The 49ers, the franchise of Hall of Fame quarterbacks Y.A. Tittle, Joe Montana and Steve Young, hope they have found a passer who will add to their rich legacy in Trey Lance.
But even after drafting the North Dakota State quarterback with the No. 3 pick, they might not be in a hurry to find out if the rookie can follow in those footsteps. That’s because the big-armed, dual-threat talent made only 17 starts and threw 318 passes at the FCS level and has played in just one game since January 2020.
Lance might need time to develop. And the 49ers can afford to be patient. They still have quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who helped lead them to the Super Bowl after the 2019 season. And the 49ers think they have the roster to make another title run following last year’s 6–10 season, which they view as an attrition-filled aberration after they led the NFL with 32 injured-reserve transactions.
As it relates to Lance, the future may not be now. But even if the rookie sits for a season, the immediate future could be bright for the 49ers.
Garoppolo’s injuries inspired the 49ers to draft his replacement. He’s made 28 starts and missed 23 games over the past three seasons (including playoffs). But Garoppolo has been a capable quarterback when he’s been available. The 49ers have a 24–9 record in games he’s started during his tenure, and he was the only NFL QB to rank among the top five in passing TDs, completion percentage and yards per attempt in 2019, his lone full season as a starter. Still, head coach Kyle Shanahan has acknowledged that he would be “excited” if the raw-but-talented Lance was ready to compete for the job in 2021. And Shanahan is “intrigued” by how Lance’s running ability — he rushed for 1,100 yards in 2019 — could add new wrinkles to an offense that’s typically been led by a pocket passer.
The good news for whoever is playing quarterback: He should have a strong supporting cast that includes All-Pro tight end George Kittle and two dynamic, young wide receivers. Last year, the 49ers traded up in the first round to select Brandon Aiyuk, who had the most catches (60) by a rookie wideout in franchise history, breaking the record of 57 held by teammate Deebo Samuel, a second-round pick in 2019. The 49ers’ lack of pass-catching depth could be an issue after they didn’t use one of their eight draft picks on a wide receiver or tight end. They don’t have a clear candidate to replace slot receiver Kendrick Bourne, who signed with the Patriots in March, and tight end Jordan Reed retired in April after an injury-marred debut season with the 49ers.
Garoppolo or Lance will play behind an offensive line that includes four first-round picks, a group that features two perennial Pro Bowl selections in left tackle Trent Williams and center Alex Mack, who was signed in March. The other first-rounders, left guard Laken Tomlinson and right tackle Mike McGlinchey, could be joined by rookie guard Aaron Banks, a second-round pick who was McGlinchey’s teammate at Notre Dame. Banks will have to beat out versatile incumbent right guard Daniel Brunskill, who has also started games at tackle and center the past two seasons.
The backfield is almost comically crowded after the 49ers drafted two running backs for the first time since 1991. Third-round pick Trey Sermon and sixth-rounder Elijah Mitchell join Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson Jr. and Wayne Gallman Jr., who was signed in April. The 49ers added Sermon and Mitchell with an eye to the future amid memories of the recent past. Mostert, Wilson and Gallman are scheduled to be free agents in 2022. And Shanahan wanted plenty of depth after Mostert and Wilson combined to miss 12 games due to injures in 2020.
Last year, the 49ers ranked fifth in the NFL in total defense even though pass rushers Nick Bosa and Dee Ford and cornerback Richard Sherman, combined to miss 40 games due to injuries. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh deserved plenty of credit for that, but he’s now the Jets head coach, and the reins have been handed over to DeMeco Ryans, 36, a rookie in the role.
Ryans will oversee a defensive line that features four first-round picks: Bosa, Ford, Javon Kinlaw and Arik Armstead. Bosa, the 2019 Defensive Rookie of the Year, will be returning from a torn ACL, and Ford’s status is iffy as he continues to rehab his back injury. Meanwhile, Kinlaw, the No. 14 pick in 2020, and Armstead, who signed a five-year, $85 million deal last year, combined for just five sacks in 2020. The 49ers added pass rushers Samson Ebukam and Arden Key in free agency, but this doesn’t have quite the same look as the relentless 2019 unit that powered the Super Bowl run.
The second level in the 4-3 defense is manned by All-Pro inside linebacker Fred Warner, who has emerged as one of the league’s best defensive players. The team signed him to a five-year, $95 million contract extension before the start of training camp. Warner (6'3", 230), Dre Greenlaw (6'0", 230) and Azeez Al-Shaair (6'2", 228), the favorite to start at strongside linebacker, are speedy modern-day linebackers who excel in pass coverage; last year, the 49ers allowed the fewest catches (53) and receiving yards (481) to tight ends. This unit is a bit thin after the 49ers traded Kwon Alexander to the Saints last year and didn’t address the position in the draft. Undrafted rookie Elijah Sullivan, who received $125,000 guaranteed to sign, could have a strong chance to make the 53-man roster.
The 49ers caught a break in the secondary when the depressed free agent market allowed them to re-sign slot cornerback K’Waun Williams and strong safety Jaquiski Tartt on modest one-year deals. Tartt will rejoin free safety Jimmie Ward and could be pushed by fifth-round pick Talanoa Hufanga, a first-team AP All-American in his final season at USC. Without Sherman, a free agent, oft-injured Jason Verrett, a former first-round pick who had a brilliant comeback season in 2020, will serve as the No. 1 cornerback. Emmanuel Moseley will man the other outside spot, but there are no proven backup options. The 49ers hope they addressed their depth issues with two draft picks, third-rounder Ambry Thomas and fifth-rounder Deommodore Lenoir. It’s possible one of the rookies will need to play a prominent role given Verrett’s injury history: He played in just six games from 2016-19 before making 13 starts last year.
Kicker Robbie Gould, 38, who ranks sixth in NFL history in field-goal percentage, appears capable of excelling into his 40s. He signed a two-year extension with $7.25 million guaranteed after he made 19-of-21 field goals last before going 0-for-2 in his final game of the season. Punter Mitch Wishnowsky hasn’t quite realized the expectations that came with him as a fourth-round pick in 2019, but he had a solid 2020 season, ranking 11th in net punting average and ninth in kicks dropped inside the 20-yard line. The 49ers will probably have training-camp auditions for a punt returner. Last year, wide receiver Richie James lost the job after he lost two fumbles. An intriguing candidate, at least on a part-time basis, is Aiyuk, who led the Pac-12 in punt-return average (16.1) in his final season at Arizona State in 2019.
The 49ers reached the Super Bowl two seasons ago led by the NFL’s second-ranked defense. If they return to the title game this season, it might be because their offense does the heavy lifting. They have a potentially dominant offensive line, a loaded backfield, dynamic pass-catching weapons in Kittle, Samuel and Aiyuk and one of the NFL’s best play-callers in Shanahan. They also have an enviable situation at QB: an above-average starter in Garoppolo, who could at some point be replaced by Lance, a rookie whose skill set could add another dimension to a potent attack.