considered a first-round prospect by most experts since last summer after completing 66.9 percent of his passes for 2,786 yards, 28 touchdowns, and zero interceptions while averaging 9.7 yards per attempt as a sophomore. Lance led the Bison to a 16-0 record and their third consecutive FCS championship. But Lance wasn’t able to build off that success last year as the COVID-19 pandemic halted FCS games. NDSU played one game, a showcase against Central Arkansas in October 2020, and Lance completed only 15 of 30 passes for 149 yards, two touchdowns, and the only interception of his collegiate career. His sample size isn’t significant, but there’s more than enough available to see his potential.
The statistics aren’t what make Lance such a natural fit for the Niners, though. At 6-foot-2 and 224 pounds, he offers good size—The Ringer’s Danny Kelly described him as a “mini Josh Allen”—and his speed (4.5-second 40-yard dash time) makes him an elite athlete for his position. As The Draft Network’s Jordan Reid pointed out, a major strength of Lance’s game is his comfort executing a play-action-heavy scheme, something that should serve him well in Shanahan’s offense.
For the first time since Robert Griffin III in Washington, Shanahan will have a quarterback who will be able to use his athleticism as a fail-safe when plays are off-schedule. It wasn’t clear which player Shanahan preferred given the run of immobile quarterbacks he’s worked with in San Francisco and the hype over Jones leading up to Thursday. But there was a hint that he desired to have an elite athlete behind center in December, after Bills quarterback Josh Allen went 32-for-40 with four touchdowns and no picks against San Francisco’s stout defense in a Monday night rout. Per Chris Biderman of The Sacramento Bee, Shanahan was asked after that game about how his view of quarterbacks has evolved, and the Niners coach explained it was fluid, while noting how teams are winning with different quarterback archetypes behind center.
“I evaluate quarterbacks in terms of trying to find people who can have a chance to be one of those elite-type guys,” Shanahan told reporters. “And there’s lots of different ways to do it. You can see now there’s plenty of different ways, so I don’t think that’ll ever change. I don’t think you have one certain thing you’re looking for. You’re just trying to find a guy who is better than about 98 percent of the people on this planet or in this country and when you find that, you get him and you adjust to him.”
Credit, again, goes to the Niners. There was speculation that the Niners would find another quarterback to fit the mold of Jimmy Garoppolo, Nick Mullens, and C.J. Beathard, a decision that would have been a test of quarterback logic, as my colleague Rodger Sherman put it. Choosing a passer like Jones—who is limited to strictly functioning within the structure of an offense’s scheme—would have arguably placed a cap on the potential of an offense that seems to boast an unlimited ceiling when everything is clicking. On Monday, Shanahan continued his vague misdirection by saying that he doesn’t consider an increase of successful mobile NFL passers to be a trend, instead chalking it up to teams identifying “some special players” and “special people.”
“I don’t care when Drew Brees comes out, whether it’s 30 years from now, 30 years ago, or today—Drew’s gonna be pretty good,” Shanahan said. “So is Philip Rivers. So are all of these guys ... Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes. They would’ve been good 40 years ago, also. Really good. They’re gonna be good 40 years in the future. You’ve gotta take guys you believe are good enough to do it, whatever way that is. There’s lots of ways to do it. People are proving that more and more.”
In Lance, Shanahan has determined that a shift in player type will give his team the best chance to win. The Niners, who were hampered significantly by injuries last season, will feature a playoff-caliber squad boasting a core that isn’t too far removed from a Super Bowl run. San Francisco’s collection of offensive playmakers—tight end George Kittle, receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk—will give Lance what is likely the most dynamic supporting cast of any rookie passer. The next big decision that Shanahan will have to make is how soon Lance will get to prove himself.
According to USA Today’s Mike Jones, Lance’s selection means Garoppolo will likely stay in San Francisco, allowing Lance time to develop on the bench. If that’s the case, perhaps it’s for the better—those great mobile quarterbacks Shanahan referred to earlier this week (Jackson and Mahomes) were both eased into their starting gigs, after all. Regardless, whenever Lance’s time comes, the Niners will be positioned to wield what could be their most high-potential offense yet.