SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- In the seven years since coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch took over the San Francisco 49ers, there has only been one constant when it comes to their quarterbacks: change.
It's why, aside from a relatively calm 2019 run to the Super Bowl with Jimmy Garoppolo, there has been near-constant discussion of the most high-profile job in sports. This offseason proved no different. Now that the Niners are through training camp, the exhibition schedule and a big trade, it's a good time to look at where things stand for the Niners at the game's most important position.
Who is the 49ers' starting QB?
Brock Purdy. This was only in doubt if Purdy's surgically repaired right elbow did not respond appropriately. Alas, Purdy was cleared to practice on a pitch count before camp, fully cleared a couple weeks later and has taken all of the starting reps since. This is his job.
What does the QB depth chart look like?
Purdy, Sam Darnold, Brandon Allen. Darnold beat out Trey Lance for the No. 2 job behind Purdy, which led to Lance being sent to the Dallas Cowboys for a 2024 fourth-round pick two days later. The Niners also kept Allen, the former backup for the Cincinnati Bengals.
Why did the Niners deal Lance?
There are a lot of layers to how Lance's time in San Francisco played out. When the Niners drafted him in 2021, they knew it might take some time for him to develop, which is why he sat behind Garoppolo as a rookie. But Lance never got much of an opportunity, largely because of right index finger and right ankle injuries suffered in 2021 and 2022, respectively.
Those ailments sent the Niners and Lance on opposite tracks, with the team in win-now mode and Lance still trying to settle in. In the meantime, San Francisco found an alternative in the spot you'd least expect: the last pick in the 2022 NFL draft.
With Lance and Garoppolo out last season, Purdy emerged over the final eight games (including playoffs), leading the Niners to seven wins before tearing his ulnar collateral ligament in the NFC Championship Game. Purdy showed enough to become the starter, which moved Lance one spot down the depth chart. Because the Niners were unsure about the health of the position, they signed Darnold in March, which led to a battle between Lance and Darnold for the No. 2 job.
After Darnold emerged victorious as QB2, Lance requested a trade. Shanahan and Lynch said multiple times they would've liked Lance to remain as the third option. Lynch even went so far as to say that was the "most likely" scenario, but that was based on how little the team had been offered for Lance.
When Dallas stepped forward with a fourth-round choice, the Niners granted Lance's request, cementing the trade up for him (they gave up three first-round picks and a third-round selection) as one of the biggest mistakes in franchise history.
"Obviously we took our shot and it didn't work out," Shanahan said. "That's on us for that. But I'm not going to say anything as in failure. That'd be too much of a negative towards Trey. I get our deal. We took a shot to go for that. We were hoping that he could be our guy and that didn't work out. So, I understand that from our standpoint. But I still do believe in Trey."
What kind of fallout will the Niners face for trading Lance?
After the trade, Lynch said Lance's story is still unwritten. The same is true for how this will play out for San Francisco.
Thus far, the Niners have managed to overcome whiffing on Lance, advancing to the past two NFC Championship Games. But they have missed out on other potential picks that could have pushed them over the top. Also, their roster depth has taken a hit because of free agent departures and those traded-away selections could have helped in that regard.
If Purdy continues to succeed and the Niners keep winning, all will be well, but there's no getting away from the additional scrutiny Lynch and Shanahan will face due to Lance not working out. It will increase if Lance succeeds elsewhere.
"Back to what we put into him, believe me, we take full accountability," Lynch said. "We own that ... 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."
Where does Allen fit?
The signing of Allen flew under the radar, but he made a good first impression in the offseason program with how quickly he picked up the offense. Even as Lance and Darnold were competing for the No. 2 job, there were signs that the 49ers felt comfortable with Allen as the No. 3 if a deal for Lance could come together.
Even after the Niners dealt Lance, Allen, who is entering his eighth NFL season, said part of being a backup in the league is staying even-keeled.
"I don’t think my mindset has changed at all since the day I got here to now," Allen said. "I’ve always just wanted to do the best I could with what I got."
What's the 49ers' long-term QB plan?
Based on their recent history, the Niners would probably laugh at the idea of a long-term plan. Darnold and Allen will be unrestricted free agents after the season. Purdy is not eligible for a contract extension until after the 2024 season and has cap numbers of $889,253 in 2023 and $1,004,253 in 2024.
That means the Niners have just over $1 million committed to the position for 2024. That is going to have to change, but that's a discussion for a later day.
Of more importance is trying to finally find some sense of quarterback stability. In San Francisco's ideal world, Purdy will stay healthy and produce at or better than the level he did down the stretch last season, which would cement him as the starter for 2024 and beyond.
And if he doesn't, well, Kirk Cousins is scheduled for unrestricted free agency and the offseason quarterback questions in San Francisco will persist.