The 2021 NFL Draft's longest-running smokescreen finally evaporated Thursday night.
For the last month, everything has been pointing to the 49ers selecting Alabama quarterback Mac Jones with the No 3 overall pick. Still, general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan had everyone fooled (or changed their mind in recent days) and selected North Dakota State star Trey Lance instead.
Lance, 20, only started 17 games in his collegiate career (the same number as Jones) but engineered a nearly-perfect offense for the Bison in 2019, completing 192 of 288 passes for 2,788 yards, 28 touchdowns and no interceptions. He also ran 169 times for 1,100 yards and 14 touchdowns.
While still raw, Lance has all the tools to become a star in the NFL with the proper development. Lance is a 6-foot-4, 227-pound bulldozer who can stop on a dime and fling the ball 50 yards with little effort. He was impressive on play-action throws in 2019, going 73 of 114 for 1,156 yards, 17 touchdowns and no interceptions, per SportsInfoSolutions, and was good when taking shots down the field, completing 20 of 53 passes of 20 or more air yards for 807 yards and 12 touchdowns.
In short, Lance can do it all. And, of the three quarterbacks on the board, he probably was best suited to run Shanahan's lethal offensive attack.
In 2019 at North Dakota State, Lance booted, a staple of the Shanahan offense, on 14 percent of plays, using a range of nakeds, deep shots, throwbacks and intermediate looks. Lance has an excellent feel for the quick-passing game, which is a staple of the West Coast offense, and his play-fake proficiency coupled with a live arm and ability to be a real running threat made him an appealing option.
The biggest issue with Lance comes in his consistency and accuracy as his footwork can get a bit wonky and his ball placement can suffer. In his 17 starts, only 47.1 percent of Lance's passes were charted as accurate, with 24.4 percent being deemed uncatchable. A lot of that has to do with the mini-dip in Lance's delivery, which can be coached out but also will be exploited at the NFL level.
While Shanahan is a wizard at scheming guys open, the receivers won't be as open as Lance's North Dakota State targets were, and if he can't put the ball on the money, then he will need to rush for 1,000 yards to be successful. His accuracy especially struggled when trying to make close-window throws in the intermediate area of the field.
He has natural arm talent but and is good on the move but struggles when throwing from a compromised platform.
There is a whole lot to like about Lance. Everything listed above seems to highlights someone who would thrive in the 49ers' system and has the galaxy-level ceiling you trade a boatload of capital to acquire.
In 2017, Shanahan spoke about the search for a truly elite thrower, of which he believes there are very few.
“You’re always looking for one of those seven throwers on the planet, whatever that number is," Shanahan said. "I’m guessing there’s only around seven. So you better not only be set on that, saying, ‘Hey, I need one of those seven guys.’ I hope to get one of those seven guys, but if you don’t, you got to find other ways to win.”
Lance is young and raw, but he has top-level arm talent. He's a ball of clay who can be molded into whatever Shanahan wants. Lance has the arm, the brain and the athleticism to be a star.
Shanahan, the quarterback whisperer, might be the perfect guy to fine-tune Lance and send him hurtling toward his superstar ceiling.
All of the issues and question marks with Lance can be ironed out with a year to sit and develop behind Jimmy Garoppolo and next to Kyle Shanahan.
The 49ers have the ideal situation in place to let Lance develop
Lance has arguably the highest ceiling of any QB in the class if he puts it all together. If we have learned anything in the past few years with Josh Allen and Justin Herbert, it's that you bet on the guys with all the tools. Put them in the right situation and good things will follow.
The 49ers and Shanahan are the right situation for Lance.