Trey Lance was feeling good. A Saturday training camp practice earlier this month had already been one of his best of the summer, featuring double-digit completions, and now there were six seconds left on the clock during a two-minute drill that would close out the day.
As pressure came off the edge, Lance stepped up in the pocket. He had a decision to make, and the outcome would help show just how far along he was in his new role as the San Francisco 49ers’ starting quarterback. Lance probably could have outrun the rush, but given the time left, he would not have gotten another play to find the end zone if he couldn’t get all the way there from 20 yards out. One of Lance’s most notable mistakes during his rookie season came in Week 5 of last year against the Cardinals, when he was stuffed short of the goal line on a fourth-down try, squandering a 93-yard drive. Lance didn’t make that mistake again. He saw new 49ers slot receiver Ray-Ray McCloud get separation in the end zone and unleashed an on-target throw, ending the day with a touchdown.
“I mean, that’s about as tough as it gets, that situation,” Lance said.
The next day’s practice was not so smooth. Lance, who gets all the starters’ reps, missed more than half of his throws, including all but one of his final nine. He regularly threw high that day, mostly on passes outside the numbers, but one low point was an especially high throw over the middle intended for Brandon Aiyuk. The receiver was hit hard in the air by safety Jimmie Ward and landed badly on the ground. Aiyuk walked it off, but it was another incompletion for Lance, and the textbook definition of a hospital ball. On the following play, Lance’s pass, intended for tight end Tyler Kroft, was intercepted by linebacker Fred Warner.
These ups and downs have been fairly typical at 49ers training camp this summer—natural growth spurts and associated pains as one of the NFL’s most efficient offenses adjusts to a new quarterback and tries to become more dynamic. Lance is taking over for Jimmy Garoppolo (not yet traded or cut, but not expected to be part of the 2022 team) as San Francisco’s starter, and overall has appeared more confident, with noticeably better footwork than he did as a rookie, and his baseline performance is moving in the right direction despite some volatility.
“I think it’s gone kind of how you’d expect it with every quarterback,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said before the practice that followed Lance’s bad day earlier this month. “He’s had some real good days. He’s had a couple rough days. I thought he had a rough day his last practice. So it’s going to be good to see how he bounces back today, but I’ve been real pleased with Trey.”
Shanahan said earlier this offseason that the 49ers offense won’t change with Lance as the starter. Even with the same terminology and playbook that Shanahan used with Garoppolo, that offense will have to function differently with a very different player at quarterback. Garoppolo and Lance are like photonegatives—Garoppolo is efficient, consistently completing around his career-average 68 percent of passes, and he is most comfortable throwing short (tied for 22nd among starting quarterbacks with an average depth of target of 7.5 yards last season). His lack of mobility means he adds a negligible amount on the ground. Lance completed only 58 percent of his passes in limited action last season (41 of 71 attempts) but he is a dynamic runner and would have tied for third among starters with an average depth of target of 9.3 yards if he’d had enough passing attempts last season to qualify. The 49ers are happy to trade some completion percentage points for the explosive plays they couldn’t get from Garoppolo; that trade-off doesn’t just alter the box score, it alters how the entire unit operates.
“The biggest difference in playing with Trey versus anyone else is getting used to extended plays,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk told me. “When the play breaks down, Trey can continue to go and make a big play. And just as a football player … we always talked about a clock in your head, and with different guys that clock goes off quicker. With him and his athleticism being able to extend the play, you got to wind that clock up a little bit more.”
Juszczyk used the touchdown pass to McCloud at the end of the recent Saturday practice as an example of what he was talking about. That play was the crystallization of Lance’s natural ability to move and evade pressure, a maturing instinct to not take off when a throw is there and the entire offense is remaining in sync with him.
Of course, there are mental errors that should be expected from a young player learning Shanahan’s complex offense or errors of coordination and timing, and then there’s just getting beaten, something that happens fairly regularly in practice against one of the NFL’s best defenses, with a front seven loaded with stars like Warner and defensive end Nick Bosa. Despite some shaky days for the offense on the practice field, like that recent rough Sunday session, the general tone among coaches and players in San Francisco regarding that side of the ball and Lance’s ability to lead it is clearly unfussed.
Preseason performances (just like training camp performances) should be taken with a healthy dose of salt; his first live action against another team’s defense was certainly encouraging. He played 11 snaps in San Francisco’s preseason opener against the Packers, finishing 4-of-5 for 92 yards and no interceptions. He threw a 76-yard touchdown pass to Danny Gray—a beautiful deep pass down the left sideline that traveled at least 45 yards in the air—was sacked only once, had a scramble for 7 yards, and, perhaps most importantly, looked decisive in his decision-making. With a mix of play-action passes and plays designed to get Lance throwing on the run, and a combination of intermediate and deep throws, it was a reminder of why Shanahan was so excited to move up in the 2021 draft to select Lance, and comfortable moving on from Garoppolo for 2022.
Lance and other offensive players said that practicing against their starting defense can only help. It may offer a distorted version of how things are going. But one clear part of the picture is that the interior offensive line is one of the 49ers’ weak points. Last year’s center, Alex Mack, a mainstay on Shanahan-coached teams from Cleveland to Atlanta to San Francisco, retired this offseason, and left guard Laken Tomlinson signed as a free agent with the Jets. Those moves triggered a reshuffling of the line, pushing right guard Daniel Brunskill into a competition for the center job with backup Jake Brendel, and Aaron Banks and fourth-round rookie Spencer Burford into the left and right guard spots, respectively. Mike McGlinchey and Trent Williams give the 49ers an excellent duo at the tackle spots, but they’ve lost, at minimum, quite a bit of experience between them this season. (McGlinchey and Brunskill are both currently nursing injuries that, in Brunskill’s case, could affect his competition with Brendel, but neither injury is expected to be long term.)
The best-case scenario for the 49ers, of course, is that Brendel, Banks, and Burford prove to be quality starters, but none of those players come with the type of pedigree or track record that would make that a reasonable thing to rely on. If interior pressure is an issue for San Francisco, the root of that problem is one of roster depth, not coaching and player execution.
There’s a slightly different situation going on between the quarterback and receiver group. One of Lance’s more inconsistent connections with a receiver thus far in the preseason has been with do-it-all star Deebo Samuel, who didn’t practice the first week of camp while awaiting completion of his now-completed three-year, $41 million contract extension. One of Lance’s few misfires on Saturday was on a deep ball to Samuel, and the lack of production between the two had already been noticeable enough that Shanahan was asked about it in a press conference. (“It’ll come,” he said.) On the other hand, the dangerous throw from a recent Sunday practice aside, Lance has so far had mostly great results throwing to Aiyuk, one of San Francisco’s two first-round picks in 2020, who has 1,574 yards in two seasons but has yet to meet the expectations that came with his high draft position. The early Lance-Aiyuk connection could be the result of rapport built during offseason workouts together in Southern California.
“That’s the work he put in,” Lance said. “I’ve been saying it this whole spring, summer. He was locked in this offseason and I think he had a goal of separating himself and becoming kind of a different player. He’s done that, and I think he’s in a great spot right now physically and mentally. He’s seeing the game, he’s feeling the game, and he’s killing guys right now. He’s making some really, really big plays and separating himself.”
Samuel and Lance are both talented enough for it to be a fairly safe assumption that time and coaching will improve their connection, and the sparks flying between Lance and Aiyuk are tantalizing.
Three weeks into the first training camp with a new starter, these kinds of results, erratic as they may often be, would be a real feat for many teams. The thing that makes the 49ers different is that they were in the Super Bowl three seasons ago and the NFC championship game last season, and they moved on from the quarterback who started both those games with the rest of the roster still very much in a contention window. As the Trey Lance era takes shape in San Francisco, there are early signs that he can indeed give the team what it was missing. It’s just a question of whether they, too, will have to adjust their timing to him.