Trey Lance’s first three weeks of training camp showcased a better form of the young quarterback than the 49ers have seen since his arrival as the No. 3 overall pick of the 2021 NFL Draft.
And that is completely understandable, considering this is Lance’s third training camp with the organization. He is healthy and throwing the ball with more efficiency and accuracy.
But what Lance did on the practice fields of Santa Clara became completely irrelevant outside the building on Sunday in the 49ers’ preseason opener.
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Lance’s stat sheet looked good: He completed 10 of 15 passes for 112 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions.
Another part of the stat sheet was not so good: He was sacked four times during his 27-play outing.
There was a combination of factors that contributed to the sacks. There were times when Lance could have (and should have) gotten rid of the football earlier. Also, of course, the protection from the second-team offensive line was lacking.
One major question about Lance has been his accuracy. There appeared to be no issues there. When he threw, the ball came out crisp and generally on target.
San Francisco 49ers
His touchdown pass was, well, interesting.
Lance rolled to his left on a bootleg, spotted wide receiver Chris Conley open in the end zone, straightened up and changed his arm angle to get his pass around oncoming Raiders linebacker Malcolm Koonce.
However, Lance’s window to Conley closed quickly as defensive back Duke Shelley ranged over to get both hands on the football. Lance humorously described the ever-changing emotions of the play.
"It was a, 'Yes, yes, yes, no, yes,' situation,” he said.
Shelley did not catch the ball cleanly for the interception. Instead, he inadvertently batted it away as he tried to secure the bobble.
The ball caromed directly to 49ers tight end Ross Dwelley, who made the grab while going to the ground. The result was a 9-yard touchdown pass.
Lance also made some good throws, but those went largely unnoticed as the 49ers opened with three three-and-outs and nine first downs in Lance’s six drives in the first half.
Let’s make something clear: No rational person is calling Lance a bust at the age of 23.
That’s because nobody truly knows how Lance would perform if he ever got an extended run. The 49ers fully expected to get the answers a year ago, when he opened the season as the starter while the club tried in vain to trade Jimmy Garoppolo.
Obviously, this is not the start to Lance’s career anyone with the 49ers expected or wanted. And it is past the time when the 49ers feel obligated to live through the growing pains of a talented, young, inexperienced, unknown quarterback.
Now, Lance finds himself in a struggle to merely win the job as the 49ers’ No. 2 quarterback behind Brock Purdy. Lance and Sam Darnold are waged in a competition that, at this point, appears to slightly favor Darnold.
In the preseason opener, it became apparent Darnold's major advantage is in the area of experience.
It has not always been good experience for Darnold, 26, who made 55 NFL starts over five seasons with the New York Jets and Carolina Panthers. But all that playing time is valuable experience, nonetheless.
Meanwhile, in the five years since graduating from Marshall (Minn.) High School, Lance attempted just 318 passes at North Dakota State and 102 in two seasons in the NFL.
As choppy as it might have looked for Lance on Sunday, any experience for him is valuable.
But there is also one unavoidable truth about Lance’s future with the 49ers: As much as he develops and improves, he might never get another chance with the team that traded up to draft him.
And that is because the 49ers believe they found themselves the “real deal.” That’s what coach Kyle Shanahan recently called Purdy, the final pick of the 2022 NFL Draft.
If Purdy remains healthy and plays near the level at which he performed as a rookie, he will remain as the starter.
And the truth is that Lance may never get another opportunity in a meaningful game to show what he can do for the 49ers.