Niners deal QB Trey Lance to Cowboys for fourth-round pick

ByNick Wagoner and Todd Archer ESPN logo
Saturday, August 26, 2023

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Roughly two and a half years after the San Francisco 49ers drafted him to be their franchise quarterback, Trey Lance's time with the team is over.

The Niners agreed to trade Lance to the Dallas Cowboys in exchange for a fourth-round draft choice on Friday night, general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan confirmed. The 49ers are not picking up any of Lance's remaining salary as part of the trade.

The deal ends a whirlwind 48 hours in which Lance was informed that Sam Darnold had beaten him out for the No. 2 quarterback job behind starter Brock Purdy, requested a trade, did not participate in Wednesday's practice and returned to the team facility Thursday morning.

It also ends a once-promising union between a team that has advanced to at least the NFC Championship Game in three of the past four years and a young signal-caller once viewed as the answer to the franchise's more than two-decade search for quarterback stability.

According to Shanahan, it wasn't a decision the Niners took lightly.

"It was time to move on for him and for us," Shanahan said. "We'd love to just keep him until eventually it works out, but that clock ran out here, and that's why we had to make a real tough decision, one we didn't enjoy doing, but we try to do what we think is best, and this is what we think is best."

Lance's exit from San Francisco comes a little more than two days after Shanahan informed him that Darnold would be the team's No. 2 quarterback this season. Shanahan said Darnold began to separate himself from Lance in the competition in the past couple of weeks.

During that meeting Wednesday morning, Shanahan said he told Lance that even though he wasn't going to be the backup, he wanted Lance to stay around as the third quarterback. But Shanahan added that he believed Lance needed as many reps as possible to continue developing, something that would be difficult in San Francisco with Purdy as the starter and Darnold running the scout team.

Lance took about 90 minutes to ponder his options before meeting with Shanahan again and telling the coach that he would like to find a different spot to reset his career. At that meeting, Lance also requested to take the day away from practice, which the Niners granted, though Lance returned to the facility Thursday. As late as Friday morning, he was slated to play in the preseason finale.

That all changed as interest in Lance picked up around the league Friday morning. Trade talks surrounded Lance all offseason after he suffered a broken right ankle in Week 2 of last season and Purdy staked his claim to the starting job with a finishing flourish down the stretch.

General manager John Lynch previously acknowledged that he received trade interest in Lance before the draft in April, noting that it would take something substantial to part with him.

That price dropped once Lance was demoted to the No. 3 spot Wednesday, as the Niners began fielding calls from other teams. The interest, according to Lynch, was much stronger than it was earlier in the offseason, leaving Shanahan and Lynch openly acknowledging that they got a little bigger return for Lance than they initially expected when the deal with the Cowboys was completed.

"It's not what it looked like when we first started having a conversation. It wasn't anywhere close," Lynch said. "So it did advance in a hurry today. I'm not doing cartwheels over it, because my preference would've been that it worked out, and it didn't. And there's circumstances for that, and we can explain them away, but the reality is the reality. He had a couple opportunities, and I think injuries played a part, and where we're at as a team, we felt like this was the best situation for us, also the best situation for him."

Lance is scheduled to make $940,000 in 2023 and has a $5.3 million salary in 2024, all of which is guaranteed. Upon trading him, the Niners will incur dead-money hits of $8,361,434 this year and $5,540,956 in 2024.

After this season, Dallas will get to decide on Lance's fifth-year option for 2025.

The addition of Lance does not diminish the Cowboys' belief in Dak Prescott but gives them some cover for the future at the very least.

Prescott is signed through 2024 and is set to count $59 million against the salary cap next year. Owner and general manager Jerry Jones has mentioned wanting to extend Prescott's contract, but there has not been much dialogue regarding a new deal.

The Cowboys went through a number of quarterbacks after Troy Aikman's retirement before Tony Romo went from an undrafted player to Pro Bowler in 2006.

Dallas selected Prescott in the fourth round in 2016, not expecting him to become a starter, but Romo suffered a back injury that preseason and Prescott has been the starter ever since.

Prescott turned 30 last month and has missed games each of the past three seasons. He tied for the NFL lead in interceptions last year with 15 in 12 games, missing five starts after suffering a broken right thumb in the season opener.

On Thursday, he said this is as healthy as he has felt in years, now three years removed from a dislocated and fractured right ankle. In 2021, he missed one game with a calf injury.

"I'm blessed. I'm thankful. I'm healthy," Prescott said. "It's one of those things you don't want to harp on too much, but yeah, I am much different than I am the last few years and will continue to try to stay that way and take care of my body."

But Prescott has yet to take the Cowboys past the divisional round of the playoffs in four postseason appearances. The Cowboys' last Super Bowl win came in 1995, and Prescott said he understands the urgency.

"At the end of the day, the pressure is what you put on yourselves," Prescott said. "So I think at the end of the day we've got to understand that our standard is wins, simple as that. We hold ourselves to a high standard and high expectations. Nobody wants to end this drought more than the guys in the locker room, I can promise you that.

"For us, it's about making sure we know in our identity, we believe in our identity as a team, we go out there and play complementary football at all three levels. I think if we do that, just from what we've built during the offseason to training camp to now, it's promising."

The addition of Lance means the Cowboys will now keep three quarterbacks on their 53-man roster in the regular season.

In March, the Cowboys signed backup Cooper Rush to a two-year deal worth $5 million that included a $1.25 million signing bonus. He is 5-1 as a starter the past two years when Prescott has missed games because of injury.

Will Grier was competing to be the No. 3 quarterback and is expected to take the bulk of the action in Saturday's preseason finale against the Las Vegas Raiders.

The Niners used the No. 3 overall pick on Lance in the 2021 NFL draft after trading three first-round picks and a third-rounder to the Miami Dolphins to acquire the selection. The Cowboys, for their part, had a second-round grade on Lance in that draft, according to sources.

San Francisco planned for Lance to play in limited packages behind then-starter Jimmy Garoppolo as a rookie, but a broken right index finger suffered in the preseason scuttled any long-term plans that season. Lance had another setback with the ankle injury last year.

All told, Lance started four games and appeared in eight contests in his two seasons with the team. He completed 56 of 102 passes for 797 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions in his time with the team.

Lance's eight games are the fewest played by a top-five pick for the franchise he made his debut with in the common draft era (since 1967 and excluding the 2023 draft class), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Ultimately, Lance's inability to stay on the field and get the time he needed opened the door for Purdy and left the Niners to find Lance a new home.

"I do think Trey needs an opportunity to play more," Shanahan said. "The opportunities he's had here, when he has had those two opportunities, he got hurt. He kind of missed that window a little bit, gave an opportunity for someone else to do it, and that person did it and stayed healthy for those seven games and showed us something that we're confident in. Trey kind of needs that again, and he didn't get that here."

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