SANTA CLARA — Trent Williams does not believe the 49ers made a mistake in selecting Trey Lance, nor does he believe Lance’s only NFL starting opportunity has already come and gone.
The All-Pro left tackle said Lance has plenty of time to establish himself as a starter in the NFL whenever he gets his next chance to show what he can do.
“I don’t have a crystal ball,” Williams told NBC Sports Bay Area, “but I think in this league when you do the right things and you’re made of the right stuff, eventually opportunity will find its way back to you.
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“And I think that will happen in Trey’s case. And when it does, we’ll all see the talent everybody knows that’s inside of him.”
The 49ers traded up to No. 3 overall in the 2021 NFL Draft and picked Lance 10 days before his 21st birthday.
Lance returns to Levi’s Stadium on Sunday night as the No. 3 quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys. The 49ers traded Lance in August after he fell behind Brock Purdy and Sam Darnold on the team’s depth chart.
In less than a year, Lance went from being the 49ers’ expected franchise quarterback to a player who was dealt for just a fourth-round draft pick.
San Francisco 49ers
“He had some unfortunate circumstances that opened up windows for other guys to come in and show what they could do,” Williams said. “Things like that happen. It was totally out of his control.
"As far as what he could control, he did what he could to improve every day, day-in, day-out. And he was a great teammate.”
Coach Kyle Shanahan’s original plan was to sprinkle Lance into game action as a rookie behind starter Jimmy Garoppolo with specialty plays in short-yardage and goal-line situations. But Lance sustained a fractured index finger on his throwing hand in the final preseason game. That injury did not heal properly and impacted how he gripped and threw a football for approximately a year.
Lance took over as the team’s starting quarterback to open the 2022 NFL season. The 49ers knew they were not getting a finished product from Week 1, but they figured Lance would continue to develop throughout the season with the valuable experience he would gain.
That experience never happened. Lance played just 84 snaps before sustaining a fractured right lower leg and ligament damage that ended his season in Week 2.
Lance never would come close to recapturing the 49ers’ starting job after Purdy was called upon when Garoppolo sustained a season-ending fractured foot in the first quarter against the Miami Dolphins on Dec. 4.
Purdy has played so well from the time he took over — including two playoff victories — that he secured his starting role and never left any room for debate or competition.
Williams did not hesitate when asked if he believes Lance will ever find himself again in one of the NFL’s 32 starting jobs.
“Yeah, of course,” Williams answered. “He’s a very talented guy, a very talented player. It’s unfortunate how his situation turned out here. I don’t think it had anything to do with his talent level or anything.”
Williams cited Seattle Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith as an example of a player who continued to work behind the scenes and put himself in a position to succeed after early career difficulties. Smith started 29 games in his first two seasons with the New York Jets.
Then, he logged a full six seasons as a backup with four different teams before getting another chance last year with Seattle at 32 years old. He was selected to the NFC Pro Bowl team after throwing for 4,282 yards and 30 touchdowns while leading the Seahawks to the playoffs.
“Look around the league, guys have been written off for whatever reason, whatever the circumstance may be, and they get a second chance,” Williams said. “They get another opportunity and they make the most of it. You see why they were here the whole time.”
And that has been Williams’ message to Lance, too.
He firmly believes Lance’s time will come ... again.
“In my opinion, a guy who brings that mentality to work, has that wealth of talent inside of him, yeah, I think his future is still bright,” Williams said. “I still think his opportunity will come, and when it does come, I think he’ll make the most out of it. That’s how I genuinely feel.”