What Cowboys saw in Trey Lance and what's next for the former 49ers QB

FRISCO, Texas -- More than two hours before kickoff Sunday at Levi’s Stadium, Trey Lance will be on the field, throwing passes to wide receivers, tight ends and running backs.

If the original plan had worked, he would be preparing to play against the Dallas Cowboys as the San Francisco 49ers’ starting quarterback. Lance, the No. 3 pick in the 2021 draft, would be on his way to becoming San Francisco’s next Joe Montana or Steve Young. Or at the very least Jeff Garcia or Jimmy Garoppolo.

Instead, he will be the Cowboys’ No. 3 quarterback -- eligible to play only if something happens to starter Dak Prescott and backup Cooper Rush -- throwing those pregame passes to some practice-squad players who make the trip.

That’s because six weeks ago the Niners traded Lance to the Cowboys, and now Lance is settling into his new life in Dallas.

“I always try to be present with my focus, so I feel like for me that helps the most,” Lance said. “I still talk to those [former teammates], keep in touch with them every once in a while. Some of my really good friends. But, yeah, definitely as far as a football standpoint, kind of turned the page and excited to be here.”

So, how did the Lance trade come together and what are the Cowboys’ plans for the quarterback going forward?

IN A THREE-DAY span in August, Lance’s world changed completely.

On Aug. 23, he was told by San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan that he would be the No. 3 quarterback behind Brock Purdy and Sam Darnold. The Niners said they wanted him to stay, but if he wanted a change of scenery, they would do their best to accommodate him.

The Niners characterized Lance as being “devastated” and encouraged him to take some time away.

Ninety minutes later, Lance returned to the SAP Performance Facility in Santa Clara, California, and requested a trade.

Two days later, he was a member of the Cowboys, acquired for a fourth-round pick in a deal that surprised even some in the Dallas organization. The Cowboys were not considered one of the top landing spots for Lance. An NFL front office source indicated the Buffalo Bills were a primary contender for Lance.

But the Cowboys had urgency in getting a deal done, per sources with direct knowledge of the negotiations. They made their best offer -- a fourth-round pick -- and did not want that to be used as trade leverage with other teams.

“I knew immediately when they said they might want to trade him that we wanted to not let them off the phone and get it done,” owner and general manager Jerry Jones told ESPN. “I didn’t have to go through any committee meetings. That’s the nature of our system around here is that I don’t have to talk to the owner, I don’t have to coax the general manager. I just do it.”

In April's draft, the Cowboys wanted to add a developmental quarterback. Among their targets was Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell, who went to the Las Vegas Raiders six picks after the Cowboys took defensive lineman Viliami Fehoko Jr. at No. 129 overall in the fourth round. They also had interest in Fresno State’s Jake Haener (No. 127, New Orleans Saints) and Houston’s Clayton Tune (No. 139, Arizona Cardinals).

In the Cowboys’ eyes, a fourth-round pick in 2024 for Lance was worth the cost. Sources said they had a second-round grade on Lance in 2021. In January 2020, Cowboys scouts were in attendance at Toyota Stadium just up the street from The Star in Frisco, Texas, when Lance led North Dakota State to the FCS national championship.

With the Niners, he had gained NFL experience, albeit limited (eight appearances, four starts), and was under contract through 2024. And he is only 23 years old.

“He was an outstanding prospect -- is an outstanding prospect -- as we see it. Philosophically, we would at all times like to have a young upcoming quarterback on the team,” Jones said. “This gave us a chance to do it. Every time we draft, we try to do this if we don’t have a young player in this spot. But it’s usually not available to us at this quality level that Lance is.”

THERE WAS AN off-field component Jones had to understand -- Lance’s health. Lance suffered a broken right index finger in a preseason game as a rookie in 2021 and had his 2022 season end with a fractured left fibula and “ligament disruption” in a Week 2 win against the Seattle Seahawks.

But Jones became confident Lance’s ankle injury was not an issue.

“I wanted to make sure that I knew the extent of the injury and how it might impact [Lance] going forward as a player,” Jones said.

What Jones did not worry about was Prescott’s psyche regarding the trade.

Prescott, the face of the team, was not told by Jones of the deal beforehand. The two did not speak about it until before the Aug. 26 preseason finale against the Las Vegas Raiders. After the game, Prescott was terse in meeting the media, but that was mostly to do with the disappointment that third-string quarterback Will Grier, with whom he had become close during the previous two years, was about to be released and would no longer be his teammate.

“I know that top quarterbacks, starting quarterbacks, really do want as good a talent behind them as they can,” Jones said. “They say, ‘Can you really say that with a straight face? Nobody wants a threat to their job.’

“OK. You don’t threaten Dak Prescott’s job in my mind at all. You can’t. Because he’s such a great leader, he’s established what he has done in his career. There’s no question, if healthy, we want him on the field trying to win football games for us.

“So that’s not an issue, either, and it’s a fact of life that you are better off as a team … the better backup quarterbacking you have because they do get hurt.”

The Cowboys are keenly aware of Prescott’s recent injury history: the ankle in 2020, a calf strain in 2021 and the broken thumb last season. The addition of Lance provides quarterback depth but not leverage in negotiations with Prescott, according to ownership.

“We want Dak here for the long term,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said of Prescott, who is signed through 2024.

IF THERE WAS a quarterback who it impacted more, it was Rush. He went 4-1 as the starter last season after Prescott went down with a broken right thumb in the season opener. In the offseason, the Cowboys signed him to a two-year deal worth $5 million and included a $1.25 million signing bonus. Now he’ll have competition.

The Cowboys assumed the final two years of Lance’s guaranteed rookie contract in the trade. He is making $940,000 this season and is guaranteed $5.31 million in 2024. The Cowboys will not exercise the fifth-year option next spring on Lance for 2025, since that would cost more than $25 million, but they could work out a short-term extension for him if they like what they see in practice this season and in next year’s preseason.

Another curious aspect of the trade was what Jerry Jones said about not speaking with coach Mike McCarthy. It was another sign that Jones operates independently at times, but sources with direct knowledge of the process said McCarthy knew the Cowboys had talks with the Niners before the trade was consummated.

“I got some information that Mike had said about [Lance] as far as refreshing what Mike had said about him in the draft,” Jones said. “I can read Mike’s comments on his evaluation of him in the draft, look at the combine, all of those kinds of things. So, no, I didn’t need to talk to him. Mike was busy.”

After quarterback Troy Aikman’s retirement following the 2001 season and the ascension of Tony Romo from undrafted free agent to Pro Bowler in 2006, the Cowboys went through Quincy Carter, Chad Hutchinson, Ryan Leaf, Clint Stoerner, Anthony Wright, Vinny Testaverde, Drew Henson and Drew Bledsoe as their starting quarterbacks.

As much as they lucked into Romo, they lucked into Prescott, a fourth-rounder himself (No. 135) in 2016. But Stephen Jones said the deal for Lance was not about their time in quarterback purgatory.

“It’s just, if you’re in this league long enough, and you see how important quarterbacks are,” Stephen Jones said. “You’ve got to have quarterbacks. They get hurt. Not that we think Dak’s going to be hurt or anything, but it does happen. We’ve seen it. You want to have opportunities to bring guys and have guys in here.

“And we all know what happens when they do work out, even if they’re not going to be here. People end up offering you a whole lot for them if they have to get on the field and play because of extenuating circumstances. Quarterbacks are hard to find, and they’re great resources to have.”

FOR THE PAST five weeks, Lance has been trying to play catch-up with the Cowboys, learning a new offense, new teammates and coaches and a new area to live. He is still at a local hotel, living out of suitcases. He hopes to find a place to live in the next few weeks, but for now, the equipment room has given him enough Cowboys gear to get by.

“It’s a long way from California, so got to get my stuff out here,” Lance said. “Hopefully, I’ll get settled soon.”

There are a few similarities between the Cowboys’ offense and what Shanahan runs in San Francisco, but Lance said footwork and drops are different. As the third quarterback, he is responsible for different parts of the game plan. In the first two weeks, he had to work up a report on defensive personnel. Once he gets more comfortable with the Dallas offense, he will have more specific duties on different aspects of it.

“Just really hunkered down on the language,” McCarthy said. “That’s always the biggest challenge for anybody coming in here, especially the quarterback, because he has to command it. He has to speak it. The fact that he’s getting to call plays in the huddle on top of taking the look-team reps is part of his process. He’s part of the quarterback school.

“He’s putting in the extra hours. He’s doing everything he’s supposed to be doing.”

During the week of practice, he has taken a handful of scout-team snaps and then takes part in his pregame routine, which he believes is helping his comfort level in learning a new offense.

“Just trying to catch up on reps, [knowing] the footwork and everything is different than what I’ve done in the past,” Lance said. “For me, as many reps as I can get at it -- without having OTAs and training camp and things I miss out on during the week -- it’s been good for me to get those reps before the game.”

It’s a far cry from where he was at the beginning of last season as San Francisco’s starter, but the Cowboys have liked what they have seen.

“He’s doing well,” McCarthy said. “I'm glad he's here, that's for sure. He's a great addition. He has a lot of potential -- looking forward to growing with him.”

ESPN 49ers reporter Nick Wagoner contributed to this story.