Winners and losers of Trey Lance trade: 49ers ship former third overall pick to Cowboys

Once the San Francisco 49ers effectively decided Wednesday that Trey Lance wasn’t in their immediate plans – even as he was heading into the third season of his rookie contract – it only took 48 hours to find him a new home.

The Niners dealt Lance, the third overall pick of the 2021 draft – a selection that cost Silicon Valley’s home team significant venture capital – to the Dallas Cowboys for a fourth-round choice in 2024.

To say it was a stunning outcome given the buzz in the “Trey Area” just a season ago, when Lance had displaced Jimmy Garoppolo as the club’s QB1 and appeared set to be the franchise’s long-time face, is an obvious understatement.

Who won and who lost with the dust only beginning to settle? Onward …

Trey Lance looks to pass during a preseason game against the Raiders.
Trey Lance looks to pass during a preseason game against the Raiders.


Trey Lance: Plummeting from QB1 to QB3 in the span of a year – 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan informed Lance this week that journeyman Sam Darnold had won the team’s backup job – was hardly ideal for a prospect with just 262 regular-season snaps and 102 pass attempts, particularly since his development at North Dakota State had already been stunted by the COVID-19 pandemic. No quarterback toils in invisibility for America’s Team, but at least Lance – he’s still only 23 – will have the benefit of a fresh start and, more important, a potential pathway back to a starting role and certainly one as Dak Prescott’s backup. He’ll also be working for a coach who knows something about developing understudies because …

Mike McCarthy: … say what you want about the Cowboys HC, but he does have a track record for bringing a young passer from mothballs to superstardom. Brett Favre was McCarthy’s starter during his first two years with the Green Bay Packers before they pivoted to Aaron Rodgers … who only went on to win Super Bowl and league MVPs after taking over in 2008. McCarthy’s scenario with Prescott and Lance may not exactly be apples to apples, but it has a chance to be apples to Granny Smith apples if Lance truly has the ability Dallas hopes he does.

Brock Purdy: The “Mr. Irrelevant” of the 2022 draft as its 262nd and final selection, all he did was go 7-1 as a rookie last season for the 49ers, his lone defeat occurring in the NFC title game at Philadelphia when Purdy injured the ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing arm. Once his wing proved sound after surgical repair, there was little doubt Purdy would reclaim the starting reins for San Francisco. But now he doesn’t have to worry about Lance, his vast talent and the heavy freight the club invested into him as specters that could resurface after, say, a three-game losing streak. All signs point to Purdy being under center at Levi’s Stadium for a good, long while.

Nick Bosa: The NFL’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year has been a no-show at Niners training camp as he tries to extract mega dollars from the team. With Lance’s money coming off the books, including a fully guaranteed $5.3 million salary cap hit in 2024, there’s now just that much more wiggle room to come to a long-term accord with Bosa, arguably SF's best player.

Brandon Allen: Who? He’ll be 31 next month and has kicked around the league as a backup since being drafted in the sixth round by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2016. Yet Allen also probably has better job security for 2023 with the 49ers given Lance has now left the building. Don’t forget, despite winning the NFC West and nearly reaching Super Bowl 57, San Francisco went through four quarterbacks last season. Purdy and Darnold already have enough entries on their respective medical charts that it stands to reason Allen, who owns nine professional starts, will have the opportunity to stick around, whether on the 53-man roster or practice squad.


Trey Lance: It all seems rather unfair, but that’s life in the NFL. A broken ankle that wound up requiring multiple surgeries rendered his shot as San Francisco’s starter in 2022 to five quarters. He now moves into a completely alien situation and will have to navigate life as a Cowboy – on and off the field – on the fly without the benefit of an offseason to learn the ropes. And the “bust” label is sure to start dogging Lance soon enough. Even if he pans out with Dallas, his tenure by the Bay will forever be deemed an unmitigated disaster.

Dak Prescott: Lance poses no threat to the Cowboys’ two-time Pro Bowler and current QB1. Yet. But Prescott is coming off probably his worst NFL campaign (aside from his injury-aborted 2020 season) after throwing a league-high 15 interceptions and posting a 91.1 passer rating, the second worst of his career. Prescott is under contract for two more seasons, and the Cowboys have acknowledged that it’s time to begin thinking about a subsequent deal. But Lance most certainly adds more than a little intrigue to the mix. Maybe he’s ultimately just another arm coming through Jerry Jones’ palatial Ford Center. But maybe he’s Jordan Love South, taking a few more years to develop before pushing the established (and much more costly) guy out the door.

Cooper Rush: Prescott’s primary backup – for now – is also contractually tied to Dallas for two more years. And Rush had seemingly cemented himself as a very dependable QB2 for the Cowboys, winning five of six starts over the past two years, including a 4-1 ledger that more than kept the club afloat when Prescott was injured at the beginning of last season. Yet Rush also has to wonder if his gravy train could be reaching the end of the line sooner than expected if Lance gets up to speed quickly enough to start challenging for practice snaps and depth chart positioning.

John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan: Give them credit for the human touch they’ve put on Lance’s football misfortune, unfailingly giving him public praise both for his estimable potential as an NFL quarterback but also as a hard-working and likable person whom San Francisco’s general manager and coach were both clearly invested in personally (and, yes, professionally). But make no mistake, getting a fourth-rounder back for a player who cost you four draft picks – three of them first-rounders – to obtain near the top of the 2021 draft can only be characterized as a football catastrophe.

“We take full accountability. We own that,” Lynch said Friday while also expressing – despite conflicted emotions about doing the deal – that he wanted to get Lance into a situation where he’d have more opportunities in practice and, ultimately, games. “I think his story is very much unwritten. I've got a lot of belief in the kid and think with his talent, with his work ethic he's going to forge a nice career in this thing. And so, love the kid. … The Cowboys came up big, and I think that's an indication that they're excited to have him and we're excited for Trey's new opportunity. And we'll always be big fans.”

As for Shanahan, he put the blame for Lance's lack of progress squarely on himself.

“I will always feel like I let Trey down," he said after Friday's preseason finale against the Chargers.

"I mean, I wanted him to come here. I believe in Trey. I believed in him before we took him and I'm responsible for that. I didn't want to throw him into the heat of battle right away, but I thought he needed to play. So, we tried to figure out every way to do that."

Fortunately for Lynch, entering his seventh year as GM, and Shanahan – he also came aboard in 2017 – they’ve been so exceptional at their jobs otherwise that they’ll doubtless survive a miscalculation that would send lesser men in their positions into permanent NFL retirement.

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on X, formerly Twitter @ByNateDavis.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trey Lance trade winners and losers: Fallout as Cowboys, 49ers do deal