October 15, 2021

Here's How the 49ers Can Turn Trey Lance Into a Successful Starting QB in 2021

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan has been reticent to use Trey Lance in his rookie year, relying on Jimmy Garoppolo almost exclusively at quarterback until injury somewhat predictably forced his hand. 

Across his last six quarters against the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals, Lance has produced plenty of flashes of the dual-threat upside that led the Niners to trade three first-round picks to move up to third overall in the 2021 NFL Draft to select the inexperienced North Dakota State star.

However, the 49ers' offense has been inefficient with Lance under center. That is not solely his fault, with frustrating penalties and poor execution from his teammates contributing to San Francisco's defeat to the Cardinals in Week 5.

Yet Lance averaged minus-0.2 Expected Points Added per play in Week 5. With Garoppolo ranking seventh in the same metric over the course of the season to this point, it is perhaps no surprise Shanahan remains committed to him as the starter when healthy even with his physical skill set being vastly inferior to that of his first-year counterpart.

Shanahan, having seen his team go 2-3 in games all decided by one score, wants to win now and understandably sees Garoppolo as his best route to doing so.

A knee sprain to Lance may thrust Garoppolo, who is still recovering from a calf contusion, back into the starting role by default. But, when both are healthy, there is a formula for success that Shanahan could utilize with Lance in 2021 were he to elect to go with the rookie the rest of the way.

Spread 'Em Out

"Man, he's fast," Cardinals safety Budda Baker said of Lance, per, "He can get out of the pocket."

While Lance frequently broke from the pocket to escape pressure and pick up yardage with his legs, the Niners did not capitalize on the advantages his speed can create.

Of the designed runs called by Shanahan in Week 5, nine were up the middle, with the 49ers far too reliant on quarterback power runs and seemingly completely averse to using rollouts and bootlegs to get Lance in space with the option to run or pass.

And, though the Niners activated Travis Benjamin with Shanahan looking to use his speed, San Francisco essentially decided against using four-receiver sets that may have allowed them to do so effectively.

Per Sharp Football Stats, the Niners ran one play with four wide receivers. Thirty-five of their snaps featured either multiple running backs or tight ends.

Leaving backs and tight ends on the field for pass protection purposes is understandable with a rookie quarterback making his first start, but San Francisco's unwillingness to get Lance out of the pocket or use four-receiver sets meant the Niners restricted their ability to stress the defense both horizontally and vertically.

Should the Niners go back to Lance this season, more sets and more plays that take advantage of the physical gifts he and his receivers possess are a must.

Speed Things Up

Even with Lance making some impressive throws and excelling at improvising with his legs, what stood out about the 49ers' offense against the Cardinals was how slow it was.

The Niners moved the ball relatively well, but, with execution issues making life difficult for Lance, it looked like hard work.

Going no-huddle would likely have been challenging for San Francisco given the level of mistakes on offense, and it would have also required Lance to do a lot more at the line than perhaps he is ready for at this embryonic stage of his career.

But when the Niners had to go fast trailing 17-7 in the fourth quarter in Arizona, it was arguably when Lance and the rest of the team were at their best. San Francisco moved 46 yards in 56 seconds to set up a Joey Slye field goal.

Shanahan effusively praised Lance's intelligence in the wake of the draft and he performed checks at the line of scrimmage regularly in college.

The next time Lance is the starting quarterback, the Niners might be wise to put faith in his football acumen and potentially further the impact of his athleticism by speeding things up and occasionally going no-huddle to get opposing defenses on their heels.

Unleash the Playmakers

The Niners may not have the deepest receiving corps in the NFL, but they are not short of pass-catching talent.

Unfortunately for the 49ers, star tight end George Kittle is on injured reserve and out for the next two games and, while Deebo Samuel is enjoying what looks set to be a career year, Brandon Aiyuk's role in the offense has shrunk significantly.

It is not that Aiyuk isn't seeing the field — he played 46 of the 65 offensive snaps in Week 5 — it is that plays designed to go to the 2020 first-round pick have been scarce in a season many expected to be his breakout campaign.

Aiyuk received four targets against Arizona, as many as fullback Kyle Juszczyk. That is bemusing for a player for who the 49ers traded up for, and his target share does not appear to be increasing anytime soon. 

His first catch against Arizona was a superb diving effort on a pinpoint pass from Lance that saw the Niners convert on third down — something they managed just three times — and his second was a 26-yard catch and run that marked San Francisco's longest play of the game and came on the 49ers' lone touchdown drive.

Aiyuk was responsible for two of the Niners' most positive plays in a frustrating offensive performance and, after a seven-touchdown rookie year, his continued lack of prominence in the passing attack makes little sense and is a detriment to his quarterbacks.

Help Your Rookie

Regardless of whether it is Garoppolo or Lance at quarterback, Samuel, Aiyuk and, when healthy, Kittle all merit featured roles in the offense.

They are the weapons who have proven themselves as the most dynamic on San Francisco's roster and it is they who possess the talent to elevate Lance's game and minimize his mistakes.

Right now, it appears unlikely the 49ers will continue with Lance. However, should Shanahan do the unexpected and stick with the rookie, his best odds of a successful season would rest on the head coach's ability to produce a game plan that plays to Lance's strengths and consistently get the ball in the hands of the three players who can best enhance them.

Photo: Getty Images/Lines Illustration