The NFL Draft has passed and optional team activities are now in full swing. The teams are back on the field. Their newly drafted rookies have begun to integrate themselves into their new roles. Yet, the 49ers quarterback room is as muddied as ever. The key question is, what do the 49ers plan to do at quarterback? Let’s take a look at the trio to try and get a better feel for exactly how this mess will play out.
A Rough Start to His NFL Career
John Lynch gave up the farm to draft Trey Lance No. 3 overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. San Francisco was originally slotted to select No. 12 overall. However, they traded that pick, a 2022 1st Rounder, a 2022 3rd Round Pick, and 2023 1st Round Pick. This was no doubt a projection-based pick because Lance had a lot of good traits. Lance came out of college as a highly touted, yet developmental quarterback who had loads of potential but no real refinement to his game. Not only was he raw, but he posted limited production over his three years at North Dakota State.
Through the first two seasons of his NFL career, Lance has mostly been on the sidelines or injured. He has played in just six games over two seasons. In 2021 he started only six games as it took him the majority of the season to finally win the starting job. His six games on the field produced a modest 603-yards passing while adding in five passing touchdowns and an additional 168 rushing yards. 2022 saw Lance begin the season as the starting quarterback. In 2022, he played in only two games before he suffered a broken ankle. This injury caused him to miss the remainder of the season.
Lance passed for 194 yards and no touchdowns before the injury. This brings his two-year total to 797 passing yards. Going into this offseason, fantasy managers everywhere appear to have jumped ship in record numbers. His stock has fallen from being valued similarly to Anthony Richardson to being available in trades for a second or third-round rookie picks. By all accounts, the San Francisco coaching staff has cut their losses and will turn over the team to Brock Purdy eventually. This is probably in their best interest. However, this is a huge hit to the credibility of John Lynch.
Whether this is posturing or not remains to be seen. If they were hoping to trade Lance, it’s likely they would have done a better job to talk him up. This may signal that this is the end of the road for Lance. He may never get another chance to win back to the 49ers starting job. That’s not to say he won’t get a chance elsewhere.
Contrary to Trey Lance, John Lynch spent almost no draft capital to select Brock Purdy. Purdy was the last pick in the 2022 NFL Draft and was largely seen as a practice squad player until a Week 13 season-ending injury to Jimmy Garoppolo thrust him into the spotlight. Purdy was a solid producer of fantasy from the second he stepped on the field. In his first game in relief he scored 21.55 fantasy points against the Miami Dolphins. Purdy followed that up with 23 or more fantasy points in four of his final five games.
In his nine appearances in 2022 (three brief appearances in relief), he has been quite a bit more efficient as a passer than Lance. Purdy also accounted for twice as many touchdowns in his time as quarterback. The rushing upside for Purdy may not be as high as Lance. However, the potential to be a long-term, reliable pocket passer is a massive difference-maker for fantasy managers who roster him.
Mr. Irrelevant Comes Out of Nowhere
While Purdy was not seen nearly as highly coming out of college, his production easily trumps that of Lance. Purdy also played against better competition. In his four years at Iowa State, he proved he could be a productive college quarterback. The big question was whether or not he would be a good NFL player. Clearly, no one saw Purdy coming.
This may simply be a case of the NFL getting carried away with a dual-threat quarterback while burying your more traditional pocket passer. That’s not to say that Purdy should have been regarded as highly as Lance. It’s entirely possible that the NFL grossly overvalued Lance, while grossly undervaluing Purdy. In a league where general managers and fantasy managers alike flock to rushing quarterbacks in numbers, Purdy may serve to show why you shouldn’t write off the traditional archetype of quarterback just yet.
Darnold did not come out of college as highly touted as Trey Lance, but it was close. In 2018, the dual-threat quarterback was not a fad, and your typical strong-arm quarterbacks were all the rage. This led to Darnold climbing his way up draft boards.
The 49ers brought in Sam Darnold this offseason on a one-year deal. This would seem to indicate that they doubt one or more of the quarterbacks above him on the depth chart.
He produced at a backup level in his two seasons as a starter totaling in the 2,000 to 2,500 passing yard range both times. He did this while throwing for nine passing touchdowns in both seasons. These are not impressive numbers to say the least.
In his three NFL seasons, he has yet to hit a completion percentage over 60-percent. Additionally, Darnold offers little to no rushing upside except a four-game stretch to start 2021 where he scored a rushing touchdown in four consecutive games. It’s safe to say we can ignore everything the 49ers brass is saying about Darnold potentially starting. He is little more than a “break glass in case of emergency” quarterback that is on the team in the event of the failure of both Purdy and Lance.
In college, Darnold was by far the most prolific of the three while playing against the stiffest competition. Coming out of college Darnold was widely viewed as the Jets franchise quarterback. He was hailed as the quarterback that would lead them to the promised land. But after a year of “seeing ghosts,” opinions quickly soured on the much-hyped rookie.
Darnold by all accounts has the size, speed, and talent to produce at the NFL level. The problem is he quite obviously lacks the mental aspect to allow him to read defenses and take advantage of his skillset.
By all accounts, the 49ers have an impressive coaching staff and typically get the best out of their offensive players. As of this point, that skill has not translated to the quarterback position.
They now have a quarterback room that consists of four talented players who will need the right coaching to hit their upside and lead this team to a super bowl. Which quarterback has the best chance of taking this team to the next level? The medical concerns might give us an understanding of what the 49ers might be thinking.
The Medical Concerns
As is common with offensive players on the 49ers, the main issue in this quarterback room is who is going to be healthy. Lance missed the final 16 weeks of the 2022 season with a fractured right fibula, while Purdy left the NFC Championship game with a complete tear of his ulnar collateral ligament. While I have spent the majority of my life in health care, I do not pretend to be an NFL team doctor. With that in mind I will be using the Player Profiler Injury Finder App to guide me through the assessment of both Purdy and Lance from a health perspective.
As you can see from the above images, Lance appears to be fully healthy and will undoubtedly be ready to go for Week 1 of the 2023 NFL season, but when he is back on the field he is at an increased risk for re-injury and is a risky proposition.
Straight From The Injury Experts
Here’s what our physical therapists had to say about Trey Lance’s outlook for 2023 via the Injury Finder
“Trey Lance suffered a right ankle fracture with a deltoid ligament tear, requiring two surgeries (the second likely to remove hardware that was causing irritation, which is fairly common). He will be almost 11 months out from his original surgery, however closer to eight months out from his second surgery. This is well within the preferred timeline for a quarterback returning from this injury, ideally more than six months to return.
Dak Prescott is an example of production returning over 10 months out from his injury. The key variable is mobility and rushing, as Dak suffered a 55-percent reduction in rushing fantasy production in his first year back to the field. This would be highly concerning for Lance’s fantasy production considering he cannot be relied upon for high-end or consistent passing upside with a 55-percent completion percentage, and that would be if he can even win the starting job and keep it once Brock Purdy is healthy. He’s a risky gamble coming off of his injury and vying for his former job. More variables seem to be stacked against Lance, but only time will tell.”
Brock Purdy‘s injury presents much more immediate concern than that of Lance. His injuries are much less likely to recur than that of Lance. The issue is getting him healed and back on the field promptly. Purdy underwent surgery to repair his torn UCL on March 10/2023 and the current timeline for recovery would leave him right around Week 1 of the regular season. The 49ers remain optimistic that he will be back in time, but the signing of Darnold would indicate that they are unsure what to expect.
Here’s what our physical therapists had to say about Brock Purdy’s outlook for 2023 via the Injury Finder
“As we know, the very best scenario for Brock Purdy’s surgery took place. He avoided the longer scenario of Tommy John surgery, instead requiring a repair of the ligament with an internal brace. Instead of the alignment being reconstructed they were able to preserve Purdy’s shredded UCL, suture it with collagen-coated sutures, and are allowing it to heal back to form. It is a risky procedure, but it would allow the player to return much earlier (around six months at the earliest) instead of 10-12 months. From here on out, Purdy has zero room for error if he wants to be ready for week one of the 2023 season. Please also understand that even if there are zero setbacks, it’s no guarantee that he will be ready.”
The Week 1 Starter
When you take a second to look over everything we know, and some of what we don’t know, it becomes obvious who the starter is going to be for Week 1. It’s Trey Lance. If the 49ers truly do believe that Purdy is their franchise quarterback, they have little reason to rush him back for Week 1. They can simply start Lance and hope for the best-case scenario that Lance does enough to drive his value up at which point they can trade him and recoup some of the draft capital they wasted on him before turning the job over to a healthy Purdy.
Despite rumors, it remains unlikely that San Francisco brought in Darnold to be anything besides a depth option in case of emergency. Operate under the assumption that the 49ers’ starting quarterback for Week 1 will be Trey Lance. Whether he does enough to win his job back or earn a shot somewhere else is up to him.