Trey Lance’s make-or-break offseason with 49ers
It’s tough to call an NFL offseason ‘make or break’ for a 22-year-old quarterback with only three full starts under his belt. That’s what Trey Lance is up against though as preparations for the 2023 season get underway.
Brock Purdy’s strong showing from Week 13 when he entered for an injured Jimmy Garoppolo through the elbow injury that knocked him out of the NFC championship game put the final pick of the 2022 draft on track to be the 49ers’ starter in 2023.
Lance surely would’ve had at least a little say in that outcome with his performance in the offseason program (which he’s expected to be medically cleared for) and camp, but Purdy’s elbow injury and a likely six-month recovery timeline changed the stakes.
Instead of trying to work his way into the QB1 conversation, Lance will now begin the offseason program with that title. He’ll hold it at least until Purdy gets back. And that’s where this becomes a major turning point in Lance’s tenure with the 49ers.
The ideal outcome for San Francisco is one where Lance shows a significant improvement and dominates his reps as the first-team QB. Improved accuracy and pocket presence in training camp, and having that translate to preseason games, would allow his terrific physical tools to shine.
While Purdy was stellar in his nine-week run, Lance’s ceiling is still higher thanks to his better size, speed and arm strength. A version of the offense we saw with Purdy under center, combined with some designed QB runs and a more aggressive downfield passing attack would get the 49ers to the level they hoped to get offensively when they invested three first-round picks in Lance. It’s not a slam dunk that Lance would win the starting job in this scenario, but it might be difficult for the 49ers to relegate him to the bench after taking such significant leaps in the offseason.
A less-than-ideal, but still good, outcome would be a small improvement from Lance in his QB1 reps. This is also the most likely scenario. Lance could show some signs of improvement mixed in with some of the issues that plagued him in last year’s training camp. Any world where he gets better is one the 49ers will take, and it’s not unreasonable to expect minor improvements via classroom sessions during the season and offseason work.
If this is the case, Lance wouldn’t likely win the starting job, but he’d give himself an opportunity to stay in the conversation going. It would also give the coaching staff a foundation to lean on if there’s some regression from Purdy and they feel like they have to make a change.
A disaster scenario is one where Lance either doesn’t improve or actively regresses. This is one that could wind up with the former No. 3 pick inactive on game days depending on who the third QB on the roster is.
This doesn’t mean he can never get better, but at some point he’ll need to just play in games. If Purdy is in the mix and winning at a high clip, Lance’s opportunities to start and show that he can lead a Super Bowl-caliber roster to the NFL’s pinnacle may be few and far between. At this point a long-term job would likely only be as a backup.
While there was always going to be an element of ‘wait and see’ with Lance, the 49ers are running out of time. That’s why this particular offseason is so meaningful. The 2021 No. 3 overall pick is entering his third season in the league. San Francisco will have to make a decision on his fifth-year option by May of next year. If they don’t exercise that, Lance would be a free agent after the 2024 campaign.
The season-ending ankle injury Lance suffered early in Week 2 against the Seahawks already added some urgency to his development. Now the Purdy injury and the added QB1 reps Lance will have has shoved it into overdrive.
If he doesn’t show real improvement this offseason, the 49ers may have to move on. It will have been three years without getting any closer to an answer on what Lance provides long term. At that point he’ll likely be a backup in 2024, and a candidate to move on in free agency after that. Perhaps he sticks in San Francisco as a backup, but that’s not what the 49ers were hoping to find when they picked Lance in the top three.
If he does make a leap, it changes the 49ers’ calculus under center entirely and suddenly Lance would be back in the fold as a long term answer at the sport’s most important position.
The 49ers drafted Lance No. 3 overall in hopes he could become one of the top five or so QBs who gives the team a wider margin of error on a game-to-game basis and with their roster building. If he’s going to get there with the 49ers, this offseason with nobody in front of him on the depth chart through at least the first part of training camp might be his last real chance.
Biggest questions for 49ers heading into offseason