Elevated to starter, 49ers QB Lance is ‘a little better at everything’

·3 min read
Anthony Soufflé, Star Tribune/Star Tribune/TNS

49ers coach Kyle Shanahan is reconsidering his original plan to sit starting quarterback Trey Lance in Saturday's preseason game against the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium.

It has nothing to do with Lance being from Minnesota. Or his legion of friends and family members aching to drive 158 miles from Marshall to watch the kid the Gophers passed on play the Vikings in downtown Minneapolis.

It has everything to do with Shanahan's daily assessment of what the second-year player from North Dakota State needs to help this Super Bowl contender notch a winnable game against fellow second-year quarterback Justin Fields and the Bears in Chicago on Sept. 11.

"Right now, I'm not expecting to [play him], but we're day-to-day with that," Shanahan said after the 49ers and Vikings staged the first of their two joint practices on Wednesday. "We'll see how practice goes tomorrow. There's a chance he will [play]."

Neither Lance nor the 49ers' offense looked good against the Vikings' first-team defense on Wednesday. It was a stark contrast to five days earlier when Lance went 4-for-5 for 92 yards, a touchdown and 10 points in two drives in a 28-21 preseason win at Green Bay.

Watching Lance, one can sense the super-high ceiling Shanahan saw when the 49ers traded up to the third pick to take the kid who went 17-0 at NDSU over Fields, the Ohio State star who went ninth overall, and Alabama's Mac Jones, who went 15th.

But Lance, at 22, is still very much a work in progress, as evidenced by Wednesday's 11-on-11 periods against the Vikings.

He completed 10 of 17 passes (58.8%) with no long connections. He threw high over the middle to an open Deebo Samuel. He wasn't close on a deep ball to Danny Gray. He struggled to lead his receivers. He dropped a snap. And he had four plays whistled dead for sacks.

"There were good plays and bad plays," All-Pro tight end George Kittle said. "Like most practices, I think he made some throws he had to make. He missed some. But it's practice.

"It's nothing that I'm worried about. Trey's gotten consistently better and better every single day. He's way better than when we first got him. … I'm pretty confident in his ability."

The 49ers are gambling their bright 2022 season on Lance being better right now than veteran Jimmy Garoppolo, who helped them to one Super Bowl four years ago and last year's NFC title game. Garoppolo has been excused from training camp as the team works on trading him.

"Trey's getting a little better at everything," Shanahan said. "You throw everything at him and sometimes he gets one down and learns some new stuff and takes a step back. That's been the process here all through last year and this year. The more he plays, the more reps he gets, the better he'll get."

Lance played six games last year, going 1-1 as a starter while throwing 71 passes. In his first start, he had a 58.4 passer rating as the 49ers scored a season-low 10 points. In his second start, he ran for 89 yards and threw two second-half touchdowns in a win.

Lance wasn't too interested in talking about his Minnesota roots on Wednesday.

"It's good to be back; excited to see my family and friends," he said. "But it's work."

Lance arranged for buses to shuttle students and coaches from his alma mater, Marshall High School, to TCO Performance Center on Thursday. By then, he will have watched tape of Wednesday's practice and will be ready to take another step in the high-pressure journey of leading one of the NFC's best teams.

"I do think things are slowing down mentally and physically for me," he said. "I feel like I'm in a much better spot."