Kittle confident in Lance but believes Jimmy G will start

Trey Lance, Jimmy Garoppolo

After starting the season 3-5, the 49ers could clinch a playoff spot Sunday with a win over the Houston Texans at Levi's Stadium, plus some help elsewhere.

The 49ers might have to punch their ticket without quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who sustained a Grade 3 sprain — a complete tear — of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right thumb during the 49ers' Week 16 loss to the Tennessee Titans. While Garoppolo is confident he can play through the pain, the 49ers might need to turn to rookie quarterback Trey Lance with their playoff hopes on the line in the final two weeks.

If Lance is called into action, star tight end George Kittle has all the faith in the world in the No. 3 overall draft pick.

"I will say this about Trey: I think Trey has matured a lot over the course of the season," Kittle told 95.7 The Game's "Damon & Ratto" on Wednesday. "I can kind of see the difference between OTAs to training camp to this last month. I know Coach [Kyle] Shanahan said he thinks Trey's done a really good job on scout team. I would second that."

Lance hasn't taken a meaningful snap since Week 5 against the Arizona Cardinals, as Garoppolo played some of the best football of his career prior to the loss to the Titans. Still, Lance's teammates clearly have been impressed with the growth they have seen from the rookie on the practice field.


"I think his confidence has continued to grow and grow," linebacker Fred Warner said Wednesday. "I think early on in the season, working on the scout team, he was more playing things a little safer, and using his legs a lot to try to extend and to run, and didn’t want to throw an interception."

"Trey was at practice today. It was fun to play with Trey. I'm confident in him, and I don't really have any doubts," Kittle said on 95.7 The Game. "I think he's a hell of a football player. I'm just excited to see whatever comes this Sunday. Whether it's Trey, whether it's Jimmy, I think it's going to work itself out."

Lance's growth on the scout team, in part, stemmed from a message from Warner to let it rip.

"First of all, we weren't getting the work that we needed to defend balls down the field," Warner said. "That's why you saw that on game day. For his sake, I'm like, 'Listen, this is your opportunity to take chances and develop in that part of your game. Take a chance. See if you can fit the ball into tight spaces. Or, can you throw on the run and make a pass down the field?' "

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Warner previously has said that Lance has "diced up" the 49ers' defense in practice, and Shanahan told reporters Monday that the rookie is fresh off his best week of practice.

“[It] is all scout team, but the same plays as us,” Shanahan said via conference call. “That just shows how consistently he has been throwing the ball, how he is moving, his accuracy, his decisions, everything. 

“You have to do a lot of stuff and try stuff you normally wouldn’t do all the time, not on scout team. And I think if you talk to the defensive coaches, defensive players, or myself watching it, I think we'd all feel the same.”

While the 49ers are confident Lance can do the job if called on, Kittle isn't counting out Garoppolo from gutting through the pain and starting this week.

"We have a long time until Sunday, so however Jimmy feels, Jimmy's a very tough individual. He can play through a lot of things," Kittle said. "My expectations are that Jimmy will be on the field on Sunday. There's a lot of time for healing and swelling to go away, or whatever needs to happen to happen. Like I said, Jimmy's dealt with a lot and played through a lot, and we'll just see how the week takes us."

Garoppolo has been the 49ers' unquestioned leader this season, while Lance, the team's future, has spent his first season mainly in the background, fine-tuning his skills for when his time comes.

That time just might come Sunday, and very well could mark the end of Garoppolo's time with the 49ers.


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