San Francisco 49ers rookie No. 3 pick Trey Lance will make his first NFL start when the young quarterback and his team take on the undefeated Arizona Cardinals Sunday.
Evidence has been pointing in this direction for the entire week after Jimmy Garoppolo suffered a calf injury in the first half of last Sunday’s loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
Garoppolo has not practiced all week, a clear indication that Lance would get the call for a 49ers team in dire need of a win after losing two consecutive games.
“With this being his first start, just trying to give him stuff he’s comfortable with, stuff we’ve put him through. You don’t want to sit there and make up too much new stuff,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said of Lance on Friday. “It’s only a couple days of practicing it and we just want to make sure he’s as comfortable as possible.”
Lance replaced Garoppolo to open the third quarter last week in what was a 7-7 game at the half against Seattle. The rookie from North Dakota State saw San Francisco fall down 21-7 in the third quarter before leading two touchdown-scoring drives. In the end, it was not enough in a 28-21 defeat.
Seeing his first extended regular-season playing time, Lance completed 9-of-18 passes for 157 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. He added 41 rushing yards on seven attempts.
Trey Lance Gets Real Opportunity To Earn Starting Job
Regardless of Garoppolo’s calf injury, it would be foolish to believe that Lance is a stopgap option here. Should the young quarterback perform at a high level and lead the 49ers to an upset win over the lone remaining undefeated team in the NFL, he’ll more than likely be the starter moving forward.
This situation isn’t too dissimilar to what we saw in San Francisco back in 2012. Alex Smith had led a team many expected to be a playoff contender to a 6-2-1 record that season before suffering a concussion against the then-St. Louis Rams in Week 10.
A young quarterback in that of Colin Kaepernick started the next week on Monday Night Football against the Chicago Bears, leading San Francisco to a 32-7 win. The rest is pretty much history. Kaepernick led the 49ers to a Super Bowl appearance that season while Smith was shipped off nearly immediately after said championship game.
It would be asinine to conclude that the end result will be the same here. But it is a backstory to this entire situation. We know what the 49ers’ brass has said publicly. Garoppolo is the starting quarterback when healthy.
But that’s nothing more than PR spin at this point. This very same brass indicated after it yielded two future first-round picks and change to move up to the No. 3 pick for Lance that Garoppolo’s injury history was the primary motive. In his first three full seasons with San Francisco, the Super Bowl quarterback missed 23 of a possible 48 games. That’s just not sustainable.
On the same note, a strong performance from Lance against one of the best teams in the NFL on the road could set into motion a changing of the guard.
The Finances Are Not Complicated
Playing under a five-year, $137.5 million extension he signed back in February of 2018, Garoppolo is counting $26.38 million against the cap this season. He has a cap hit of $27 million in 2022, $25.6 million of which San Francisco would save by either trading or releasing the veteran quarterback.
As for Lance, he signed a four-year, $34.1 million rookie contract this past summer. The young signal caller is counting $6.2 million against the cap in 2021 with a $7.75 million hit next season.
While unlikely, the 49ers could find a trade partner for Garoppolo ahead of November’s deadline should he return 100% and Lance retain the starting job. The likelier scenario here is Lance performing at a high level and expediting Garoppolo’s departure from Northern California following the 2021 season.
After all, finances certainly play a role in the salary cap era. For San Francisco’s, that’s especially true with stars Deebo Samuel and Nick Bosa set for potential extensions following the 2021 campaign.
All Things Equal, It Should Be Trey Lance
On the field, there’s a simple question that must be asked. What does Garoppolo provide San Francisco’s offense that Lance doesn’t? Sure the rookie 21-year-old will make his mistakes. There’s a learning curve going from playing small-school college football to going up against the likes of J.J. Watt and Aaron Donald in the NFC West.
With that said, it’s not like Garoppolo hasn’t been turnover-prone in recent starts. Week 3’s loss to the Green Bay Packers (interception, lost fumble) is a prime example of this.
If Lance can continue to make the wow plays that have failed to define Garoppolo’s tenure in Northern California, the mistakes will be easier to handle. Being asked to manage games while turning the ball over, like what we’ve seen from Garoppolo, is not acceptable in the grand scheme of things.
Regardless of our opinions regarding these two quarterbacks, one thing is rather clear. San Francisco did not move off two future first-round picks for Lance simply to be holding a clipboard. Whether it was Week 5, later this season or in 2022, he was going to be anointed the starter. It’s better for a non-championship contending 49ers team to see what it has in Lance now. Who knows? Lightning could hit in a bottle. We’ll see soon enough Sunday against Arizona.