NFL News & Analysis

San Francisco 49ers' quarterback competition could heat up, set off QB carousel in offseason

August 14, 2021; Santa Clara, California, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance (5) and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) warm up before the game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

COSTA MESA, Calif. — The San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback situation isn’t quite a competition just yet. But it could turn into a battle as soon as Friday morning.

During Thursday’s joint practice with the Los Angeles Chargers, 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo took all of San Francisco’s first-team reps and went 10-of-19 with an interception in team drills. He also was strip-sacked by Joey Bosa, but the Chargers All-Pro pass rusher apologized while doing it.

“You’re upset but then you hear, ‘Sorry Jim’ at the same time,” Garoppolo said laughing about the potential turnover.

Pass rushers aren’t supposed to touch the ball in the pocket. 

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Garoppolo started practice hot and hit wide receiver Travis Benjamin on a bomb early in team drills. He struggled in red zone work, however, and threw his interception on a target to 49ers wide receiver Richie James that was picked off by Chargers rookie cornerback Asante Samuel Jr.

Rookie quarterback Trey Lance, meanwhile, went 12-of-19 with an interception with the second-team offense and didn’t have to face off against superstar defenders like Bosa and safety Derwin James. He certainly brings a different element to the 49ers’ offense with his ability to run and add more option concepts, but there wasn’t a major discernible difference in quality of play between the two QBs. Lance, like most rookie quarterbacks, needs to get rid of the ball quicker. He took three “sacks” (contact is not allowed on quarterback) from L.A.’s defense.

The 49ers receivers didn’t help out Garoppolo or Lance, and 1-on-1 drills against the Chargers’ cornerbacks were ugly. 49ers wide receiver Deebo Samuel had issues with drops. Second-year pro Brandon Aiyuk wasn’t consistently able to gain separation. Towering second-year pro Jauan Jennings actually had the best reps in the individual sessions. Samuel and Aiyuk are locked into starting roles, and there’s a competition between James, Jennings, Benjamin, Mohamed Sanu, Nsimba Webster, Jalen Hurd, Trent Sherfield and River Cracraft for a potential third spot.

First-team reps on tap for Lance

49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said after practice that Lance could see first-team reps against the Chargers defense on Friday morning.

“We’ll see if we do some of that tomorrow,” Shanahan said. “If I do, it would be more about trying to get him some reps against Bosa and Derwin and some of those other guys, too, because it’s definitely a difference.”

So far in practice, Lance’s snaps with the starters have been mostly limited to plays designed for the rookie quarterback. So, it’s easy to pencil in Garoppolo’s name as the Week 1 starter if he’s the only one playing with the top unit. But that gets complicated as soon as Lance gets action with the top offensive line and pass catchers. And Garoppolo’s grasp on the starting role suddenly won’t be so tight.

For whatever it’s worth, Garoppolo is handling everything in stride and as well as humanly possible. He was smiling and chatty after practice and seemed bewildered when asked why he was celebrating Lance’s 80-yard touchdown pass in San Francisco’s first preseason game.

“Our team scored a touchdown,” Garoppolo said Thursday. “Why wouldn’t I be (happy)?”

When Lance grabs the starting job (whether that happens this season or next) it should set off another quarterback carousel. That's a possibility before the 2021 trade deadline, but it’s more likely to occur during the offseason. There’s a sense around the league that Texans general manager Nick Caserio — who was part of the New England Patriots front office that drafted Garoppolo in 2014 — is interested in bringing Garoppolo to Houston. The Texans would first need to deal quarterback Deshaun Watson and figure out exactly what they have in rookie quarterback Davis Mills. Kirk Cousins is no guarantee to return to the Minnesota Vikings in 2022, New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton could wind up with the Chicago Bears to back up and help mentor Justin Fields and it wouldn’t be shocking to see Mitchell Trubisky land as a backup with the Los Angeles Rams.

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Garoppolo’s trade value might be highest at the trade deadline if he starts off hot and a contending team loses its quarterback, but the 49ers are built to win, and even if Lance takes over as the starter, they’ll need a quality backup. Nate Sudfeld is currently the third passer in San Francisco after the 49ers waived Josh Rosen. Shanahan said Thursday he’d ideally like to keep three QBs this season.

Sermon closley behind Mostert

49ers running back Raheem Mostert led off most drills Thursday, but rookie Trey Sermon followed closely behind him. Mostert has just one 16-game season under his belt, and he has only topped 150 touches in one season. It’s important to keep Mostert healthy this season, so he could be on a pitch count. That could lead to plenty of work for the rookie.

Sermon, whom the 49ers traded up for in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft, wasn’t heavily involved in the passing game Thursday but received all of his carries with Garoppolo under center.

49ers edge defender Nick Bosa, still recovering from a torn ACL, worked alone during practice. Left tackle Trent Williams had his knee drained after he experienced some swelling but is still on track for Week 1.

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