Trey Lance

How trading up for Lance in 2021 draft ultimately didn't derail 49ers

NBC Universal, Inc.

SANTA CLARA — Perhaps, there was no correct answer once the 49ers made the decision to trade up to No. 3 overall in the 2021 NFL Draft.

At the time, it was viewed as a franchise-changing decision that would define careers and determine the fate of the organization.

It did not work out for the 49ers. Yet those who made the decision did not lose their jobs and the team did not experience any rough times.

That’s what happens when the final pick in the draft outperforms the top quarterbacks from the previous year.

“Thank God for Mr. Irrelevant,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said Monday. “He helped us.”

Obviously, that’s an understatement. Quarterback Brock Purdy saved the 49ers.

The 49ers sought a franchise quarterback with the selection of Trey Lance with the No. 3 overall pick in 2021. They traded away their next two first-round selections to move up from their scheduled pick at No. 12 overall.

San Francisco has a first-round draft pick this year. They will not choose a quarterback with that selection. Instead, they will be looking to continue building around the most unlikely of franchise quarterbacks.

It was not long ago that the 49ers envisioned Lance as the likely face of the franchise.

But his tenure did not last long. Lance appeared in just eight games (four starts) over two seasons with the 49ers.

After Purdy entered the starting lineup late in the 2022 season, coach Kyle Shanahan saw enough in a short period of time to convince him their long-term quarterback was the guy chosen with the No. 262 and final pick in the 2023 draft.

After Purdy led the 49ers to a victory over the Detroit Lions in the NFC Championship Game, CEO Jed York told a story about how quickly Shanahan identified he had something special in Purdy.

“I think our third-string quarterback is our best quarterback,” Shanahan told York after a practice in training camp of Purdy's rookie year.

At that point, Purdy was behind Lance and veteran backup Nate Sudfeld. Jimmy Garoppolo remained under contract with the 49ers, and later re-worked his contract to start the season as the backup.

The last time Lance ever stepped on the field for a meaningful snap with the 49ers was early in the 2022 season when he sustained a season-ending fractured ankle.

The 49ers dealt Lance to the Dallas Cowboys prior to the start of last season for a fourth-round draft pick after he was a clear No. 3 on the depth chart behind Purdy and Sam Darnold.

Lance did not get the opportunity to ever truly prove himself with the 49ers because Purdy seized on his chance and has played more like the top pick in the draft than the final pick.

“I always am careful of this because Trey Lance's story hasn't been written, yet,” Lynch said. “He's in Dallas right now and I still think Trey's got good football in him. We'll see. That will play out.”

Lynch and Shanahan felt it was best to trade Lance rather than keep him around as the team's third quarterback. Lynch said ownership allowed them the freedom to make decisions without any pressure to consider draft position, perception and dollars invested.

“We can do the things we want to do,” Lynch said.

That draft ended up as an epic failure for teams that tried to fill quarterback vacancies in the first round. But the 49ers still have managed deep playoff runs over the past three seasons.

There were five quarterbacks selected within the first 15 picks in the 2021 draft, and Lance was the first to find a new team.

More recently, the New York Jets dealt Zach Wilson, the second overall pick, to Denver for a sixth-round pick; Justin Fields, chosen at No. 11, was moved from Chicago to Pittsburgh for a conditional sixth-round pick in 2025; and New England traded the No. 15 pick, Mac Jones, to Jacksonville for a sixth-round selection.

The top pick in the draft, Jacksonville’s Trevor Lawrence, is the only quarterback chosen in the first round who remains with the team that selected him. His play has been up and down with 58 touchdowns, 39 interceptions and a passer rating of 85.0 in 50 starts over three seasons.

Meanwhile, Purdy finished fourth in the voting for NFL Most Valuable Player in his first full season as the 49ers’ starter. He set the franchise record with 4,280 passing yards and led the NFL in passer rating (113.0) and yards per pass attempt (9.6).

Part of the reason the 49ers opted to trade up to select Lance is because they wanted a quarterback on the fixed cost of a rookie contract in order to have the opportunity to retain many of their high-priced players at other positions.

Purdy is scheduled to make less than $1 million this season before the team can negotiate a new contract with him next offseason.

He also has changed how some view the art of quarterback evaluations. Many of the skills that have made him such a good player -- such as timing, anticipation and accuracy -- cannot be measured in the pre-draft process.

“Everyone's got their own story,” Purdy said. “So that's really all I've heard and how I look at it. But, obviously, I’m a big believer that it doesn't matter where you're drafted. It’s what you do when you get there with that opportunity.”

Download and follow the 49ers Talk Podcast

Contact Us