Source: 49ers mull options after Trey Lance loses QB2 battle

ByNick Wagoner ESPN logo
Thursday, August 24, 2023

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The competition to be the San Francisco 49ers' backup quarterback is over.

The 49ers are rolling with Sam Darnold as the No. 2 behind Brock Purdy, coach Kyle Shanahan said Wednesday.The team will explore all options with Trey Lance, the No. 3 pick in the 2021 NFL draft, a source told ESPN.

Shanahan told KNBR radio in San Francisco that he hopes Lance will remain with the 49ers even as a potential No. 3 option.

"I'm really hoping so. I mean, this isn't a thing that we're giving up on Trey," Shanahan told KNBR. "This is more of how Brock played in his seven games. ... They both looked good, but we do have to make a decision here and you only get so many reps at it, and we feel, starting about 10 days ago, that Sam really separated himself. We got to keep it real in that way."

Lance did not participate in Wednesday's practice after he and Shanahan discussed the situation earlier Wednesday.

"These are conversations I have to have with guys a lot and they're never easy. They're really tough," Shanahan said, acknowledging that Lance missed practice because he was upset about the news from their conversation in the morning. "But it's also always tough when the spotlight is on it as much as it is with this situation, with it being Trey, with our quarterback, his pick in the draft. So, I knew that was hard on him. We had such a light practice today and watching how Trey was when we talked, we just thought it was better, 'Hey, take the day off, get away a little bit, clear your head some and we'll talk later in the afternoon and we'll get you back in here tomorrow... Just felt it was the best thing for him."

With Purdy handling most of the starting duties since his return from a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, Darnold and Lance have been locked in a battle for the backup role throughout training camp.

On Tuesday, Shanahan indicated he wasn't ready to announce his No. 2 quarterback until closer to the start of the regular season, even going as far as to say he could alternate between backups depending on the week.

Now, the depth chart has taken shape with Purdy at the top, Darnold in the backup spot and a bit of uncertainty after that with Lance and veteran Brandon Allen still on the roster.

The Niners don't plan to keep more than three quarterbacks on the active roster, which means one of them will have to go. That player could be Lance, who a year ago at this time was heading into the season as San Francisco's starter.

Lance suffered a broken right ankle in Week 2 and missed the rest of last season, allowing for Purdy's ascent after leading the team to a 7-1 record as a starter and an appearance in the NFC Championship Game.

"I do think he's going to have a lot of success in this league," Shanahan said of Lance on KNBR. "It's been a tough road for him because the times he has gotten an opportunity, he ended up getting hurt and missed that window and now he's in this position and we'll always try to do right for Trey.

"If there's a better situation that his heart's in and something like that, we're going to make sure not to do something that hurts him in that way. ... Trey knows how I feel about him and I hope he ends up being able to be here and that's the best thing for him. But we got to see what is the best thing from now until then."

Shanahan said he still plans to play Lance in the last preseason game Friday against the Chargers. After Purdy and Darnold, of course.

"Yes, I do. He comes back here and we get all this situated, I plan on Trey going in right after Sam."

Niners general manager John Lynch said before the NFL draft in April that he'd received interest from other teams about a possible trade for Lance. At the time, Lynch said it would take something "substantial" to part ways with Lance.

"Yeah, I think there's a lot of smoke really," Lynch said in April. "It hasn't been extremely active and it's not like we've put it out there that, 'Hey, we're taking offers for Trey.' That's not been the process. ... It hasn't been that substantive."

But with Darnold stepping into the backup role, that smoke is likely to reappear. To this point in the preseason, there haven't been any notable quarterback injuries elsewhere but teams have a better feel for the signal-callers on their roster.

If the 49ers trade Lance, he will count $5,540,956 in dead money over each of the next two seasons, and the team will save $3.76 million in 2023 and $5.31 million in 2024 against the salary cap.

If the Niners release Lance, he will count $14.61 million in dead money with no savings against the cap.

Another option would be for the Niners to keep Lance as the No. 3 quarterback. Since Shanahan and Lynch arrived in 2017, the team has had only one quarterback make it through an entire season healthy -- Jimmy Garoppolo in 2019.

Which is at least partially why Shanahan insisted Wednesday that keeping Lance with Purdy and Darnold is his preference.

"I feel very fortunate to have both of them here," Shanahan told KNBR. "I really hope when it's said and done, that all three of these guys are here. You never know when that's going to come up. We needed four guys last year. Doesn't happen much, but if we can have Trey as an option here, I would feel extremely happy about that."

Purdy began last season as the No. 3 option behind Lance and Garoppolo, and the Niners had Josh Johnson as their fourth quarterback for the NFC Championship Game but still ran out of options because of injuries. If the 49ers trade Lance, Allen could fill the No. 3 role.

After recovering from the ankle injury, Lance spent the offseason working to refine his mechanics with private quarterbacks coach Jeff Christensen. He came back with a quicker release but had his ups and downs in camp and the preseason.

In last week's exhibition game against the Denver Broncos, Lance started slow, throwing an interception on a screen pass, but finished strong, going 8-of-10 for 142 yards and a touchdown on the final two drives to set up a winning 32-yard field goal by rookie kicker Jake Moody.

On Tuesday, Shanahan noted the improvements he has seen from Lance.

"This offseason was just kind of getting healthy again and redefining how he throws, getting his balance," Shanahan said. "I think Trey from when he got hurt to where he is now, I think it helped him."

The 49ers signed Darnold early in free agency in March partly because they were unsure where Purdy's recovery would take him and because Lance had started just four games with 102 pass attempts in the NFL and was also coming off a significant injury.

Like Lance, Darnold is a former No. 3 overall pick (2018). Darnold struggled in previous stops with the New York Jets and Carolina Panthers, throwing 55 interceptions in 56 games as those teams went 21-34 in his starts.

Darnold and Lance have taken turns with the backups throughout camp and the preseason, but Shanahan has been encouraged by what he's seen from Darnold in terms of ball security and getting the ball where it needs to go.

"He's been real consistent in everything," Shanahan said. "... He didn't come in the first day just owning it all because you can't when you don't have the experience. But each day that he's done it, he's gotten better and better and he just looks more and more comfortable in everything he is doing."

NFL Network first reported the news of the Niners exploring options with Lance.

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