The 49ers bluffed like champions. Now they need Trey Lance to prove he was worth it

CLEVELAND — San Francisco general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan made a deal going into the 2021 NFL draft. They would limit information concerning their plans, thinking and leanings from everyone else in the organization.

Scouts. Assistant coaches. Even team owner Jed York was left in the dark (well, until the very end for York). The concept was simple: If no one knew what they were thinking, no one would fear speaking out and offering a contrarian opinion about a prospect. This would guard against groupthink and confirmation bias.

“You don’t want to sway people,” Shanahan said. “You want people to work their butts off and give you their honest opinion.”

Once the Niners traded up to the third spot in the draft on March 26, their selection became an item of intense interest, including news reports citing “sources” that the team was going to draft Alabama quarterback Mac Jones.

It was all wrong.

On Thursday night here, the phone in Trey Lance’s green room rang. It was Lynch on the other end. The lightly experienced but tantalizingly talented QB from North Dakota State was the pick, ending one of the NFL's great draft mysteries.

“Ecstatic,” Lance said. “Pretty emotional for me.”

He was, in all honesty, always the pick.

“He is a true quarterback in every aspect that he plays,” Shanahan said. “The skill set he has. How intelligent he is. How he handles himself.”

Credit Kyle Shanahan, John Lynch and the 49ers for being both aggressive and tight-lipped in drafting Trey Lance. Now they just need him to work out. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Credit Kyle Shanahan, John Lynch and the 49ers for being both aggressive and tight-lipped in drafting Trey Lance. Now they just need him to work out. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Shanahan spoke with a combination of excitement over the player he would now coach, and relief that the entire affair was over and the word was out. He said he sat and watched in awe at the firestorm over who San Francisco was supposedly picking.

Niner fans voiced anger at the "pick." Experts stated Jones was going to be a Niner as if it was fact. Some wondered if racism was at play in favoring a white quarterback such as Jones over African Americans such as Lance or Ohio State’s Justin Fields.

“We knew exactly where we were going and what we were doing [from the start],” Shanahan said. “[Right after the trade] at least two people out there were speculating that we were taking Mac Jones. Those were [taken] not [as] opinions, those were facts. We didn’t feel that way.”

They liked and studied Jones, too. Ditto for Fields. All three are good players, Shanahan said. None measured up to Lance. Fields wound up going 11th overall to Chicago, Jones 15th to New England.

“We weren’t going to correct that,” Shanahan said of the rumors. “We thought that could be an advantage to us. You never know with this league. If the whole NFL thinks you are doing one thing and you’re not doing that one thing ... No one has known anything but us. It was fun to watch.

“When you have the chance to go through something like, you see who gives opinions, who gives some ‘sources,’ ” Shanahan continued. “I know that is not true. You learn a lot about your organization, you learn a lot about people. It’s just been interesting to watch.”

While Shanahan and Lynch said they never wavered when it came to Lance, they didn’t want to make a final decision until Monday of draft week. That had always been the plan; to go through the entire scouting process.

So they kept watching tape, mostly from 2019 since Lance played in a single 2020 game in the COVID-impacted NDSU season. There was plenty to like. After all, that season Lance threw 28 touchdowns and not a single interception.

They had two Zoom calls with Lance. They went to his pro days. They spoke briefly with his family. On Monday they set the pick in stone. On Wednesday they told York. He’s the boss, after all. No one else knew, they said.

After all, anything might happen. Just Thursday afternoon, Lynch noted, word broke that league MVP Aaron Rodgers wanted out of Green Bay. So the Niners called the Packers to see if there was trade interest — as other “reports” swirled about Rodgers getting dealt to Denver. Suddenly that third pick could have been unexpected trade fodder.

No dice, Green Bay said.

“Yeah, we inquired and it was a quick end to the conversation,” Lynch said. “It wasn’t happening.”

That’s the NFL. You never know.

And Shanahan and Lynch admitted Thursday that they don’t know, for sure, that Lance will pan out either.

Make no mistake though, the Lance selection will go a long way to defining their regime. They sent Miami first-rounds draft picks in 2022 and 2023, plus a third-rounder in 2022 to swap their 12th overall pick in 2021.

That’s a massive amount of assets to take a QB from a small school that essentially played just one season of ball. Especially when neither Fields nor Jones turned out to be top-10 picks.

“The sacrifices they made to put themselves in that situation, obviously very, very thankful that I am their choice,” Lance said. “They are going to get my best.”

“It is a hard process," Lynch said. "There are no guarantees for all of us. You have to believe it.”

So the Niners believe, yet Shanahan wanted to make clear they also believe in returning starter Jimmy Garoppolo. Earlier this week at a news conference, Shanahan joked that he couldn’t guarantee the veteran would be on the team at the end of the weekend.

I can’t guarantee that anybody in the world will be alive on Sunday, so I can’t guarantee who will be on our roster on Sunday,” Shanahan said at the time.

Shanahan said he was trying to be humorous with a reporter he knew, but it broke bad.

“I totally bombed that on Monday,” Shanahan said. “I talked to Jimmy right away. I didn’t realize it came off that way. It had nothing to do with Jimmy … Jimmy’s situation, if he isn’t here on Sunday then I would be disappointed. Jimmy is a quarterback who played for us for one season and took us to a Super Bowl.”

Sure, but you don’t give up this much to draft a new guy if you truly love the old guy.

“It’s obvious what I hope and believe in with this guy coming in,” Shanahan said. “But it would be very hard if Jimmy isn’t here on Sunday … If it turns into a competition, it turns into a competition.”

It’s going to turn into a competition.

And soon enough, this year or next, Trey Lance will need to win it. The Niners executed their plan to perfection. Give them credit for one of the all-time great draft bluffs, an impressive month of secrets and misdirection.

None of that is going to matter if Trey Lance wasn’t worth all the effort.

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