But when the Niners traded that selection, along with two future first-round choices and a third-round pick in 2022, to the Miami Dolphins on March 26, the safe play walked out the door. The 49ers let the world know that they were willing to take a risk to get their franchise quarterback.
In the month that followed, the Niners were regularly connected to Alabama's Mac Jones, the quarterback widely considered to have the highest floor but the lowest ceiling. It's a move that wouldn't have matched the risk of trading up to No. 3 -- equivalent to stepping into the batter's box and simply looking to make solid contact after pulling your cleanup hitter.
As it turned out, the 49ers never had any intention of doing anything but swinging for the fences.
They mortgaged a big chunk of their future in order to take the biggest hack possible, landing on North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance. The process began in January when coach Kyle Shanahan began falling for Lance after watching tape that he then shared with general manager John Lynch. Then Lynch stayed up watching that tape until 2:30 in the morning the same day. By the time Lynch and Shanahan went to Lance's second pro day earlier this month, the Niners' two primary decision-makers were smitten.
Welcome to the Trey Area.
"We were blown away by the person, the aptitude and the way he carries himself," Lynch said.
The book on Lance all through the pre-draft process was that he was the anti-Jones, bringing with him the highest ceiling but possibly the lowest floor.
Lance had just 17 college starts and 318 college pass attempts. All of those came at the FCS level. In addition, there are questions about his accuracy and some footwork issues that need to be cleaned up. Those are the things that make him a bit of a risk.
But for every potential question, there seemed to be multiple answers to wipe it away. At 6-foot-4, 226 pounds, Lance cuts an imposing, physical presence. Multiple analysts say Lance also brings one of the strongest arms in the draft, not to mention the type of running ability that led to 1,100 yards in 2019.
Lance's intangibles might have been the most valuable asset of all.
"When you watch the film, you see such a true quarterback in every aspect of how he plays," Shanahan said. "Then you meet him and you're like, 'Man, this guy doesn't have to be a quarterback. He can go be a CEO of some company.' That's a huge compliment. It's a very impressive thing to watch the skill set he has, just how intelligent he is, how he handles himself. Then to know how he relates to all his teammates, just going up there and watching how his teammates talk about him, how they gravitate around him, watching some of them interviewed on TV. You can tell he's going to impress a football team. He'd also impress a company. He's going to be impressive in whatever he's in."
Throughout history, quarterbacks drafted from the top three haven't exactly worked out, at least not when it comes to winning Super Bowls. The 49ers' situation, though, is uniquely set up to help a talented but inexperienced quarterback reach his lofty potential.
Before Thursday, no quarterback had ever been drafted higher than No. 25 to a team just one full season removed from a Super Bowl. That Lance is joining a team with a loaded roster, a talented coaching staff and an innovative offensive scheme is the precise reason the Niners were the ideal team to take him.
No franchise is better equipped to help Lance reach his potential and no prospect is better equipped to take advantage of the resources at his disposal and possibly even elevate Shanahan's offense to previously unseen places.
"I don't think I could have been in a better situation," Lance said. "I'm super excited to get there and learn."
Make no mistake: Lance isn't nearly as far away from playing as his lack of experience might lead you to believe, either. North Dakota State put a lot on Lance's plate, asking him to spit out lengthy terminology in the huddle, handle NFL-style play-action dropbacks from under center and call protections at the line of scrimmage. Lance handled all of that even as a redshirt freshman, and though he will still have a big transition to the NFL, those things should all help make it a bit easier.
And if he's not ready to go any time soon? The expectation remains that incumbent starter Jimmy Garoppolo will be back, especially after many quarterback-needy teams drafted or traded for other quarterbacks this week. That doesn't mean Lance won't start or play at all in 2021. But the Niners now have the option to follow the example of the 2017 Kansas City Chiefs, who allowed rookie quarterback Patrick Mahomes to learn behind Alex Smith before playing in a meaningless Week 16 game after the Chiefs had clinched a playoff spot.
Shanahan said he would be "excited" if Lance was "ready" to play, but nobody has to rush into anything.
"We know where Jimmy's at," Shanahan said. "[Lance] hasn't played football in a year. He hasn't been to an OTA. I'd love to get him out here; it'd be very hard for me to picture a situation where Jimmy's not here on Sunday. Because that would be, I think, very stressful for us, because Jimmy's a very good player and I think we can win with him. So we'll play that by ear, but I expect Jimmy to be here and I'd be surprised if he wasn't."