All offseason long the 49ers implied that the Trey Lance era was underway, and it is now clear any questions suggesting otherwise would put to rest.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters on Tuesday that San Francisco moved onto Lance as the starter. Lance made brief appearances in his rookie season when Jimmy Garoppolo could not start, keeping them in the playoff hunt during Week 17 with a win over the Texans.
Some showed annoyance that the 49ers did not keep Lance in the starting role, but in the middle of a playoff race it’s understandable why Shanahan did not want to put more pressure on his rookie QB.
But now that time has come, and regardless if Garoppolo heals up in time, the message has been made clear: This is Lance’s team now. The 49ers are willing to take a huge risk to get a huge reward.
Previous 49ers backup quarterbacks Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard offered lower floors than Garoppolo, but the 49ers offense felt more expansive with Lance in the game. In particular the offensive felt more effective throwing down the field.
Deep Passing Comparison
The above table comes from the charting I’ve done for the 2021-22 Deep Ball Project, a study where I take a look at the accuracy of a quarterback on throws of 21+ air yards or more regardless if the ball is caught or not.
Lance has a far lower sample size than Garoppolo down the field, but also more attempts per game (3.0 vs. Garoppolo’s 1.56). He also has a higher Accuracy Percentage, as many touchdowns, and no interceptions to boot.
According to Pro Football Reference, Lance also came out on top in intended air yards: He finished with an average depth of target (aDOT) of 9.3 compared to Garoppolo’s 7.5 aDOT. For another take on the matter, let’s turn to Next Gen Stats.
Whether you look at PFR or NGS, Lance has a much higher aDOT than Garoppolo. In addition to a higher deep completion percentage, Lance holds onto the ball longer (which can be good and bad), and is light years more elusive than the longtime veteran.
Now that we’ve dealt with the numbers behind Lance’s limited rookie season, what about the tape? Most quarterbacks with his sample size are normally not asked to do much as rookies, even less so in a resume worth three games.
Yet somehow I feel that Lance has shown enough. Going through his tape, I discovered a surprising number of plays I found impressive, ones that held as a foundation for his skill set. For more on that, let’s dive into the tape to see what the trust could very well be worth it.
Keep in mind the clip above is from Lance’s very first appearance as an NFL quarterback. One reason to be impressed from his brief comes from brilliance flashes of high quality vision.
Any Shanahan offense loves to throw around play action bootlegs as is the case here. Lance doesn’t like what he sees in the flat, and with the blindside edge rusher hot on his trail, he stops on a dime, cuts inside, and finds the shallow crosser.
Lance does this keeping his eyes up, and thanks to a smooth combination of poise and athleticism, he’s able to quickly execute out of structure thanks to a sharp mind.
A quarterback with an arm as magnificent as Lance’s can be mistaken as a gunslinger, someone that quite literally throws caution to the wind. But his tape also shows a quarterback unafraid of taking what defenses give him underneath.
Again Lance is faced with edge pressure, having to step up to avoid the sack. He notices the shallow crosser, stops, moves towards said crosser, and safely gets the ball off.
These aren’t always the most exciting plays, but they showcase a quarterback who doesn’t always have to play hero ball in order to move the chains. With Shanahan calling the shots, he’s had a great teacher to help advance his pocket play.
Here’s terrific example of throwing a receiver open. It appears Lance slightly adjusts his eyes at the release, as the lineman dropping back doesn’t process it in time.
Whatever the case, the throw is perfect, dropped or caught.
Garoppolo often received complaints that he never anticipated openings, leading to a frustrating amount of plays on the field. We’ll see if Lance can improve on that, but I like what I see from this throw.
Pocket Movement and Creativity
As expected, Lance’s pocket movement often aligns with his creativity outside of structure.
From his own end zone, Lance admittedly leaves the pocket too early rolling out to his left, but he at least sees his error and keeps his eyes up. His eyes stay up even as his initial read isn’t there, and he fires to Brandon Aiyuk down the sideline for the first down.
A play like this may cause 49ers fans to experience flashbacks of Garoppolo taking an unnecessary sack or throwing the ball straight into a defender’s mitts. It’s not an easy throw to make either, as pressure comes up in Lance’s grill.
As with any good Shanahan play fake, there’s plenty of moving pieces, but none of that matters if the throw isn’t on point.
Luckily, Lance ensures that. He calmly sets his feet, waits for the defender to hit the ground, then rockets a fastball above two Texans for a safe completion.
If there’s one area Lance already excels at, it comes from his ability to manipulate defenders with his eyes to open up throwing lanes. He’s a smart, poised passer that catches foes off guard a good deal.
Lance looks off the middle of the field to catch the zone defense off guard. As an opening appears right, he goes back there with a back shoulder heater to Aiyuk with a fast hip turn.
Yards after the catch aplenty have been created,
Lance again targets Aiyuk on this play. We can see him lead Christian Kirksey (No. 58) to the middle of the field, allowing a brief opening to Aiyuk on the slant route.
Lance turns back and rips a dart around Kirksey, perfectly timing it into Aiyuk’s hands.
Off the delayed play fake the result remains the same. Lance opens up a pass to Kyle Juszczyk in the flat, taking attention off him by looking off the middle of the field.
The three defenders highlighted lower their guard, allowing Juszczyk a wide open lane and an easy completion off advanced manipulation.
Already, Lance has shown flashes of smart, poised quarterback play. To top this all off, he combines this with exceptional arm talent.
Much like Andy Reid with Patrick Mahomes, Kyle Shanahan offers Trey Lance a playground of possibilities in his system. The jump from Jimmy Garoppolo to Lance could have similar impacts as the jump from Alex Smith to Mahomes.
This play call is unique because it combines elements of a quarterback rollout with that of a tight end throwback, both staples of Shanahan’s offense. Because of the trust Shanahan shows in his QB, he’s able to draw up more vertical route combos.
This combo shows a simple 2 WR set. Brandon Aiyuk’s route is designed to clear space for Deebo Samuel’s way down the field, and the otherworldly cannon of Lance ensures the execution is easy.
The 49ers knew Garoppolo’s limitations, and thus designed around him so he made for a natural fit. With Lance, the playbook becomes wide open.
Returning to Lance’s ability to manipulate, he freezes No. 51 (red), who drops back in coverage. He stares down that side of the field (light blue), which opens up a path for George Kittle (dark blue).
The ability to diagnose an opening shines as Lance threads this through three defenders. Though it appears to be too high, Kittle actually trips just before the catch. It’s an excellent read combined with an excellent fastball.
Lance doesn’t come without flaws, the biggest of course being experience. He’s played 2 1/2 games of full reps, and will still need to prove he can play up to NFL speeds.
On some of his throws, Lance still has lockdown tendencies, especially with perhaps his worst decision to date above. By staring down Kittle’s route, he does not see the defender cutting underneath to pick it off.
Most Lance critics will bring up his accuracy issues as another flaw. He had a sub 60% completion percentage in 2021, with a few throws landing a bit too high.
There’s good pocket movement on this play, and Lance does everything right but hit the throw with precision. It’s not a significant issue, but like any rookie that will need to be polished up.
Flaws aside, Trey Lance presents the 49ers with the dynamic skill set they’ve missed since the days of Colin Kaepernick. In an NFC with weaker competition than their AFC cousins, San Francisco has a golden opportunity to strike.
Lance has great running ability, but his skill set shows someone far from a run first player. His ability to diagnose pressure and coverage flashed at impressive rates, add to the fact his arm talent and mobility are supreme.
There’s plenty of risk moving onto a young QB with a small sample size at his helm, but that’s the same risk the 49ers took to get Lance in the first place.
Lance has the scheme, weapons, and incredible skill set to produce something special in the Bay Area. Considering the 49ers’ history of dual threats, it says a lot.
Ready or not, here Lance comes.
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