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Predicting Trey Lance's Trade Market After 49ers Name Darnold Backup

What a difference a year makes in the life of QB Trey Lance.

A year ago, Lance was preparing to start the San Francisco 49ers opener. He was the team's prized third-overall pick in 2021 after they gave up three No. 1 picks and a third-rounder to move up to select him.

For Lance, it’s been a bad roller coaster ride since because he broke his ankle in Week 2 last season and then watched Brock Purdy win his first seven starts before his elbow injury in the NFC title game. Once Purdy was on track to recover and participate in training camp, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan made it clear Purdy would be the starter, and Lance and Sam Darnold would compete for the backup role.

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Shanahan confirmed this week that Darnold won the No. 2 quarterback job and said Lance was excused from Wednesday's practice because he was upset after hearing of his third-string status. 49ers general manager John Lynch said he expects Lance to remain with the 49ers as the third quarterback this season — not a bad idea with Purdy’s recent injury — but Lynch and Shanahan admit they’re considering all options.

To Deal or Not to Deal?

I think the 49ers’ strong preference is to trade Lance, which would free up $3.8 million in salary cap space this season and $5.3 million next season. The team could use it on an extension for holdout DE Nick Bosa and for cap space when all players count after next week’s roster cutdowns (rather than only the top 51 players now).

By trading Lance, the 49ers would also get out of owing him $5.4 million guaranteed in 2024 and have to decide whether to exercise his fifth-year option (an unlikely move at this juncture). An outright release is unlikely because the 49ers would then absorb an extra cap hit. Lynch and Shanahan also can remove the distraction element with a disappointed Lance gone and the media no longer questioning them about Lance’s future.

With the opener two weeks away, there probably aren’t a lot of NFL teams interested in Lance, who has started only four games during his first two seasons with a 2-2 record and an 84.5 passer rating.

Lance also had a shaky first preseason game against the Las Vegas Raiders. He was sacked four times and threw a touchdown pass that should’ve been intercepted. Lance played better in last week’s outing as the third quarterback when he threw for 173 yards, one TD and one interception with no sacks. Most importantly, he led the team to 12 fourth quarter points in a win against the Denver Broncos.

A team trading for Lance would take on his affordable $940,000 salary this season but also owe him a guaranteed $5.31 million in 2024. The 49ers will not recoup anything close to what they paid in draft choices for Lance, but they can rationalize trading him for little in return due to getting a steal with Purdy in the 2022 seventh round. And Purdy has three more years on his cheap rookie contract.

The 49ers are likely asking for a second-round pick in a trade, but that’s unlikely to happen. A reasonable return on an unproven but athletic quarterback who was highly touted coming out of North Dakota State and is only 23 could be: a fourth-round pick that can upgrade to a third-rounder if Lance becomes the starter. It could upgrade further to a second-round pick if he leads his next team to the playoffs.

Lance Trade Destinations

Here are the top six landing spots for Lance:

Atlanta Falcons

Second-year man Desmond Ridder was a third-round pick who started four games last season with a 2-2 record and a passer rating of 86.4. He’s unproven and has ex-Commander Taylor Heinicke as his backup. The Atlanta Falcons were the league’s third-ranked rushing team last season with a highly paid offensive line and added talented first-round RB Bijan Robinson.

But coach Arthur Smith wants the 31st-ranked passing game to improve, with former first-rounders Kyle Pitts at tight end and Drake London at wide receiver getting lots of targets. Lance’s upside may entice Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot based on his top-five draft status, and they could look to bring him aboard to compete with Ridder.

 Minnesota Vikings

Kirk Cousins is entering his final year under contract. Cousins said he’s fine waiting until after the season to talk about an extension. The Minnesota Vikings football leadership in general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and coach Kevin O’Connell do not seem to be in a hurry to extend the 35-year-old. Cousins led a 13-win season with eight come-from-behind victories in 2022 but couldn’t deliver a home playoff win in the wild-card round.

The Vikings might want to try to develop Lance as a younger, less expensive option. Lance has two years left on his rookie deal (plus a fifth-year option available). Backup Nick Mullens and fifth-round rookie Jaren Hall don’t appear to be the heir apparent. Lance is from Marshall, Minn., so he would return to his home state. In early March, the Vikings reportedly talked with the 49ers about Lance at the combine. We’ll see if those talks are rekindled.

 Washington Commanders

This team, in the loaded NFC East, is coming off a last-place finish even though they were 8-8-1. The Washington Commanders have a fairly talented roster — especially on the defensive line — but they are starting unproven second-year, fifth-round QB Sam Howell with Jacoby Brissett as the backup.

This might be too bold of a move with new ownership coming in. Still, perhaps general manager Martin Mayhew and coach Ron Rivera would trade for Lance to add competition for Howell, showing owner Josh Harris they’re willing to be aggressive to move the Commanders forward.

 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Baker Mayfield won the starting job over Kyle Trask, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers aren’t committed to Mayfield long-term. He is playing under a one-year, $4 million deal with $4.5 million in incentives. Lance could prove attractive to the Buccaneers, who have good weapons in receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, along with a top-10 defense from last season.

 Miami Dolphins

Coach Mike McDaniel was the 49ers offensive coordinator in Lance’s rookie season before moving to Miami. He could view Lance as a good insurance policy in case Tua Tagovailoa can’t stay healthy and a better option than backups Mike White and Skylar Thompson. The Miami Dolphins are loaded with weapons at wide receiver in Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, so the quarterback play is obviously critical here.

Arizona Cardinals

It’s doubtful the 49ers would trade Lance within their division. However, the Arizona Cardinals could be a possibility if they make the best offer. The Cardinals traded for Josh Dobbs on Thursday, making this slightly more unlikely.

The Cardinals are building toward the future under new coach Jonathan Gannon and general manager Monti Ossenfort. They could be interested in Lance if they are not sold on Kyler Murray leading the team with his massive contract. Murray is recovering from an ACL injury that will keep him out of the early 2023 regular season.

Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis. Follow him on Twitter at @jeffdiamondnfl.