Entering the 2021 NFL Draft, Trey Lance was seen as the quarterback prospect who was the least NFL-ready out of a loaded class with five first-round picks. That's why the 49ers kept Jimmy Garoppolo.
Lance had played in only one game during the 2020 college football season because of COVID-19, and by quarterback standards, he still was quite green. While his football IQ is off the charts and his athleticism and arm talent had many scouts salivating, Lance still needed time to fine-tune his mechanics, iron out the rough edges and develop into an NFL quarterback.
It was clear he wasn't ready during his first NFL career start in a 17-10 Week 5 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. There were plenty of positives -- Lance completed 15 of 29 passes for 192 yards with an interception, and also rushed for 89 yards on 16 carries -- but also a lot for the rookie to work on. The tools were evident, but with Garoppolo still on the team, the 49ers -- at least as they saw it -- had no need to throw Lance into the fire when they still had their sights set on the playoffs.
“You don’t just do that because you’re not playing the way you want to play and think you’re going to put a rookie in and think he’s going to be the answer to everything,” coach Kyle Shanahan said before the 49ers' Week 8 game against the Chicago Bears. “I don’t think that’s fair to him, and I don’t think that’s right for the team.
“I don’t think it’s the right time for him to start full time right now, especially when I don’t know if he can get through practice today. I want to see if he’s healthy today first. And then when he’s healthy, for more than one day, then we will see when it will be the best time for him.”
The 49ers stuck with Garoppolo, letting Lance develop in the shadows on the scout team and choosing not to throw him in the deep end before he was ready. Garoppolo responded and played well, registering eight consecutive games with a QBR over 90 before a Week 16 loss to the Tennessee Titans in which he suffered a Grade 3 sprain to the ulnar collateral ligament on his right thumb.
Garoppolo has yet to practice this week, and all signs point to Lance, now with almost a full season as 49ers under his belt, starting Sunday against the Houston Texans at Levi's Stadium.
All week, Lance's teammates, from Fred Warner to George Kittle and Trent Williams, have expressed confidence in the rookie's abilities and gushed over how the 21-year-old has diced up the 49ers' defense as the scout-team quarterback.
From everything that has been said over the past few weeks, Lance is becoming an NFL quarterback, no longer an FCS signal-caller who's two years removed from real week-to-week action and attempting to learn the professional ropes.
"He's a charismatic, humble, young kid," 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel said Thursday of Lance's evolution as a pro. "It's like going to a new school. At first, you see glimmers of someone's personality, but if you have any social awareness, you kind of feel it out and see your place.
"The NFL season is almost like two seasons of college football. So, what's the difference between being a freshman in college and a junior? I think people really respect his work ethic. That's earned, not given, and you feel that as a player, and you allow it to all hang out. He's really just another player on the team, and on this team, there's no room for individuals or I’s.
"It's all about what's the best for the 49ers, and the way he diligently tries to work at his craft, I think, is very impactful to his teammates. And much like we were talking about with [wide receiver] Brandon Aiyuk, kind of showing his personality. That's kind of what we've experienced with Trey, and understanding that players want him to lead and him actually embracing that. And you can hear it in his voice. You can hear it in how he handles his teammates. It's been cool to watch."
That personal development dovetails with the professional growth as a quarterback. Garoppolo has talked about how his time on the New England Patriots' scout team helped him become an NFL starter.
It has been four months since Lance arrived at training camp. It has been almost three months since his last meaningful NFL snap. It's the equivalent of an entire college football season that Lance has spent playing the role of Matthew Stafford, Russell Wilson, Kirk Cousins and others in practice.
In college or on a team without a veteran starter, Lance's progress would have been seen every Saturday or Sunday. With the 49ers, it has been done in the shadows, but the evolution has occurred, nonetheless.
"The last couple of months, I think there has been a huge improvement," Kittle said Thursday. "Whatever you guys saw in camp, I think he has been way better than that. He looks more mature in the pocket.
“You can tell how much he cares about the game and his passion for it, his love for it,” Kittle said later. “Whether that is inspiring or motivating, I kind of think it is a little bit of both. You can tell how much work he puts in.”
Improvement doesn't happen overnight. It's built on repetition -- day-in, day-out work that serves as the catalyst for the growth needed to harness vast potential.
"I think Trey has done an outstanding job over the past month or so," 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said Thursday. "You can definitely see the improvement. He's done a really good job of being more aggressive, taking shots on us, and really threading the ball in some really tight coverage. So, he's done a really good job as far as challenging us, making it definitely harder for our guys to defend. I was definitely encouraged by what he's done over the past month or so. It looks really well, so I'm pleased with Trey.”
“Well, it's just deliberate practice," McDaniel echoed Thursday. "You're going each and every day. Trey's a very smart dude, and so he takes coaching very well. You want to be specific because he'll hear everything you say, and he will try to apply it. So, it's just deliberate practice day in, day out. We have direct coaching points that we've over time kind of established as our core fundamental principles. So, it's just really day in, day out saying, ‘OK, we want you to play with the base better, improve that.’ And so he diligently does it and applies it every time possible."
That leads us to Sunday, where Lance is trending toward starting for a 49ers team that can finish an impressive turnaround by clinching an NFC wild-card playoff spot with a win and a New Orleans Saints loss.
Lance might not have been "ready" in Week 1, 5, or 8. Garoppolo played well enough to give the rookie the time needed to fine-tune behind the scenes, hone his craft and learn the ins and outs of NFL quarterbacking. That doesn't mean there won't be rookie mistakes Sunday if Lance starts. Or in Week 18 or the playoffs if Garoppolo can't go then, too.
But it does mean that Lance's daily growth as the scout-team quarterback and Sunday Microsoft Surface holder should have him prepared to step on an NFL field and do what his contemporaries have during their first season: learn, thrive, fail and grow.
The glowing reports about Lance's progress should tell us one of two things heading into a Week 17 game against a frisky but under-talented Texans team. Lance should be ready now. If he's not, perhaps he never will be.