For Trey Lance and the San Francisco 49ers, it's time

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- With quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in offseason limbo, the keys to the San Francisco 49ers haven't officially been handed to Trey Lance. But all signs point to that happening soon enough.

Which means everything the Niners do the rest of this offseason will center on making sure Lance's new ride is washed, waxed and firing on all cylinders when he turns on the engine. That's true regardless of what comes next for Garoppolo.

"That's why we looked into trading Jimmy because we obviously believe that Trey can be a starter and we’re ready to do that," Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said. "We brought Trey here to be that eventually, and I think that will be sooner than later."

The question most asked about Lance as he prepares to step into the starting job is simultaneously simple and complicated: Is he ready? The honest answer right now is, "No one knows," but the 49ers have seen enough to be ready to give him the opportunity.

Lance and the Niners don't need to actually be ready until September. That means there's plenty of time for Lance to fine tune his throwing mechanics, immerse himself in Shanahan's playbook, get to know new quarterbacks coach Brian Griese and build rapport with teammates.

Despite persistent rumors about the Niners chasing other big-name quarterbacks, this is now Lance's team. And while many outside observers believe Lance's inability to surpass Garoppolo reflected poorly on how the team viewed him, that wasn't the case. Shanahan and general manager John Lynch said from the moment they traded for the No. 3 pick in the 2021 NFL draft the plan was to pick a quarterback and keep Garoppolo. For better or worse, the Niners stuck to that plan.

While they never explicitly said it, the Niners went about their 2021 quarterback situation like the Kansas City Chiefs did in 2017, with Garoppolo in the veteran caretaker role played by Alex Smith and Lance in the young and talented but must wait his turn position held by Patrick Mahomes.

Essentially, the Niners operated on two paths with the same goal. Win a Super Bowl but get Lance ready to lead them to many more in the future. It didn't quite work out that way, but San Francisco did reach the NFC Championship Game and Lance offered glimpses of potential during two starts, one against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 5 and another in Week 17 against the Houston Texans.

"I think that he's awesomely raw," former 49ers quarterback Steve Young said. "And emphasis on both of the words. ... That's what hit me was how little he's played. He's not starting from zero but if he's at a 2 and he's going to get to a 10, we are going to watch all of that. We're going to participate in that. He's going to grow from very raw and an awesomely raw talent and we're going to watch it get shined up. I think that process has started."

Indeed, the Niners viewed Lance's progress at every benchmark of his rookie season as significant. They were pleased with how he developed last summer and came back for training camp with a better-than-expected recall of the offense. He played well enough during camp that he began to get reps with the first-team offense before a fractured finger in the preseason finale.

During his first start against Arizona, Lance completed 15 of 29 passes for 192 yards with no touchdowns and an interception while rushing 16 times for 89 yards. He relied too heavily on his legs to bail him out that day and sprained his left knee, a setback that took a few weeks to recover from. By the time he was back at full speed, Garoppolo and the Niners were rolling.

Behind the scenes, however, Lance began to settle in. In some honest moments, linebacker Fred Warner challenged Lance to take chances as the scout-team quarterback, making throws that opposing offenses would make in games, not taking the quick, safe option.

Soon enough, Lance was taking those chances and having success when he did. By late November, teammates and coaches, both on and off the record, were raving about the progress he'd made, even if it wasn't visible to anyone on the outside.

"I learned a lot on scout team," Lance said. "Being able to play as and emulate different guys and playing styles that aren't necessarily my own. I think I gained a lot from it. ... I think I developed as a player."

As Garoppolo nursed a torn ligament in his right thumb late in the season, Lance got the call to start a must-win game against the Texans on Jan. 2. He started slow but as the game went on, Lance's practice-field progress became evident.

From the first half to the second, Young noted that he could see Lance "metering" his throws based on how fast the game and the linebackers were and how big the field was. Shanahan saw Lance improve operating from the pocket, noting he'd never done a seven-step drop but was handling that staple of San Francisco's play-action concepts more comfortably.

Lance completed 16 of 23 passes for 249 yards with two touchdowns and an interception that day, giving him a passer rating of 116.0 as the Niners beat Houston 23-7. Smith, no stranger to the pressures of being the highly-selected 49ers franchise quarterback, noticed.

"I loved the progression," Smith said. "To see the progression from his first start where I really felt like he wasn't going through his progressions, relying too much on his feet, really trying to force things and then the second game, over the course of that game to watch him settle into the pocket and not trying to do too much.

"I remember being a young player and really trying to force things and what a bad place that is to get to that. When you can just think of yourself as the facilitator of the offense, especially with a playcaller like Kyle, who is going to dial it up for you from time to time and just letting those big plays come to you. I really feel like I saw that growth.

"I think this has been, hopefully, an invaluable experience for him as he starts his career."

It can be easy to forget that Lance is still only 21 years old. Unlike most other quarterbacks in last year's rookie class, he will step into a situation in which wins are expected right away.

Lance's offseason has included working out in Southern California alongside teammates such as quarterback Nate Sudfeld and wideout Brandon Aiyuk. John Beck, the personal quarterback coach who worked with Lance before last year's draft, is again providing guidance. Lance and Shanahan talk "all the time," according to Shanahan.

When the Niners re-convene for the offseason program in April, Lance will get all of the reps with the starters. Ready or not, Lance's time is coming.

"I have no doubt in my mind that he is a generational talent," left tackle Trent Williams said. "And now it's just putting that talent with the work ethic and making it come together on Sundays."