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Opinion: Trey Lance is the 49ers' future, but San Francisco is right not to rush rookie QB into starting role

·7 min read
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The performance featured just about everything a young quarterback could ask for.

A positive response to adversity. An array of passes. Field vision. Proficiency in running the two-minute offense. Two touchdown passes, and even a few displays of exceptional athleticism.

In a word: growth.

And just like that, Trey Lance took another step in his development while providing more glimpses of the potential that prompted the San Francisco 49ers to trade three first-round picks to move up in the 2021 NFL draft and select him No. 3 overall.

In a span of four months, the 21-year-old out of North Dakota State has gone from small-school, pre-draft mystery man to one of the most captivating figures of the 2021 preseason.

But in many ways, despite three touchdown passes and multiple displays of his unique athleticism in his first two true showcase opportunities, the 6-4, 224-pound Lance still very much remains an unknown.

Sure, he has all of the tools, and some gifts that you just can’t teach. But there’s still a lot that we don’t know about Lance – and there’s still a lot that Lance doesn’t know about the NFL.

Fortunately, for Lance and the 49ers, San Francisco boasts as close to perfect a quarterback scenario as they could ask for.

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San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance (5) scrambles in the pocket during the game against the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance (5) scrambles in the pocket during the game against the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium.

Lance represents a bright future and possesses the skills needed to join the league’s next generation of star quarterbacks. But eighth-year veteran Jimmy Garoppolo’s presence affords the 49ers the rare luxury of time.

Traditionally, when a team uses a top-10 pick on a quarterback, it’s because the organization finds itself in the middle of rebuilds. Ready or not, the rookie is often thrown into action. And thus begins the crash course in NFL quarterbacking.

But that’s not the case for San Francisco, a team just one season removed from a Super Bowl appearance. The 49ers are now healthy again after a tumultuous 2020 campaign and very much in win-now mode.

Niners brass made the trade and subsequent Lance selection with an eye on the future despite remaining very high on Garoppolo, who team officials have said has looked very sharp in training camp and preseason practices.

Make no mistake: Lance’s time is coming. With more heroics in the preseason finale this week, the rookie could further stoke the flames of outward anticipation. But the 49ers hope to ride the Jimmy G. train for as long as possible to ensure that Lance is as prepared as possible whenever the rookie does assume the reins of the offense on a full-time basis.

Given his impressive physical traits – the size, speed, athleticism and strong arm – and likeable personality, it’s no wonder excitement over Lance has steadily increased with each on-field performance.

And even if Garoppolo remains the starter – which is expected despite the fact that coach Kyle Shanahan chuckled and declined to make an official announcement when asked this past weekend – the coach has made it clear the rookie will see the field in various packages this season.

Shanahan is one of the game’s brightest offensive minds, and he has had success with a diverse cast of quarterbacks. Finding ways to weave Lance into the offense will not prove challenging.

However, when it comes to Lance’s time as the full-time signal caller of the 49ers, his coaches want to see him grow in his understanding of NFL defenses while continuing to sharpen his fundamentals and play with greater consistency.

For every highlight Lance has produced, he also has committed youthful transgressions glossed over by the untrained eye.

Lance readily absorbs instruction, those who have worked with him have said. However, the quarterback remains very raw with only one full season of college football under his belt. Because North Dakota State opted out of all but one game last fall due to COVID-19, Lance hasn’t played a full season since 2019.

“I tell him before each game, ‘Don’t try to go in there and impress anyone or prove anything. You’re just going in there and trying to get better. And whether it’s good or bad, this is your second game in about 500 days or something like that. Soak it all in and make sure you learn from it,’” Shanahan recounted after Sunday’s preseason win against the Los Angeles Chargers. “When you put guys out in situations, especially a quarterback from a small school … and you’re practicing stuff he hasn’t totally majored in and hasn’t done a lot of, it makes it harder for him. But I think that’s the good thing about these games, and he’s a tough enough person mentally where he can improve from all of it.”

Coaches have worked hard to sharpen Lance’s fundamentals, including his footwork, pocket movements, eye-placement, weight transfers and more.

But remembering all of that once in the heat of a game can prove challenging for a young passer.

Lance let some of his fundamentals slip in his first preseason game. He impressed with an 80-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Trent Sherfield. However, a sloppy approach caused him to missed multiple throws throughout the rest of the action, and the 49ers' offense sputtered.

In Week 2 of the preseason, Lance struggled with accuracy and ball placement out of the gates. But as the game progressed, he found his rhythm while directing San Francisco’s two-minute offense. Shanahan said Lance did “much better” maintaining his fundamentals. The young passer also showed improvement working through progressions, varying the touch on his passes and hitting receivers in stride.

Lance directed a six-play, 75-yard drive capped by a 5-yard touchdown pass to Mohamed Sanu, and later orchestrated a 64-yard drive capped by a 16-yard strike to Travis Benjamin.

“I just liked how he responded throughout it,” Shanahan said. “To watch him go out there and throw a pick, to have a couple of close (throws), those are some things that he isn’t used to. And I know it got him down pretty bad, but to watch him go out there and recover was nice for me to see.”

Said Lance’s personal coach Quincy Avery, “He’s a baby. Younger than all the quarterbacks in his class. He’s playing more and more football, and with each rep, you’ll see marked improvement, and I think you saw that from preseason game 1 to preseason game 2. … He looked like he was in a position where he could just play football, and when he’s there, people get to see the real Trey Lance, where he’s not thinking and he’s just out there reacting.”

With each sign of growth, the excitement surrounding Lance builds. His veteran teammates have rejoiced over each highlight play, mobbing him after touchdown tosses. His coaches and team officials optimistically observe the way he corrects mistakes and applies classroom lessons on the field.

Meanwhile, Lance is devoting all of his energies to learning this game, while wasting none of them on wondering when he’ll take the leading role.

“Zero,” Lance told reporters Sunday when asked how much thought he's given to whether he'll be the starter. “Just focused on getting better and learning as much as I can. We have such a great quarterback room and such a great locker room, guys I can learn from on and off the field. So for me, that’s been the focus. … I’m just going to keep learning – keep learning as much as I possibly can.”

From the high-ranking front office members, to the coaching staff on down to the members of the locker room, the 49ers know Lance’s time will eventually come. But for now, they’re patiently enjoying the growth process unfolding before them.

It’s the smart approach that could yield the greatest return on their investment.

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trey Lance: Why San Francisco 49ers are right not to rush rookie QB