It is a potentially pivotal offseason for the San Francisco 49ers as they look to make the tweaks to an already championship-caliber offseason to contend for a title with last year’s third overall pick, Trey Lance, under center.
The reins to San Francisco’s offense will be handed to Lance, for whom the Niners traded three first-round picks to acquire, if and when they do the expected and trade Jimmy Garoppolo.
However, in the scramble for offseason talking points, the readiness of Lance to step up and succeed as the 49ers’ starting quarterback has been called into question by various talking heads.
That some analysts are raising concern about turning to a quarterback who only played one full season of college football at North Dakota State and who started in just two games as a rookie is not that much of a surprise.
Yet those doubting whether Lance can make the grade are ignoring the level of influence the Kyle Shanahan offense has on its quarterbacks.
Creating the baseline
A substantial reason why the Shanahan offense has spread across the NFL is the baseline level of quarterback play it creates. That high floor is reflected by the numbers the 49ers have put up in the passing game since Shanahan’s arrival as head coach in 2017.
In that span, a period in which Brian Hoyer, C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens have also played quarterback for San Francisco, the 49ers are ninth in net passing yards per game with an average of 244.9.
San Francisco has finished in the top 10 in Football Outsiders‘ efficiency metric, DVOA, for passing offense twice during Shanahan’s tenure, ending the 2021 season in the top five.
Despite the limitations of a quarterback in Garoppolo who lacks a top-tier arm and has a maddening tendency to put the ball in harm’s way, the Niners led the NFL in both yards per play and yards per pass play in 2021. Three other teams that run versions of the Shanahan offense, the Rams, the Bengals and the Packers, finished in the top six in the latter category.
When discussing Lance ahead of his maiden season as a starter, the question should not surround his readiness to take over from Garoppolo. He spent a full offseason and rookie year immersing himself in the NFL’s most quarterback-friendly offense and had the chance to put what he learned into practice on the field for two and a half games. There is little reason for him not to be ready after a second offseason digesting the offense but, even if the adaptation period when he starts is bumpy, recent history tells us the Shanahan offense will still perform efficiently.
Instead, the conversation should center on whether Lance can raise the ceiling of the San Francisco attack as Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford have done for Matt LaFleur and Sean McVay in Green Bay and Los Angeles. Though his playing time was limited, the early signs were promising in 2021.
The 49ers’ attack will undoubtedly be different in 2022 as Shanahan incorporates the threat of Lance as a runner into offense. Yet, for as much as his dual-threat skillset will add another element to the mix, it is Lance’s aggressiveness and downfield upside as a thrower that has the potential to take San Francisco’s offense to new heights.
Rodgers and Stafford weaponized their respective passing games through their ability to eschew the short, simple completions in favor of more ambitious throws that result in explosive plays.
Across two starts against the Arizona Cardinals and Houston Texans, plus a half of play against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 4 after Garoppolo was injured, Lance gave the 49ers plenty of reason to be encouraged he can do similar.
Take this play from the Week 17 win over the Texans on a play-action rollout. Lance could take a safe, short throw to George Kittle in the flat, but he instead looks to Trent Sherfield working across the field at the second level. Lance calmly freezes the defender in his face, buying himself time to reset and make a pinpoint throw to the sideline for a first down.
Not settling for the single. pic.twitter.com/OEG3AOt0Kz
— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) February 22, 2022
The velocity with which Lance can deliver the ball also makes riskier downfield throws into congested windows over the middle of the field available to him, this shot over two second-level defenders to Kittle on a deep post arguably the highlight of an extremely impressive second half against Houston.
— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) February 16, 2022
Per rbsdm.com, Lance led the NFL in Air Yards per attempt in Week 17 with 11.6 and still managed to finish sixth among quarterbacks with a Completion Percentage Over Expectation (CPOE) of 8.5.
Garoppolo, to his credit, ended the regular season seventh with a CPOE of 2.7 but had an Air Yards average of 7.6 that was only good enough for 21st. Comparing Lance’s performance against Houston to the 15 games Garoppolo played is an evaluation of markedly different sample sizes, however, his display in beating the Texans served to suggest Lance can replicate Garoppolo’s accuracy while more regularly attempting throws that have a better chance in resulting in chunk plays.
In 10 quarters as a starter for the Niners, Lance delivered eight passing plays of 25 yards or more, a pace that would have seen him surpass Garoppolo’s tally of 33 had he played the full season. Even in a year where Lance operated in a bit-part role, he still managed to illustrate why the Niners made the aggressive move to select him as Garoppolo’s successor.
His first full season as a starter is unlikely to come without difficulties. The 49ers will be forced at some point to overcome a period of struggle from Lance. However, as Shanahan has proved consistently during his tenure with San Francisco, his is an offense ideally built to survive such dips.
The reputation of his attack has been built on elevating mediocre quarterbacks, while Rodgers and now Stafford have demonstrated how a signal-caller of their respective talents can lift the offense to another level.
Lance’s challenge is to prove he can do the same and, after watching how he played in a must-win game late last season, any reason for worry should be trumped by excitement he can not only perform at the established baseline for Shanahan quarterbacks, but at a standard to massively increase the big-play threat of an offense that is already among the NFL’s most efficient.