When the 49ers traded three first-round NFL Draft picks to move up and select quarterback Trey Lance No. 3 overall in the spring of 2021, they expected they were picking the franchise’s future.
Three years later, he’s San Francisco’s No. 3 quarterback.
And that might be a generous interpretation.
So why is he still on the team?
This preseason is Lance’s chance to show that he still has a future with the Niners, but his performance in Sunday’s preseason debut against the Raiders makes it hard to imagine what that future might be.
In Brock Purdy, the 49ers believe they have their franchise quarterback.
The Niners believe they have capable, veteran backups in Sam Darnold and Brandon Allen. Both looked good in Las Vegas.
What do the 49ers have in Lance?
Still, a raw and bewildering prospect in his third NFL season.
That’s why if the 49ers can get any draft pick in a trade for Lance today, they should take it.
Yes, the Niners might have run out of quarterbacks last season, but the roughly $9 million in salary-cap savings trading Lance would provide the Niners over the next two seasons could be put to better use than a super-depth, prospect quarterback.
It’s a status that serves neither the 49ers nor Lance.
The stat sheet says Lance went 10-for-15 for 112 yards and a touchdown Sunday, but the real story was four sacks, three 3-and-outs to start the game, and an interception that bounced out of the defenders’ hands and became a touchdown for the Niners. There were flashes of positivity, but the negatives drowned them out.
Maybe the game was moving too fast for the inexperienced quarterback. Perhaps a nervous Lance was too tentative. Both things could be concurrently true. There’s no question Lance’s performance Sunday was tough to watch.
There will always be excuses. He has absolutely lacked on-field time in his first two seasons because of injuries. And yes, he was playing behind a second-string offensive line Sunday.
But the truth is this: Lance is competing for a backup job, and Sunday, he was playing against the other team’s backups. You can’t grade him on the curve, and you can’t pretend a preseason game doesn’t matter.
If the preseason didn’t matter, Purdy wouldn’t be on this team. His preseason performances last year convinced the Niners to move on from veteran backup Nate Sudfeld, eating millions of dollars in the process. Purdy was undeniable last preseason. He forced the Niners’ hands.
Without a dramatic turnaround in the next preseason game — Saturday against the Broncos in Santa Clara — Lance will do the same this year.
“I gotta be better. It’s not on those guys,” Lance told KPIX-TV of his teammates Sunday. “They did a great job and were competing our butts off.
“There’s pressure in these games,” Shanahan told reporters after Sunday’s loss.
Yes, there is.
And there’s even more pressure on this season.
The Niners’ Super Bowl window is open today, and no one knows how long these windows last. Shanahan’s roster should be 53 players who can help them win right now. The preseason is a great opportunity to determine who some of those players are.
I do not doubt the Niners coach would trust Darnold and Allen to start a regular-season (or, heaven forbid, a playoff) game over Lance today.
The Niners can’t cut Lance — it wouldn’t save any money against the salary cap. Yet it seems ridiculous to cut Allen instead of him.
So what are we doing here, other than creating a perfect example of the sunk-cost fallacy?
If there’s a pick, take it, shake the kid’s hand, and wish him the best of luck in his next stop. Heaven knows he didn’t get any here.
Has Lance’s NFL career been unlucky to start? Absolutely.
And while plenty will call him a “bust” in the coming days, that doesn’t seem fair, seeing as Lance has only started four NFL games.
That said, no one — not even No. 3 overall picks — is entitled to anything in the NFL. This is especially true when you’re dealing with a title-contending team.
Don’t believe me? Ask Darnold, the No. 3 overall pick in 2018, who is on his third NFL team.
Or ask defensive end Clelin Ferrell, who was the No. 4 overall pick in 2019, selected by the Raiders, but just signed a deal with the Niners that guaranteed him only $580,000 this season.
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The only thing that matters in this league is performance, and when the Niners signed Darnold and Allen, they told Lance as much. Sunday, he dug himself a deeper hole. I doubt it’s one he can escape.
Is this what the Niners want to focus on ahead of this critical season?
Lance has the talent to play in this league. And while I don’t know him off the field, I haven’t heard a foul word about him as a person from anyone in Santa Clara. It wouldn’t shock me if he eventually had a nice NFL career as a starting quarterback — a Ryan Tannehill or Geno Smith-like arc.
But if that success is to come, it will be for another team.
The sooner the Niners can make that move, the happier everyone will be.