Trey Lance’s first season as the San Francisco 49ers‘ full-time starting quarterback abruptly ended when he fractured his ankle in the first quarter of Sunday’s eventual victory against the Seahawks. The third overall pick in the 2021 draft will complete his second NFL season with just 262 snaps and 102 passing attempts in the books.
Jimmy Garoppolo is, again, the 49ers’ answer under center. While the veteran quarterback’s return to the starting lineup offers a solution for San Francisco’s current needs, his performance could create more questions than answers in the long run.
Trey Lance, Jimmy Garoppolo, and the 49ers’ 2023 QB decision
It’s difficult to give the 49ers too much credit for retaining Garoppolo this summer. General manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan clearly intended to trade Jimmy G, and ESPN reported this week that San Francisco believed the Commanders would ultimately acquire the 30-year-old quarterback.
Instead, Garoppolo’s trade market evaporated after he opted for shoulder surgery in early March. Fearing that he could sign with a rival club, the 49ers refused to release him, and the two sides eventually agreed to a revised contract that dropped Garoppolo’s base salary from $24.2 million to $6.5 million.
Garoppolo can earn up to $15.45 million via incentives, some of which should be easy to achieve, especially those tied to playing time. But he’s still on track to hit free agency next offseason.
At that point, the 49ers will be forced to face reality once again. Will they stick with Lance as he enters his third pro campaign with little to no experience? Or can Garoppolo convince San Francisco to stick with him?
Trey Lance seems like the 49ers’ obvious choice, but…
Given how much the 49ers paid to trade up and select Lance at No. 3 overall, it seems unlikely they’d be willing to throw in the towel already. San Francisco sacrificed three first-rounders and a third-round choice in a pre-draft deal with the Dolphins, so they’re pot committed to the North Dakota State product.
While the 49ers surely don’t want to fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy, Lance offers enough potential that San Francisco is probably willing to hold on. Lynch and Shanahan moved up for Lance for a reason — his combination of size and speed provides a dynamism that’s quickly becoming necessary in modern NFL quarterbacks.
Lance’s rookie contract also gives him substantial value on the 49ers’ salary cap. At a time when the top of the quarterback market has reached $50 million, and even below-average starters earn $30 million annually, Lance’s cap charges will total just over $20 million in 2023 and 2024.
Still, assuming Lance does reemerge as San Francisco’s starter in 2023, he’ll do so as a blank slate. He totaled nearly 4,000 yards and accounted for 42 touchdowns while leading NDSU to the FCS National Championship in 2019, but Lance started just one game in a COVID-shortened 2020 season before entering the draft.
Lance has since made four starts in the NFL: two in relief of an injured Garoppolo in 2021, one in a monsoon against the Bears in Week 1 this year, and Sunday’s game against the Seahawks. There’s just not a lot for the 49ers to evaluate.
Indeed, Lance will have received far less game action than the majority of modern NFL first-round quarterbacks. Since 2000, there are only five other first-round QBs who attempted fewer passes than Lance’s 102 through their first two seasons:
- Chad Pennington, New York Jets
25 attempts behind Vinny Testaverde (2000-01)
- Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers
30 attempts behind Drew Brees (2004-05)
- Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
31 attempts behind Brett Favre (2005-06)
- Brady Quinn, Cleveland Browns
97 attempts behind Derek Anderson (2007-08)
- Jordan Love, Green Bay Packers
67 attempts behind Rodgers (2020-21)
Sure, there are two future Hall of Famers on this list, but that’s not the point. Love is the only quarterback in this sample who was drafted after the NFL instituted slotted rookie contracts in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement.
Signal-callers on cheap rookie deals allow teams to reinvest the savings on other parts of the roster. Most clubs can’t pass up on that opportunity, and Love has only ridden the bench because Rodgers won consecutive MVPs in the years after Love was drafted.
Lance isn’t trying to beat out a future HOFer or a back-to-back MVP. But Garoppolo has had enough success of his own, and he’ll receive another opportunity with the 49ers over the next 15 games.
Jimmy Garoppolo gets to make his case
So, despite his status as a relative NFL enigma, we’ve decided Lance is still the overwhelming favorite to start for the 49ers in 2023. But what would it take for San Francisco to abandon that plan and stick with Garoppolo?
Based on how the 49ers have handled Garoppolo in the very recent past, I think we already have our answer: Jimmy G has to win the Super Bowl.
We’ve just seen that San Francisco was willing to move from Garoppolo even after he led the team to an NFC Championship Game appearance. The 49ers only finished 10-7 and placed third in the NFC West, but getting to — or at least near — the mountaintop matters. Yet, Shanahan and Co. were ready to turn the page.
The only conceivable way that the 49ers might change their stance is if Garoppolo brings home the Lombardi Trophy. At that point, the coaching staff would likely have trouble convincing San Francisco’s veteran-laden locker room that they want to hand over the reins to Lance.
This scenario isn’t entirely out of the question. Garoppolo has already taken the 49ers to one Super Bowl and was one field goal away from another. He’s the league leader in EPA per dropback among quarterbacks with at least 20 attempts. San Francisco has an elite defense. And the Niners currently have the ninth-shortest odds to win the Super Bowl.
But even if Garoppolo wins the title, there would still be questions. Garoppolo will be a free agent in 2023, and his restructured contract includes a no-franchise tag clause. The 49ers would have to commit to a 31-year-old quarterback, likely at a cost of $40+ million per year, while trying to find a suitor for Lance.
What would a Lance trade look like?
We’ve made it this far, so let’s game out what the 49ers might get in return if they were to make Lance available on the trade market. There is one recent QB trade example that might prove relevant in this discussion.
The Cardinals moved on from Josh Rosen just one year after trading up to select him 10th overall in the 2018 draft. After Arizona took Kyler Murray in 2019, they shipped Rosen to the Dolphins for second- and fifth-round selections.
There are some key differences between Arizona’s Rosen conundrum and what the 49ers could be facing with Lance. Most critically, Rosen had just posted one of the worst rookie quarterback seasons of all time, finishing dead last in the league with 5.8 yards per attempt.
Lance doesn’t have those failures on his track record — he barely has a track record at all. He’s a bowling ball full of promise, a project that another coaching staff would surely love to get its hands on. If Rosen could command a second-rounder, there’s no reason the 49ers wouldn’t be able to get a first for Lance.
Any acquiring team would only get one season to evaluate Lance before being required to exercise or decline his 2025 fifth-year option. Still, that’s a trade-off balanced out by his two cheap years in 2023 and 2024.
If Tom Brady retires, the Buccaneers stand out as a team that might be willing to sacrifice a late first-round pick for a young quarterback. The Vikings could be ready to part ways with Kirk Cousins and take their chance on a lottery ticket like Lance. Having worked with Cam Newton for a season, maybe Josh McDaniels wants to bring a similar athlete to Las Vegas to replace Derek Carr.
The odds that Garoppolo sticks in San Francisco heading into 2023 are slim, but they aren’t non-existent. Jimmy G has hung on despite all odds before, and there’s at least a scintilla of a chance that he does it again.