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Dallas Cowboys Acquired a Future Starter in QB Trey Lance

Dallas Cowboys Trey Lance
Aug 25, 2022; Houston, Texas, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance (5) warming up prior to the game against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports

Trey Lance’s time with the San Francisco 49ers is over, but his NFL journey is just beginning.

After it was announced that Sam Darnold surpassed Lance as the No. 2 signal caller on the 49ers’ depth chart, the Dallas Cowboys made a savvy decision based on research and tape study to send San Francisco a fourth-round selection for the former No. 3 overall pick.

The 49ers paid a huge price just two years ago, trading three first-round picks and a third-rounder, to move up to No. 3 in 2021 to draft Lance. Based on the tape I watched, the Cowboys likely have picked up a future NFL starter at a bargain price.

The fact that Lance dropped to No. 3 on San Francisco’s depth chart should not be a reason to label him a bust, and I believe coach Kyle Shanahan would echo this as well. It is not as if the 49ers soured on him due to his performance on the field or lack of physical tools. This is an unfortunate and unlucky situation for a young quarterback with the physical tools and leadership skills to be the future face of an NFL franchise.

I saw a similar situation while coaching in Tampa Bay in 1987 when the Buccaneers traded Steve Young to the 49ers after drafting Vinny Testaverde with the first overall pick. It took four years backing up Joe Montana before Young, at 29, truly began his Hall of Fame career.

With some bad luck, untimely injuries and the out-of-nowhere emergence of Mr. Irrelevant Brock Purdy, Lance has not been afforded the playing time to grow and develop on the field.

When I heard of Shanahan’s decision to make this move, my first thought was to immediately go to the available tape, not to question the 49ers’ decision, which is a collective process of meetings, practice and playing time. I needed to see for myself how Lance played in the preseason, with only 41 pass calls by Shanahan and 33 attempts.

What Trey Lance Brings to Dallas

After taking a hard look at Lance’s 33 preseason attempts from 2023, it’s clear the 23-year-old can definitely play at a high level in this league. With more practice, developmental time and game experience, he has all the tools to be an NFL starter. Trading for him is an excellent opportunity for Dallas to get a next-generation leader with impeccable character and future starter potential.

Across his two preseason performances this year (the first half against Las Vegas and the second half against Denver), Lance showed the throwing mechanics, arm talent, physical toughness and playmaking ability in and out of the pocket to be projected as a future NFL starter. I utilized my familiarity with C.J. Stroud, Anthony Richardson and Bryce Young to compare Lance to them — having evaluated all three from their college tape and this year’s preseason.

In two preseason games, Lance completed 66.6 percent of his passes, going 22 of 33 for 285 yards, two touchdowns and one interception that occurred on a tipped screen pass. Across that sample, it was evident that Lance could play at that same level as the three aforementioned first-round picks scheduled to start in just a few weeks. After watching all four play this preseason, one could argue Lance is more game-ready.

With a great frame (6-foot-4, 224 pounds) and high-level athleticism, Lance has been well-coached and has the physical tools to continue to improve from a fundamentals perspective as well. While it may not look perfect every time, he has sound, coachable footwork and throwing mechanics with an efficient and repeatable delivery.

He also has a consistently strong athletic base and good weight transfer from back to front foot and follow through when he delivers the ball. On many of his pass attempts, he showed quick-mindedness to come off his primary receiver, demonstrating his complete understanding of the route structure and quickly flipping his hips and delivering to alternate receivers in his progression.

Lance also showed the fearlessness to drive the ball into tight windows under duress versus man coverage and the ability to change speeds on passes to deliver a catchable ball on the move after escaping the pocket. He certainly has the escapability component in his game as well as anticipation to deliver on time against zone with high-level accuracy.

Mentally, Lance is capable of reading coverages, making anticipatory throws and getting through his progressions. But there are also moments where he may have hesitated to drive the ball up-field to potentially open receivers. Still, I was encouraged by his ability to know immediately where his flare control receiver was when moving on in his progression.

I have been told that indecision in these instances was one of Lance’s biggest issues coming out of North Dakota State, and the tape validates there is more work to be done in this area.

There are other factors that Lance can improve on. Like most NFL quarterbacks, while escaping the pocket, the lower tip of the ball hangs in one arm below the waist and is subject to a blindside knockout. On tape, there were also a couple of reckless throws.

With more developmental reps, we will see improvement in his ability to process and make quick-trigger decisions on a more consistent basis. The more reps he gets, the more the game will continue to slow down for him.

The ability to quickly process and make decisions is a crucial trait for quarterbacks, and there is considerable evidence Lance can improve in this facet. He simply has not had enough playing time to develop in this area relative to the other quarterbacks the 49ers had on their roster.

Think about this as you watch his career continue to unfold: across their collegiate and NFL careers, Purdy has attempted 1,637 passes (170 NFL, 1,467 NCAA) and Darnold has attempted 2,611 passes (1,765 NFL, 846 NCAA), while Lance has only attempted 420 (102 NFL, 318 NCAA). This stark difference emphasizes that Lance simply needs more time and reps — he is early on in his quarterback journey.

What’s Next for Trey Lance?

If Lance is reading this, I’d emphasize to him not ever to compare himself to other NFL quarterbacks. Every NFL quarterback has a unique journey.

As previously stated, Young was 29 and played behind Montana for four years. Aaron Rodgers was 25 and played behind Brett Favre for three years by the time he got his first real shot. At 32, Geno Smith got the reigns of the Seattle Seahawks, won Comeback Player of the Year, led the league in completion percentage and went to his first Pro Bowl. Our own Rich Gannon of The 33rd Team was a journeyman quarterback until he landed in Oakland and became a league MVP at 37.

Whatever the future may hold for Lance, it is undeniable he has the talent to be a starter in the NFL. Any quarterback coach who watches his 2023 preseason tape alone should say to themselves, “I want to coach him. Trey Lance is a player who I can develop.”

When coach Mike McCarthy, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and the Cowboys' brain trust watched the tape, it was unanimous that they acquired a potential NFL starter for just a fourth-round pick.

The NFL journey for Lance continues in Dallas, where the quarterback room is stronger than ever. At the very least, he is the kind of player whom organizations covet as a backup because of his athleticism and ability to make explosive plays with his arm and legs.

With two years left on Dak Prescott’s deal, Lance will have the opportunity to sit, learn and develop his talents in a backup role before the next leg of his journey.

Marc Trestman is a former NFL, CFL and college coach. After more than a decade as an offensive coordinator and quarterback coach in the NFL, he coached in four Grey Cups in the CFL, winning three over seven years with Montreal and Toronto before becoming head coach of the Chicago Bears. Follow him on Twitter at @CoachTrestman.