To start or sit the rookie quarterback, that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler … no, let’s not even go there.
Once Kyle Shanahan and the San Francisco 49ers selected Trey Lance with the No. 3 overall pick of the 2021 NFL Draft, the conversation shifted from whether he was the right player to draft to whether he should start or sit for his rookie season.
Ultimately, I don’t think there is any clearly correct approach in abstract terms. There are plenty of success stories of quarterbacks who have played from Day 1, and there are plenty of success stories of quarterbacks who have had to bide their time for a while before they got on the field. You can craft selling points and downsides to either scenario, but there’s nothing out there that definitively proves that one approach is better than the other.
So, the critical question is whether Lance is ready to start right away because the 49ers have the luxury of an incumbent starter like Jimmy Garoppolo, who isn’t a bad player at all. Garoppolo’s biggest flaw to date has been injuries and the fact that he has just not been able to stay available. His play when healthy has been solid, though, and he has taken this team to within a throw or two of winning a Super Bowl.
Most teams don’t have that alternative when weighing this question; they are making the call between their future franchise quarterback and a journeyman stopgap they want out of the starting lineup as soon as humanly possible.
There is a lot about Lance’s scouting profile that would scream needing to sit and learn for a year:
- Massively inexperienced: Only one year of starting experience and a total of 432 pass attempts in college and high school combined.
- Low level of competition: North Dakota State is as good as it gets in the FCS, but they are an FCS program. Lance never faced a single FBS opponent, let alone competition from the Power Five or SEC.
- Run-heavy offense: Lance was such a threat running the ball that he had almost half as many carries in his college career as he did pass attempts.
But the reason those things lead you to that conclusion is because of their implications rather than anything inherent in those facts: An inexperienced quarterback can’t be able to read defenses and execute an offense well; a run-heavy offense can’t possibly be a pro-style system that could translate easily, etc.
But when you watch Lance, you aren’t left with those concerns. He may be inexperienced, but it doesn’t show in terms of being able to read defenses or diagnose coverages or even react to changes in the defensive picture between pre- and post-snap looks. Lance recorded just six turnover-worthy plays in his college career — including fumbles — that were his fault. That’s a rate of just 1.6%, which is lower than the career mark of any of the other top quarterbacks in the 2021 draft class. Only Zach Wilson has that figure beaten over a single season, with the 1.0% mark he posted in 2020.
2021 first-round quarterbacks: Lowest career turnover-worthy play (TWP) rates
You can certainly argue that the small sample size means that we haven’t seen Lance exposed to as many situations that lead to forced mistakes, but the ones we have seen him placed in haven’t forced them. Lance is routinely able to adjust during the course of a play and not get suckered by a changing defense before his eyes.
For as run-heavy as the North Dakota State offense was, it ran a surprising volume of pro-ready concepts. Lance wasn’t running some exotic college offense built around his rushing ability that has no connection to a Shanahan offense at the NFL level. The level of competition is certainly a concern, but you’re not fixing that by letting him sit and kick his heels for a while before putting him out there. At some point, he’s going to have to experience the difference between FCS and the NFL athletically, and the days where practice could get you most of the way there are long gone. Lance was also such a cut above everybody else at that level there’s a good chance he will still be among the elite athletes even at such a better level of play.