49ers

Lance vs. Jimmy G isn't as clear of choice as many believe

49ers
Trey Lance

The groundswell for the 49ers to start Trey Lance began almost immediately after San Francisco turned in the card to select the North Dakota State product with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Lance admitted he was behind in rookie minicamp and OTAs, but he went to work in the 40 days before training camp and wowed almost instantly, setting social media on fire with several eye-opening throws. With every downfield dime and heat-seeking fastball, the call for Lance to unseat Jimmy Garoppolo as the starting quarterback for the 49ers' Week 1 tilt against the Detroit Lions has grown louder.

Two up-and-down preseason performances from Lance haven't calmed the chatter. Lance has been far from perfect in his first real NFL action, going 13-for-28 for 230 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. But the bad has been overshadowed by the good and the possibility of what a fully actualized Lance will look like in Kyle Shanahan's offense.

Lance is, of course, the future. The 49ers traded multiple picks to go up and draft him as Shanahan and general manager John Lynch took their destiny into their own hands. But should Lance be handed the reins immediately? Should he also be the present?

The answer isn't as clear and obvious as those on either side of the argument believe it is.

Let's start with what is obvious: Lance's upside is much higher than Garoppolo's. It's also incredibly hard to judge Lance's preseason performance given the fact that he has rarely used his legs (one rush, 8 yards) and Shanahan hasn't put the QB run game into play because there's no reason to.

 

The fact that Lance has made what wasn't supposed to be a competition a nail-biter without showing off his athleticism in-game speaks to his overall talent. Lance still is working on fine-tuning his mechanics and possibly tinkering with his velocity. If the 49ers do start Lance, the variance will, at least initially, be high.

His talent will give the offense a higher ceiling. Still, he's also going to have learning moments that could frustrate his offensive genius head coach and, potentially, cost a team with Super Bowl aspirations a win in a division where every game counts.

But another thing working in Lance's favor is the 49ers' schedule. San Francisco opens in Detroit before heading to Philadelphia to play the Eagles. It's hard to imagine a better first two games for a rookie quarterback to get his feet wet in, aside from starting against the Atlanta Falcons and the Raiders.

Last season, the Lions ranked 31st in opponent passing yards per game (284.9) and last in average team passer rating against (112.4). The Eagles ranked 14 (237.4) and 28 (102.4) in those respective categories, and there has been little in the offseason or preseason to make anyone think either of those defensive units will be much better in 2021.

The 49ers also are projected to face the 26th ranked pass defense in 2021 as opposed to fifth in 2020. All that bodes well for Lance and the passing offense to be very explosive this season.

Lance also has the added benefit of Shanahan scheming plays to make his life easier. Of the five first-round rookie quarterbacks, Lance, Mac Jones (Josh McDaniels), and Zach Wilson (Mike LaFleur) have play-callers who will put them in a position to succeed. No one is better at scheming guys wide open than Shanahan, and Lance's athleticism will put even more of a strain on the defense, thus giving Shanahan even more options with which to torment opponents.

The upside, the run-game wrinkle, the scheme and the schedule all work in Lance's favor. Plus, having a good quarterback on a rookie contract is arguably one of the most important factors in winning a Super Bowl, and wasting one of those years is foolish if the quarterback is ready to start now.

However, there is another side of the coin.

It's easy to get excited about a rookie quarterback. Fans in Chicago are ready to erect a statue of Justin Fields, New Englanders have been thawed from their long one-year winter without a quarterback and are praising Mac Jones, and the New York Jets, the freakin' Jets, believe Zach Wilson is the signal-caller who will deliver them from years of misery.

Hope always springs eternal in the NFL, and that's never more true than when a team drafts a quarterback in the first round.

 

But NFL history tells us that rookie quarterbacks rarely are top-level signal-callers in their first season. As The Athletic's Sheil Kapadia noted, In the last 10 years, 31 rookie quarterbacks have taken significant snaps in their first season. Of those 31, only seven performed as above-average starters per Expected Points Added Per Play. Those seven are Andrew Luck, Dak Prescott, Justin Herbert, Jameis Winston, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III.

Of course, Lance could end up being No. 8 -- and Shanahan pulling the strings gives him a better chance -- but history says things are likely to be rocky if he sees significant time.

The 49ers' offense also has been surgical when Garoppolo has been healthy and on the field. The 49ers are 22-8 when Garoppolo is the starter and have a top-five offense in terms of EPA per play. They rank 27 when anyone else is under center.

Garoppolo, when healthy, has been a good starting quarterback. He has a clear ceiling, but he led the 49ers to a Super Bowl and was 10 minutes away from hoisting the Lombardi Trophy and likely being named MVP.

RELATED: Grading rookie QBs after two preseason games

Lance's preseason performance also hasn't been so spectacular to suggest he is the clear choice over Garoppolo.

Shanahan excels at scheming receivers open and asks his quarterback to make quick decisions and accurate throws to allow the receiver to rack up yards after the catch. Next Gen Stats shows Shanahan did this with Garoppolo in 2020 and the veteran quarterback didn't excel at hitting his target.

In 2020, Garoppolo ranked first in the NFL in best expected completion rate but ranked 38th in completion rate over expectation. What do these stats mean? In short, Shanahan was scheming easy throws for Garoppolo and he wasn't converting at a high rate.

So, you might think that opens the door even wider for Lance to take the job. But Lance's numbers in his two preseason games haven't been anything to write home about.

In terms of completion rate over expectation, Lance ranks last among the five first-round rookie quarterbacks at minus-18.2 percent. In 2020, Garoppolo posted a minus-3.6 in that category. In 2019, he posted a plus-1.7, which ranked ninth in the NFL. It's fair to assume that Garoppolo's 2020 struggles are at least partly a product of his high-ankle injuries.

While Shanahan has said he is pleased with the progress Lance has shown with his fundamentals, the rookie also ranks 50th in the preseason in percentage of uncatchable balls thrown (min. 20 attempts), with 35 percent of his throws being uncatchable, per PFF. For contract, Mac Jones (six percent) and Zach Wilson (12 percent) both rank in the top 10.

It's easy to dismiss preseason numbers and performance, but there is a place for them. Lance has, for the most part, been facing the second and third-string defenses and still has struggled at times with his accuracy and has only posted a 50.5 PFF grade. Lance also has had seven passes dropped, which is the most of any quarterback, so his completion percentage (46.4) should at least be over the 50 percent mark.

 

All this makes the 49ers' decision that much harder as Week 1 nears.

Shanahan entered camp saying Garoppolo was the unquestioned starter. He left the 49ers' second preseason game refusing to name a Week 1 signal-caller. Part of that certainly is Shanahan, enjoying how everyone ate themselves over the Mac Jones rumors pre-draft and seeing no need to tip his hand.

Lance is the 49ers' future. No one could blame Shanahan for wanting that future to be now, especially with the 49ers primed to make a run back to the Super Bowl. But Garoppolo has been good when healthy and it might be easier for all parties to name Garoppolo the starter with a short leash and yank him if he falters.

Having Garoppolo be the starter with the Lance package sprinkled in will allow the rookie to continue to polish his mechanics without hoisting the Super Bowl or bust pressure on him immediately.

But if Lance is ready, he's ready.

Only Shanahan knows if that time is now. Either way, the decision isn't as clear-cut as anyone believes.

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