Trey Lance — the third overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft — now has a new home after a disappointing start to his career with the San Francisco 49ers. The Dallas Cowboys are acquiring Lance in exchange for a fourth-round pick.
The 49ers traded three first-round picks for the opportunity to select Lance in 2021. Many questions will arise from this in the weeks and months ahead, especially since there have been widespread reports that 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan had preferred Mac Jones, who was selected 15th overall by the New England Patriots in the same draft.
Dallas Cowboys Acquire Trey Lance From San Francisco 49ers
Lance’s standing in San Francisco took a significant hit on Thursday when Shanahan announced Sam Darnold had won the team’s backup quarterback job behind starter Brock Purdy. Relegated to third on the depth chart, Lance looked like an immediate trade candidate — and the 49ers quickly found a taker in the Cowboys.
Let’s examine all the fallout from the Lance trade, beginning with how Lance could be used in Dallas.
Why Did the Cowboys Trade For Lance?
For the Cowboys, adding Lance for only the price of a fourth-round draft pick is something of a no-brainer. Dallas, of course, already has an established starter in Dak Prescott, but Lance hardly has to contribute anything of value to make good on a Day 3 selection.
San Fran moves on and Lance gets a fresh start as the new QB2 in Dallas behind Dak Prescott. More to come. pic.twitter.com/nvQ373yQ7Z
— Pro Football Network (@PFN365) August 25, 2023
Earlier this year, ESPN’s Bill Barnwell found that a quarterback with even a 10% chance of becoming a star in the NFL is worth a swing at the end of the first round. A fourth-round choice is more than worth the price of accessing that upside.
Lance will serve as the Cowboys’ third quarterback behind Prescott and Cooper Rush, per Ian Rapoport of NFL Network. The NFL’s new third QB could allow Dallas to keep Lance inactive on game days. But they might want him available to run specifically designed plays where Lance can work as a rusher or otherwise get on the move.
Trey Lance Contract and Salary Details
The Cowboys are also getting a bargain on Lance’s contract. He’s only due base salaries in 2023 ($940,000) and 2024 ($1.06 million), plus a roster bonus in 2024 ($4.23 million).
Lance’s fifth-year option for the 2025 season will transfer to Dallas as part of the trade. The Cowboys will have until next May to decide on Lance’s option, which will likely be worth more than $30 million. Because that option would be fully guaranteed, there’s almost no scenario in which the Cowboys would pick it up.
Meanwhile, the 49ers have already paid Lance’s $22.2 million signing bonus, plus another $6.6 million in base salaries and roster bonuses. For salary cap purposes, they’ll take on $5.5 million in dead money this season and in 2024 as a result of trading Lance.
Does the Lance Acquisition Give the Cowboys Leverage With Dak Prescott?
Prescott’s contract becomes the elephant in the room following the Cowboys’ trade for Lance. Most third-string quarterbacks added near the end of the preseason wouldn’t cause much consternation. However, things might be different when the signal-caller in question is the former third overall pick.
Prescott has two years remaining on his current extension, which averages $40 million per year and ranks 10th among quarterbacks. Dallas has already restructured his deal this year, so his cap charge will be at $26.8 million in 2023 before ballooning to $59.5 million in 2024.
The Cowboys can’t handle that sort of cap charge on their books, so they’ll undoubtedly be aiming to extend Prescott’s deal and reduce his cap figure.
The idea that Lance’s presence on Dallas’ roster could give the organization leverage in negotiations with Prescott might make sense at first glance — but the timing doesn’t add up.
The Cowboys will have to decide on Lance’s fifth-year option by next May. They’ll almost certainly decline it, making Lance a free agent during the 2025 offseason — the same time Prescott is scheduled to hit the open market.
There’s almost no scenario where Dallas would get a long enough look at Lance to decide on him as their quarterback of the future. Prescott would have to suffer an injury early in the regular season, allowing Lance to thrive in the Cowboys’ offense. Even then, Rush would probably be in line to take over under center, at least initially.
How Did the 49ers’ Lance Selection Become Such a Disaster?
There’s hardly any other way to describe Lance’s run with the 49ers — it was a disaster.
San Francisco decided on Lance even though Shanahan reportedly preferred Jones heading into the draft. In a class with five top-line quarterback prospects (Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Lance, Justin Fields, and Jones), the 49ers decided to trade three first-round picks to move up nine spots and draft Lance.
The COVID-19 pandemic shortened Lance’s final season at North Dakota State to a single game, and he didn’t receive immediate work at the NFL level, either. Jimmy Garoppolo was San Francisco’s starter for most of the 2021 campaign, although Lance made two starts in relief.
The 49ers turned their starting job over to Lance in 2022, but he managed only two starts before suffering a season-ending ankle injury. Garoppolo started 15 games before going down with an injury of his own, allowing rookie seventh-rounder Brock Purdy to take the starting job and lead San Francisco to the NFC title game.
Lance had a chance to compete with Darnold for the 49ers’ QB2 job over the summer, but Darnold consistently earned more praise during training camp. Meanwhile, Lance struggled mightily in San Francisco’s first preseason game before leading several impressive drives in Week 2.
— NFL (@NFL) August 25, 2023
Lance’s story with the 49ers is one of simple bad luck. We’ll never truly find out if Lance would have not only fit in Shanahan’s offense but taken one of the league’s best play designers to an entirely new and more explosive level.
Lance needed more reps in college. He didn’t get them. He needed more reps once he got to the NFL. Injuries and Mr. Irrelevant taking a team to the brink of a Super Bowl appearance made sure he never got them.
Meanwhile, the 49ers were simply too good to allow Lance the time he needed to develop. They were reportedly willing to take their lumps as Lance grew under center in 2021, but his injury and the club’s subsequent playoff success changed all that.
With one of the league’s best rosters in place, San Francisco could no longer afford to wait for Lance to develop.
Reaction from San Francisco 49ers
Late Friday, Niners general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan met with reporters to explain the team’s decision.
The biggest question that needed an answer: Why give up on Lance now — at age 23, still only halfway through his rookie contract?
“It’s a fair question and it’s something we talked a lot about internally,” Lynch responded. “Ultimately, with Brock being healthy, No. 1, and we’re excited about that, Sam being the No. 2, the reality it’s not the way everybody works it, but with our system, the No. 1 takes a lot of reps, the No. 2 takes the scout team reps. It’s just not a whole lot of opportunity.
“I heard Kyle talk about it, to get better, and that’s what he needs to do. He needs to play to get better. And I think that’s going to be his opportunity. Play, I mean, ideally games, but play is running scout team, play is doing all those things. We weren’t going to have that. And so how do you allow a player to grow?
“And so, back to what we put into him, we take, believe me, we take full accountability. We own that. As I said on TV today, I think his story is very much unwritten. I’ve got a lot of belief in the kid and think with his talent, with his work ethic he’s going to forge a nice career in this thing. And so, love the kid.
“Kyle and I, when we broke the news to him today saw him light up a little bit and he loves it here. He was very appreciative of the opportunity. Like Trey, typical Trey, he apologized to us and there was nothing for him to apologize for. And we’re happy that he’s got a spot. The Cowboys came up big and I think that’s an indication that they’re excited to have him and we’re excited for Trey’s new opportunity. And we’ll always be big fans.”
49ers’ GM John Lynch on trading QB Trey Lance to the Cowboys: pic.twitter.com/t6IL07FC55
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) August 26, 2023
Did Lance request a trade when he learned he wouldn’t be the backup?
“When Trey and I talked, we talked about all the situations going forward,” Shanahan replied. “I told him how much I’d still want him to here to be the three and things like that. I also told him that what I think is best for Trey. I do think Trey needs an opportunity to play more. The opportunities he’s had here, when he has had those two opportunities, he’s gotten hurt in both of them and kind of missed that window a little bit. Gave an opportunity for someone else to do it.
“That person did it and stayed healthy for those seven games and showed us something that we’re confident in. Trey kind of needs that again. He didn’t get that here. So, I told him that’s what I think is best for him, if he can find a good opportunity. If he doesn’t and he wants to be here, well we want him here. Trey took a little bit of time to think about it, but he came back and said he’d like to find another spot if we can. That’s when we started looking into it. His agent, us. That came to fruition today.”
Fantasy Fallout: Trey Lance Lands in Dallas
(Analysis by Kyle Yates) Lance might have a new home in Dallas, but his dynasty stock isn’t about to rise any time soon.
While Lance holds immense upside for fantasy football due to his rushing ability, he’s now going to be plastered behind Dan Prescott on the depth chart in The Big D. This almost certainly signals that Lance will not be seeing the field any time soon.
With Prescott not hitting free agency until 2025, Lance is certainly relegated now to a backup role for the foreseeable future. If he had landed with Atlanta or another team, he could’ve been given the opportunity to compete for a starting job. However, that is now no longer the case.
Unfortunately for Lance’s dynasty managers now, it looks like the athletic QB is going to have to wait for an injury above him on the depth chart to be considered for starting lineups in fantasy football.