Editor's note: This piece was updated Friday night, after the 49ers traded Trey Lance to the Cowboys. It was originally published Friday morning at 6:30 a.m. ET.
The Trey Lance era in San Francisco is over before it even began. What felt like a dramatic declaration of intent from one of the league's best franchises in March 2021 ended meekly on a depth chart Wednesday and with a trade Friday. After the 49ers confirmed they intend to use Sam Darnold as the primary backup to second-year quarterback Brock Purdy, they dealt Lance to the Cowboys for a fourth-round pick.
In the course of 12 months and after playing just five competitive quarters of football, Lance went from being the team's quarterback of the future to a third-stringer, trade candidate and then off the roster. The trade that was supposed to signal San Francisco's future turned out to be one of the worst deals in recent memory.
Before we get to what happened with the trade, think for a moment about what has happened in Lance's life since he posted a nearly flawless 2019 season at North Dakota State. At 19 years old, he ran for 1,100 yards and threw 28 touchdown passes without a single interception, and the Bison went 16-0 to win the FCS national title. Even allowing for the level of play, it had to have been one of the most impressive redshirt freshman seasons in college football history.
What happened next is hard to believe. A global pandemic shut down the world and limited Lance to one game in 2020. He declared for the draft and was selected by the 49ers at No. 3 overall -- they gave up a huge haul to move up the board -- but a preseason injury to his right index finger prevented him from getting consistent reps in practice in 2021. He started two games as an injury fill-in for Jimmy Garoppolo, averaging 8.5 yards per attempt and running for 168 total yards. Given the QB1 job last season, Lance started Week 1 in near-unplayable mud in Chicago and then broke his right ankle in the first quarter of Week 2 against Seattle.
Now, after Purdy's emergence and a frustrating preseason, Lance's career with the 49ers is done. This a defensible move for the 49ers, who have Super Bowl aspirations and a quarterback who has proved himself to be a valuable contributor. Purdy, the final pick of the 2022 draft, excelled during the second half of the season in an offense that thrived attacking linebackers and safeties in coverage with the duo of Christian McCaffrey and George Kittle. Again, consider Lance's luck: McCaffrey was acquired after he was injured, and while Kittle played 15 games, the two games he missed were Lance's two starts.
How did Lance and the 49ers get here? What does the Lance draft miss say about San Francisco's future? And why did Dallas make a move for him? Let's dig into the ramifications of the trade:
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Wait, why did Dallas do this trade?
Did Lance actually get a fair shot?
Should it be a surprise that 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan turned back to the sort of quarterback archetype he's thrived with as a coach? Probably not, although it would have seemed shocking this time last year. Shanahan's best seasons as a playcaller have overwhelmingly come with pocket passers Matt Schaub, Kirk Cousins, Matt Ryan, Garoppolo and Purdy. The exception is Robert Griffin, and when Griffin got hurt and teams grew more familiar with the zone read and the Pistol, Washington faded and turned to Cousins.
I was fully onboard with the idea of drafting Lance, whose rushing ability gave Shanahan the final piece of his positionless football puzzle and gave the 49ers six eligible players on every snap who could run with the ball. Going with a cost-effective option at quarterback gave the 49ers the ability to spend heavily on playmakers around that signal-caller, and with the league developing more solutions to stop the outside zone-heavy scheme Shanahan had excelled with in previous years, Lance was going to be an essential piece of a more diverse run game that made the defense wrong regardless of how they lined up to match San Francisco's personnel.
We never really got there. The 49ers ran some of that in Lance's two starts as a rookie, but the only time we saw that version of the offense was in 2022, and he was injured by the first drive of Week 2. When he came back this preseason, San Francisco didn't call a single designed run for him, understandably preferring to keep him healthy and get him more reps as a passer.
Without the designed runs to play to Lance's physical tools, he was forced to rely on his ability as a pure passer. Unsurprisingly, the 49ers didn't love what they saw. His anticipation to see windows coming open didn't stand out. He wasn't confident or decisive. His decision-making was iffy at best, and his ball placement on a screen led to an interception. On the merits of his play as a passer, Lance was closer to No. 4 quarterback Brandon Allen than he was to Darnold.
That shouldn't be a big surprise. Lance has thrown 132 in-game passes over the past three seasons. He has thrown 420 competitive passes since high school, most of which came at the FCS level. He looks and plays like a quarterback who desperately needs reps. The 49ers, with Super Bowl aspirations, aren't in a position to sacrifice a season and give him those reps in the hopes that he develops into the player they were hoping to acquire in 2021. Purdy is better than Lance right now. Darnold looked better in the preseason, although the former Jets and Panthers passer has a well-established track record when the games count of getting overwhelmed when pressured or in a situation where he's trailing.
Can Lance play? It's clear we haven't seen enough of him on gameday to be sure. The implication from San Francisco's decision to put him behind Darnold is that he hadn't looked great at practice, but again, with what experience? Lance couldn't straighten his finger as a rookie because of the preseason injury, which impacted his mechanics and set him back as a passer. The 49ers were still confident enough to put Garoppolo on the trade block all spring and summer of 2022, only keeping Garoppolo after shoulder surgery eliminated the market for their veteran signal-caller. Lance then got injured two weeks into the regular season.
There is a big difference -- a potential franchise-altering difference -- between "Trey Lance can't play" and "Trey Lance hasn't had a chance to prove that he can play." It's pretty clear from what I've written that I believe the latter to be true. The former might turn out to be the case, but he doesn't have much hope of getting better without more opportunities to play than he has had since being drafted in 2021.
What does this say about the 49ers' recent draft history?
To take it back to the original Lance trade, it's impossible to cast it in hindsight as anything but one of the worst outcomes for a trade in recent NFL history. Antonio Brown didn't cost the Raiders as much when he was cut before ever playing a single down with the team. Russell Wilson was an upgrade on Drew Lock, at least. The Falcons got a first-round pick for Brett Favre. The Herschel Walker trade was an entirely different sort of deal, but the Lance trade turned out worse than the Jets' deal for Darnold, the Commanders sending multiple first-rounders for Robert Griffin or the Saints sending one entire draft for Ricky Williams.
I understand why the 49ers made the initial move, and I've laid out why what happened is a product of circumstance more than subpar decision-making. I also believe we need to evaluate trades including draft picks from two different perspectives, considering both the capital the team gave up separate from the players who the other team eventually used those picks to acquire. It's still good to trade a fifth-round pick for a second-round selection, even if the player who gets drafted in the second round ends up being disappointing.
Well, in every way, this deal was a disaster. The 49ers sent three first-round picks to move up from No. 12 in the 2021 draft, throwing in a third-round selection for good measure. Even given that the Niners were successful in 2021 and 2022 and sent over the 29th picks in consecutive drafts, this is an enormous amount of draft capital. By the draft chart derived from historical data by Chase Stuart, they sent the equivalent of the first and 19th overall picks in a typical draft to acquire Lance. A team can't make a trade like that unless it's adding a player at a premium position and is sure it's going to work out. It clearly didn't for the 49ers.
Now, add what happened with the picks the 49ers dealt away in the 2021 draft. The Dolphins moved down from No. 3 to No. 12, but then sent a first-round pick to the Eagles to move back up to No. 6. They drafted Jaylen Waddle. The Eagles moved up from No. 12 to No. 10 and took DeVonta Smith. And if you're going to be shortsighted and argue that the 49ers wouldn't have benefited from those players because they didn't need a wide receiver, Micah Parsons is the guy who came off the board in their original spot at No. 12.
Every other team won this deal. The Dolphins used their two first-round picks to serve as the majority of the draft capital in their trades for Tyreek Hill and Bradley Chubb. The Eagles used the other first-round pick as the majority of the trade to move up for Jordan Davis. The Cowboys landed arguably the best defensive player in football when the 49ers could have theoretically combined him with Nick Bosa, one of the other guys who has a claim as the league's best defender.
This isn't the first high pick the 49ers have missed on under the regime of Shanahan and general manager John Lynch, either. Lance is the most spectacular disappointment, but the first-round picks they have made have been a mixed bag at best. Of the seven players they've drafted in the first round, just two -- Bosa and Brandon Aiyuk -- will be starters on the 2023 roster. Lance is gone. Solomon Thomas has bounced around the league, Reuben Foster is out of football, Javon Kinlaw has disappointed and had his fifth-year option declined, and the 49ers didn't make a serious effort to re-sign Mike McGlinchey, who joined the Broncos on a massive deal in free agency.
Given where those players were drafted, the 49ers have underperformed in Round 1. Three (Lance, Thomas and Bosa) were drafted in the top three picks. About 71% of players drafted in the top three have their fifth-year option picked up under the post-2011 draft rules. The 49ers went 1-for-3. Bosa is a superstar, but the 49ers drafted Thomas at No. 3 when their starting quarterback was Brian Hoyer. They passed up the opportunity to draft either Deshaun Watson or Patrick Mahomes.
About 52% of players drafted in the top 10 from 2011-19 earned a second contract from the team that drafted them, got hit with a franchise tag or netted a significant haul via trade, as DeForest Buckner did for the 49ers. The Niners went 1-for-4 here. McGlinchey signed a significant contract with the Broncos, but teams don't let top-10 picks out the door on rookie deals if they live up to expectations. San Francisco will get a third-round compensatory pick for him, which helps soften the blow, but even the next tackle off the board was Kolton Miller, who has become a better player at a more difficult position (left tackle).
Why the Lance miss matters for the 49ers' past, present and future
I've seen the argument that this doesn't really matter because the 49ers have been extremely successful over the past two seasons and found gems in the later rounds of the draft. Landing players such as Talanoa Hufanga, Dre Greenlaw and Purdy on Day 3 of the draft is great. The idea that somehow that insulates or excuses a team from nailing its first-round picks is ridiculous. No team can count on hitting all of its picks, but the best organizations hit on late-round picks and on their fair share of first-rounders, too.
The only way we can say it doesn't matter is if the 49ers had won the Super Bowl. They've come close but haven't, which makes the failure of Lance and Thomas even more damaging than it would have been for an irrelevant team because of the championship leverage better picks in those spots could have swung. They might look like a dynasty right now if they had nailed those first-round picks and also hit on the other selections made in the later rounds. Instead, they're best-known for coming up just short during the Shanahan era.
In 2019, the 49ers advanced to the Super Bowl and were leading in the fourth quarter before coming up short. Would drafting Watson or Mahomes instead of Thomas (and trading for Garoppolo) have made the difference? Even if you want to insist on a pass-rusher, Thomas played 30% of the snaps in that game, and his only appearance on the stat sheet was a neutral zone infraction. Do the 49ers hold up in coverage if they draft, say, Marshon Lattimore or Marlon Humphrey with their first-round pick? Do they get an extra pressure or two in the fourth quarter if they draft Jonathan Allen instead of Thomas?
After an injury-hit 2020, the 49ers made it back to the NFC Championship Game in the 2021 and 2022 seasons, only to lose both times. In 2021, they had a 17-7 fourth-quarter lead on the Rams, failed to score on three possessions, dropped a gift of an interception from Matthew Stafford and allowed the Rams to score 13 unanswered points to steal the conference title. Garoppolo was already entrenched as their starting quarterback, but on a day in which the Niners sacked Stafford only twice on 47 dropbacks, couldn't Parsons have made the difference? Would another playmaker such as Smith or Waddle have stretched the Rams' secondary?
Then, in 2022, the 49ers were blown out by the Eagles after Purdy tore his UCL in the first quarter. Maybe it wasn't San Francisco's day. Of course, the only reason Purdy was playing was because Lance fractured his fibula in Week 2 and gave way to Garoppolo, who subsequently broke his foot in December. We don't know what the 49ers would have done at quarterback without Lance in the picture, but if they had stayed put and drafted Mac Jones, who was still on the board at their original pick at No. 12, maybe they wouldn't have had to rely on their fourth-string quarterback against the league's fiercest pass rush.
Those examples fail to consider what those draft picks would have done in the years to come. Those 2021, 2022 and 2023 first-round picks are players who project to be key components of their respective rosters. It's great to hope a team can land stars with midround picks year after year to replace those first-rounders, but even with extra compensatory picks, we have too many examples from across the league telling us it won't be able to pull that off for too long. The 49ers will have to deal with lesser players in those roles in the years to come and/or make low-probability moves in free agency.
Alternatively, they could have used those picks to land their own veterans such as Chubb or Hill; they fell even further behind the eight-ball when they traded three picks to land McCaffrey in a deal with the Panthers last season. First-round picks aren't a guarantee a team will land anything, but they're the best chance of landing the superstars it will need to win a Super Bowl. The 49ers have already felt the impact of missing out on those picks, and that gap will only be even more noticeable in 2023 and beyond.
All of these hypotheticals involve the benefit of hindsight, so it isn't designed to criticize the choices San Francisco made at the time. It's instead to point out just how disappointing those picks have been and how damaging its failure has been, even given everything else that's gone right over that stretch. We could very easily be looking at a team with a Super Bowl victory and at least one more trip to the big game with better picks in the top five.
Landing on Purdy gives the 49ers hope for the future and a low-cost quarterback for the next two seasons, but what happens if he doesn't have the ceiling the 49ers envisioned with Lance? What if he takes a step backward this season? What if the 49ers don't make it back to the Super Bowl with this core? Two things are true: They have gotten a lot right, but they might have accomplished all of their goals if their biggest swings had connected.
Wait, why did the Cowboys trade for Lance?
Editor's note: This section was written after Lance's trade to the Cowboys on Friday night.
Lance going to the Cowboys is not a great move for the quarterback, who won't have an immediate role with the offense. It seems plausible they could use him in a specialized package or as their designated "tush push" quarterback on fourth down, though. It doesn't seem likely that he will get the reps he needs anytime soon.
The natural question, of course, is whether the Cowboys see Lance as a low-cost flier or as a long-term replacement for their starting quarterback. Dak Prescott has two years and $35.7 million remaining on his existing contract. Adding Lance gives the Cowboys theoretical leverage in negotiations with their 30-year-old incumbent. Lance's two-year deal has $6.3 million remaining, lining up their deals to both expire after the 2024 season.
Realistically, the time for negotiating with Prescott will be next offseason, as he will be entering the final year of his deal and already has been franchise-tagged once. It's difficult to see a scenario in which Lance makes such an immediate impact that the Cowboys feel comfortable moving on from Prescott after 2023, especially given the fact that Lance won't have a full training camp or offseason program to work inside the Dallas system.
It's also difficult to imagine Lance will be a great fit for Mike McCarthy and Brian Schottenheimer, who now oversee the Dallas offense after the Cowboys fired Kellen Moore in January. The sort of designed quarterback run game Shanahan briefly installed for Lance in 2022 is the specialized, modern offense we didn't see from McCarthy during his time in Green Bay. The Cowboys ran a more 21st-century attack under Moore, but it remains to be seen whether McCarthy will prefer a more traditional West Coast attack.
In the big picture, this move seems to consign Lance into a backup role, only allowing him regular reps before 2025 if Prescott were to get injured or (more shockingly) traded before the end of his deal. It's a reasonable risk for the Cowboys given the modest cost and a surprise that teams without a path to their quarterback of the future, like the Vikings and Buccaneers, didn't offer more.
Lance's trade value
Editor's note: The sections below were published Friday morning, before Lance was traded to the Cowboys and when Lance was still on the 49ers roster. They were not updated after the deal was made.
Again, Lance is still only 23 years old. He's nearly a year younger than Will Levis, who was just drafted by the Titans. He's younger than Joe Burrow was when Burrow made his NFL debut. He's a half-year younger than Baker Mayfield when Mayfield debuted and nearly two years younger than Kenny Pickett. Those guys had far more college reps when they entered the league. Lance still has time to catch up if he gets an opportunity elsewhere.
Where would that opportunity come? Lance doesn't have much trade value. He's owed $940,000 for the remainder of 2023 and $5.3 million in 2024, all of which is guaranteed. Any team acquiring him would also have the ability to decide on a fifth-year option for 2025, although it's unlikely to be exercised unless he gets significant playing time and exceeds everyone's expectations this season. Given that the 49ers have little leverage in a market in which every team knows they want to move on from him, it would be a surprise if they landed more than a midround pick in return.
Money won't be an issue in acquiring Lance, but opportunity will be. Any team trading for him will want to give him real-life reps in meaningful game action to see whether they actually have a superstar quarterback in the making. Installing the sort of quarterback run game that would play to Lance's physical traits is extremely tough to do in-season, so that might have to wait until 2024, leaving him to rely mostly on his pure passing ability this season.
Getting him those reps might compromise the team's competitiveness, so it could make sense for teams to see how they're performing early in the season before trading for him and committing to giving him time in the second half of the season. If that's the case, a trade could be more likely around the trade deadline as opposed to mid-August.
Seven teams that fit for Lance
Nearly a quarter of the league should be giving some semblance of consideration to a Lance trade at one cost or another. You can split those teams up into two tiers. There are three teams that should actively be pursuing a deal:
Minnesota Vikings: They have a blank slate staring them in the face at quarterback. Kirk Cousins is 35 and a free agent after this season. Minnesota used a fifth-round pick on Jaren Hall in April's draft, but it would be a major surprise if it moved forward with Hall as the starter in 2024. Trading for Lance would give the Vikings their first post-Cousins candidate on offense, and if they do fall out of the playoff race this season, Lance could start seeing snaps in December. They're the best candidate of the bunch.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Baker Mayfield just beat out Kyle Trask to be their starter. Mayfield was the league's worst quarterback last season, while Trask has thrown nine regular-season passes since being drafted in Round 2 in 2021. The Bucs will likely be in the quarterback market next offseason, so trading for Lance would give them an option to consider at the end of 2023 and into 2024.
Atlanta Falcons: They are full steam ahead with Desmond Ridder, but the 2022 third-rounder averaged 6.2 yards per attempt in his first four starts last season. He deserves time to figure things out and will get it as Atlanta's Week 1 starter, but the Falcons spent heavily on their defense and have too much talent on offense to settle in a wide-open NFC South. Adding Lance would allow coach Arthur Smith to integrate the quarterback into the team's rushing attack, as he did with Marcus Mariota a year ago. This might be more likely to happen around Halloween if Ridder struggles through an uneven September and October.
In the second tier, there are four teams that might consider moving for Lance as a backup or emergency option at the right price. (I'd add the Rams if the 49ers were willing to deal Lance within the division.) Lance wouldn't have a clear path to starting if any of these teams acquired him, though. Those teams are:
Tennessee Titans: They have a former 49ers executive on staff in Ran Carthon, who took over as Tennessee's general manager this offseason. Like the Vikings, the Titans have a veteran quarterback entering the final year of his deal in Ryan Tannehill. Unlike Minnesota, though, Tennessee has a pair of top-100 picks behind Tannehill -- 2022 third-rounder Malik Willis and 2023 second-rounder Will Levis. It would be a surprise if they added Lance to the mix, but the best way to find a franchise quarterback might be to have as many prospects as possible.
Miami Dolphins: They are committed to Tua Tagovailoa through 2024, but he has missed time in each of his three seasons with injuries, most recently a series of frightening concussions a year ago. If Tagovailoa suffers a career-impacting injury, the Dolphins don't have a long-term replacement on the roster. Lance would be reunited in Miami with former 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel, who could reimagine his offense with Lance's skill set.
Denver Broncos: They are really, really hoping Sean Payton can turn Russell Wilson around in 2023. If not, while Wilson might not be cuttable before 2025, they'll want serious competition for the veteran quarterback in 2024. Jarrett Stidham is on the roster as Wilson's backup, but Payton has been interested in taking a chance on a high-upside quarterback before; remember that he and the Saints were planning to draft Mahomes before the Chiefs beat them to the punch.
Kansas City Chiefs: Of course, they don't need a quarterback any time soon with Mahomes there. Blaine Gabbert is the primary backup behind the reigning MVP, but with the league's foremost quarterback whisperer in Andy Reid, could Kansas City rebuild Lance and make him some combination of a high-end backup and future trade chip? It seems wild, but ask the 49ers if they regret trading for Steve Young when they had Joe Montana under center. Reid, Mike Holmgren and the other coaches from that tree have repeatedly valued having a promising signal-caller playing behind their starter, either for trade purposes or in case of injury. Reid isn't going to get a chance to add a higher-upside quarterback at a cheaper cost (in terms of cash or draft capital) than Lance.