Trey Lance is the quarterback of the 49ers’ future, and the future could be now

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You knew the 49ers wanted a different option at quarterback than Jimmy Garoppolo when they traded up to select North Dakota State’s Trey Lance with the third overall pick in the 2021 draft. The only question was, how long would it take for Lance to take over the position? Though Lance threw 28 touchdowns and no interceptions in the 2019 season against marginal competition, his one start in 2020 before COVID stopped the Bison’s season in its tracks was not exactly great — an iffy game against Central Arkansas in which he completed 15 of 30 passes for 149 yards, two touchdowns, and the only interception he threw in his collegiate career. Lance did run 15 times for 143 yards and two touchdowns, and he made a bang-on throw late in the game to help his team pull out a 39-28 win, but when Lance made his way to the NFL, there were those who thought it might take a while for him to be the guy, Garoppolo’s issues notwithstanding.

Based on early returns, Lance’s time might be sooner than later. While the preseason will tell us a great deal as to Lance’s ability to hold up against NFL defenses, Saturday’s practice showed two things: Garoppolo is still struggling with the issues that have kept him from the Pantheon (telegraphing throws, hesitancy when throwing into tight windows), and Lance is impressing everyone with his ability to not only tuck the ball in and run — leading to an entirely different level of fun in Kyle Shanahan’s offense — but to zing the ball downfield.

The difference between the rookie and the veteran was graphic, according to observers.

From ESPN’s Nick Wagoner:

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Wagoner pointed out that Lance operated exclusively from the pocket through the team’s first three practices, but had half a dozen runs in the fourth that opened up “would-be big gains.” Lance was also reportedly strong when throwing from the pocket.

Garoppolo, on the other hand? Well…

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Waiting too long and putting the ball in harm’s way? Sadly, this is something we’ve seen from Garoppolo before, and it’s usually something that happens after a mistake.

“Fred, he’s just, he’s reading Jimmy, reading Jimmy’s eyes and he’s been doing a really good job of his zone drops,” new defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said of the Warner pick. “Fred’s a guy… he drops in zone coverage and does a really good job being patient, staying square, eyes on the quarterback. And he really did a great job of reading Jimmy there, breaking on a ball and you know, Fred has been working on his hands throughout the offseason. So it’s paying off for him. So happy to see him get that pick and you could tell everyone’s excited on the sidelines for him. But Fred is a guy I look to make those type of plays, those impact game-changing plays. Those are plays that Fred can make, he’s done them in the past and just expect him to even do it more as he continues to develop in his career.”

Ryans also got heavily into what Lance brings to the offense as a runner, and how his own defense struggled against it.

“I’m very appreciative for our offense when they put those plays in, the zone-read type plays, QB movement runs. It’s very helpful for us as a defense so when we do face teams like that during the season, it’s not the first time that we’re preparing for it, right? So we have a chance to go through it, to learn, our guys get a chance to learn actually how to defend it versus different defenses. So it’s really, really great work for us. And Trey does, like you said, he broke out today on a couple, he’s doing an excellent job of running those plays as well. So it’s good work on both sides, iron sharpening iron.

“With the option plays, zone read type plays as much as you can get a realistic look of it, the better it is. So I think for us getting a great look from Trey, I mean, very dynamic runner and thrower. He can do it all. So for us to get a, a great look from him, it’s the best thing we can ask for a defense. And we don’t have to try to manufacture it by putting a wide receiver at quarterback or a running back, back there and trying to do the old wild cat stuff. Like, we get a real live look at a very bonafide quarterback who’s capable of running all those plays. So I’m thankful for our offense for running those plays to give us the work.”

Shanahan has said that Garoppolo enters training camp as the starter, but when the players and coaches sound this excited about it? You have to wonder.

“It’s funny because we’ve all been kind of waiting for it,” right tackle Mike McGlinchey said of Lance’s athletic potential, per NBC Sports’ Matt Maiocco. “We’ve been waiting to see when he does take off, how it goes. And I think we three or four read zones, which is probably three or four more than we’ve ever done in my three years here.”

There are other issues at play. Garoppolo is in the fourth year of the five-year, $137.5 million contract he signed in 2019, and he carries with him a $26.4 million cap hit this season. Were the 49ers to release him, the dead cap would be just $2.8 million. That’s a big difference for player who does not seem to have solved the issues that have bedeviled him throughout his NFL career.

Factor in that North Dakota State ran a lot of the same concepts Shanahan prefers (as Touchdown Wire’s Mark Schofield pointed out in May), and Lance’s learning curve could be seriously abbreviated — especially if Shanahan is interested in tailoring his playbook to Lance’s skill set, which you’d think he’d be happy to do. Nobody denies Shanahan’s brilliance as a play-caller and play-designer, but when your quarterback keeps hitting his head on the same ceiling year after year, you might get a bit frustrated.

Here’s one series of stats to remember: In 2019, Lance was absolutely thermonuclear when given the benefit of pre-snap motion. On 156 dropbacks with motion, per Sports Info Solutions, Lance completed 91 of 139 passes for 1,122 yards, 659 air yards, nine touchdowns, and (obviously) no interceptions. Shanahan is the NFL’s most consistent purveyor of pre-snap motion to help his quarterbacks, but last season, between Garoppolo, Nick Mullens, and C.J. Beathard (Garoppolo played in just six games due to injury), San Francisco’s quarterbacks completed 257 of 385 passes for 3,063 yards, 1,324 air yards, 16 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. Only the Panthers had more picks off of pre-snap motion, and if you’re the coach designing these concepts, that’s not ideal.

Before and after the snap, it’s obvious that Trey Lance is the quarterback of the 49ers’ future. The only question is whether that future is now.