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The Unraveling Trey Lance Experiment: Lessons in High-Ceiling Quarterback Gambles

The 49ers have moved on from their 2021 pick and in the process have brought into question the methodology of taking players based solely upon upside

This week the San Francisco 49ers did what many pundits and fans anticipated that they would do months ago and traded former #3 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft Trey Lance. The 49ers traded three first-round draft picks to jump up to the third pick and draft Lance, and now they have dealt him to Dallas for a fourth round pick. From an asset management perspective alone, this is a disaster for the 49ers, with their only saving grace being that they seemed to have struck gold with the last pick in last year's draft and found their quarterback of the future in Brock Purdy.

The failure of the Trey Lance experiment in San Francisco has a lot of layers to it. Lance was a raw prospect out of North Dakota State, having only played one full season since the COVID-19 pandemic limited his last season to one game. With a completion percentage under 60% and coming from a smaller school, there were a fair share of doubts about Lance, and it seems those were proven to be correct at least so far. On top of that, Lance dealt with injury, benching, and general head scratching usage from the 49ers coaching staff at times. With the Lance pick, the 49ers, a team only one season removed from a Super Bowl appearance at the time, decided to bet on upside. And in the process, they failed spectacularly and brought into question whether perceived upside is everything it is cracked up to be in the world of scouting professional football players.

A Most Unfortunate Sequence of Events

Let’s go back to 2019 for a moment. Trey Lance is on top of the world. He is the starting quarterback for the North Dakota State Bison football program that is in the midst of a dynastic run. That year the Bison went undefeated en route to their 8th FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) title in 9 years. Lance in this season was magnificent, throwing for nearly 2800 yards and rushing for another 1100 while totaling 42 touchdowns. He was shaping up to be a tremendous prospect. Then the following season was cut short by a global pandemic and he missed the entire season before declaring for the NFL Draft. In every sense of the term, Lance was a bit of a mystery box.

Heading into the draft, there were comparisons made between Lance and elite players like Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen due to his tremendous running ability. But as many scouts also noted in evaluating him, he was prone to default to running too quickly and lacked the field vision and awareness to read defenses at the next level. Despite favorable attributes like elite athleticism and arm strength, size was a bit of a concern for Lance and many talent evaluators were unsure of what he would be as a professional.

The 49ers were in a bit of a bind entering the 2021 draft. In 2017 they acquired quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo from the New England Patriots for a second round pick. Garoppolo was supposed to be the missing piece, the player that they could insert into the lineup and finally contend for a Super Bowl. And Garoppolo did that when he played, going 38-17 as a starter in San Francisco. The issue was always his durability as he missed 10 games with injury in 2020. So the 49ers thought it was time to draft a replacement for Jimmy since it became evident that he was not reliable enough.

They decided that this player was Lance, opting for the North Dakota State product as opposed to a more well known commodity in Ohio State’s Justin Fields, who was drafted by Chicago at 11 and has gone on to record the second highest rushing yardage total in a season by a quarterback in NFL history. The curiosity in taking Lance is that the 49ers had a loaded roster, one that was ready to make a deep run in the playoffs, and to decide on a player that was very clearly a project at the game's most important position is curious to say the least. As one might expect, Lance had a short leash from coach Kyle Shanahan and his staff.

That combined with injury led to Lance only attempting 102 passes over two seasons, where he only started in 4 total games. The 49ers and others expressed concerns over Lance’s inability to adapt to the NFL game, specifically around his inconsistency in the short passing game. Despite that it seemed that the 49ers might have been willing to develop him for another year. This all changed when Garoppolo went down again and unknown 7th round draft pick Brock Purdy entered the spotlight and led the team to a 5-0 record to end the regular season. With Purdy now entrenched as the answer at quarterback, it was time to pull the plug on Lance, ending what might go down in history as one of the worst draft compensation trades in recent memory.

The Intoxication of the Ceiling

We hear the term “high ceiling” a lot around draft time in both the NBA and NFL. Much like a stock on Wall Street, talent evaluators are projecting what a player may turn into as opposed to what he is today. This is why in the NBA a player that played one season in college but has showcased great athleticism and measurables will go higher in a draft than someone that played in college for a few years. The younger player is the tantalizing allure of what could be whereas the older player is the more boring commodity of expected return. In the NFL, we see this as well, but it is usually around a few positions such as edge rushers, wide receivers, and of course quarterbacks.

Trey Lance was everything that high ceiling people salivate over. He had decent size at 6 '4”, showcased tremendous mobility with a 4.5 second 40-yard dash time, and had enough arm strength to show that he could deliver balls down the field. The rationale becomes that if he can adapt to the speed upgrade from the FCS to the NFL and develop his accuracy, we could be looking at the next Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen. The issue is that those are two massive “what-ifs” that are far from guaranteed to come true. In a certain sense, these types of players are lottery picks in every sense of the word.

The irony is that the 49ers ended up with what they needed all along: a game manager capable of keeping the ball secure and getting the ball to playmakers in space. But there is an allure to the project player that can become an all-time great. It is much less appealing to get a consistently good player. In the end, the writing was on the wall as soon as Purdy went 5-0 to close the regular season and showed himself to be capable in the playoffs before suffering an elbow injury.

It was time for the 49ers to move on from Trey Lance, and in the Dallas Cowboys they have a willing trade partner. The Cowboys are entering this season with the looming possibility of Dak Prescott getting a massive pay-day in 2024 that might hamstring their cap space. But they can cut bait after this season if they so choose to do so, and now they have a former high draft pick that can be used as a sort of fallback plan if they cannot come to a contract extension agreement with Prescott. For Lance, Dallas gives him a new start to jumpstart a career that never got off the ground in San Francisco. Whether that is as a starting quarterback or as a competent backup remains unclear, but he is in a position to make something of his career before it is all said and done.

Future Evaluations

The crashing and burning of the Trey Lance experiment in San Francisco has led many to wonder if project quarterbacks like this will continue to warrant a high first round pick. This past draft we saw another player in Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson taken with the fourth overall pick to the Indianapolis Colts. Richardson, like Lance, had one year of taking snaps in college and showcased tremendous arm talent and mobility. His selection shows that NFL teams and scouting departments will always be enamored by what could be.

This is because every team has faith in their program, that they will not make the same mistakes as other teams. A faith that with the right amount of coaching and good process they can mold these players into elite quarterbacks. Beyond that, there is pressure to get the quarterback right, otherwise an entire front office could be in jeopardy. There is a fine line that needs to be walked in between high potential and winning immediately that must be calculated before any of these selections.

The flop of Trey Lance will not stop anyone from selecting a raw quarterback prospect from being taken, but perhaps it should make teams think twice. When it comes to arguably the most important position in professional sports, every possible outcome needs to be considered. Ultimately, a team needs to prioritize what works for them in the context of who they are as a team at that moment. The 49ers and Chicago Bears in the 2021 draft were two teams looking at two very different futures. While San Francisco was looking to compete for championships, Chicago was looking to rebuild back towards respectability. This is one of the reasons why Justin Fields will be starting for the Bears this season and why Trey Lance is now in Dallas. Where you land matters and unfortunately, Trey Lance landed in the wrong place.

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