SANTA CLARA, Calif. — After a month of endless speculation and debate that left coach Kyle Shanahan amused at the public discourse, the San Francisco 49ers let the world know who their next franchise quarterback would be Thursday night.
No, it wasn’t longtime betting favorite Mac Jones. Nor was it Ohio State’s dual-threat dynamo, Justin Fields.
It was Trey Lance, the player considered one of the biggest risks in the draft because of his small, 17-game sample at FCS powerhouse North Dakota State, but also the one who many believe boasts more upside than any quarterback in the draft.
With the Niners’ selection of Lance, this is the highest a team has drafted a quarterback only one season removed from a Super Bowl appearance in NFL history, surpassing the Green Bay Packers’ choice of Don Horn at No. 25 in 1967, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Lance’s addition was a bold choice befitting the equally daring move the Niners made to move from No. 12 to No. 3 to acquire him. It was also a stealthy operation that Shanahan and Lynch said had them taking great pains to keep secret their desire to ultimately select Lance, even as the Jones speculation swirled around them.
“We have been very high on Trey since the beginning, since day one,” Shanahan said. “Yes, the person everyone else is speculating about, we liked him, too, but it was just honestly to go through this whole process where no one has known — my friends, coaches, anybody — how John and I feel and how we felt this whole time.
“I would never have said it couldn’t have ended up being him, but I know how we felt about Trey the whole time, and to watch that happen and kind of watch everyone just assumes because a couple people say something that’s exactly how you feel, we weren’t going to work to correct that. At all. We thought that could be an advantage for us. … If the whole NFL is assuming you’re doing one thing and you’re not doing that, I’m not going to work hard to correct that. So, let that be.”
In selecting Lance, the future of incumbent starter Jimmy Garoppolo lingers, though Shanahan issued a mea culpa Thursday night for his comments made earlier this week.
On Monday, Shanahan was asked if he believed Garoppolo would still be on the team come Sunday. Shanahan said he could make no guarantees about the roster because he couldn’t guarantee anyone would even still be alive on Sunday.
Shanahan said Thursday he immediately called Garoppolo after the comment to let him know what he meant.
“I totally bombed that on Monday,” Shanahan said. “I hated how that came off. I talked to Jimmy about it right away. I even realized it when I did it. … It had nothing to do with Jimmy when I said I didn’t know if we’d be alive on Sunday. I was just trying not to give my typical answer of, ‘Guys, anybody could be traded if you get a bunch of ones. John could trade me and I shouldn’t be here on Sunday.’ That’s the answer for every person on our team.”
Shanahan went on to indicate that there are no immediate plans to trade Garoppolo, even after drafting Lance. That’s similar to the stance that Shanahan and Lynch had taken for most of the offseason but which seemed to soften when Shanahan made his comments Monday.
But other quarterback-needy teams such as the Chicago Bears (Fields), New England Patriots (Jones) and Denver Broncos (Teddy Bridgewater) acquired other quarterbacks this week, and there doesn’t appear to be an obvious landing spot for Garoppolo even if the Niners were motivated to trade him.
In addition, if the Niners did move on from Garoppolo, there’s no clear replacement for him in place as it would leave the 49ers with an unproven quarterback room consisting of Lance, Nate Sudfeld, Josh Rosen and Josh Johnson.
“Jimmy’s situation is, if he isn’t here on Sunday, I would be disappointed,” Shanahan said. “Because Jimmy is a quarterback who’s played one year and took us to a Super Bowl and played at a very high level. He’s had some unfortunate injuries, but I believe in Jimmy as a person, and he’s shown what he can do on tape. We made this move, it’s obvious what I hope and what I believe in with this guy coming in, but it would be a very tough situation if Jimmy’s not on our team. I want Jimmy to be here, and I want this kid brought along. I want to see how he does, and if it turns into a competition, it turns into a competition.”
How soon that might happen remains to be seen. In his abbreviated college career, Lance was equally adept using his arm and his legs to lead the Bison to a national championship in 2019. As a redshirt freshman, he threw 28 touchdowns with zero interceptions and became the only FCS player in the past 25 seasons to throw for at least 20 touchdowns and no interceptions. He also added 14 touchdowns and 1,100 rushing yards.
Lance was also the lone prospect among the top five quarterbacks to spend any meaningful amount of time playing under center and running many of the play-action concepts the 49ers like to employ consistently, which could help him adapt more quickly to Shanahan’s offense.
Although it would be unusual for a quarterback drafted as high as Lance to sit out his entire rookie season — Carson Palmer is the only one to do that in the common draft era back in 2003 — Lance didn’t seem like he was going to head to the Bay Area with any expectations for what his debut season could bring.
“I’m not really worried about it right away,” Lance said. “I’m just focused on getting there, learning as much as I possibly can, getting to know Jimmy and the guys in the room and learning and getting to know him and becoming close with him and just learning as much as I can and at that point, obviously competing.”
Of course, the 49ers’ long journey to land Lance had to come with one more dramatic twist in the 24 hours before it became official. On Wednesday, word made its way to Lynch that Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers might be available for trade.
Lynch made the call, but it didn’t go anywhere.
“You’re talking about the MVP of our league last year,” Lynch said. “Yeah, we inquired. It was a quick in to the conversation [but] it wasn’t happening. As we said, we have been convicted and excited for a long, long time so we went right back to where we’ve been and that’s really excited about adding Trey Lance to the 49ers and we’re thrilled about that.”