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Why Shanahan picked Lance, and what we learned about the 49ers head coach

Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

On Thursday, April 29, the 49ers took a leap into the future, joining the ranks of the NFL’s present and future. In Trey Lance, they have not just kept pace with the league’s trend of physically dynamic quarterbacks, but taken a chance on one who had thrown just 318 college passes.

It’s that statistic, the inconsistencies in Lance’s game while playing at an FCS school in North Dakota State, that led me to believe Kyle Shanahan would not be comfortable drafting him.

I cannot speak for the rest of the Bay Area media, but my late-game misevaluation was overthinking Shanahan’s press conference on Wednesday, and looking at what could go wrong, rather than the upside available, and Shanahan’s rightful self-confidence in his ability to harness that upside.

Put simply, Trey Lance is a ball of clay. He has every tool available, genuinely. There is no aspect of quarterbacking that I see him being incapable of mastering. His foundation of elite athleticism, vision, processing speed, timing, footwork, and most importantly, his aptitude and prodigious appetite for knowledge and growth, under a coach who has consistently maximized his quarterbacks’ potential; well, the rest of the NFL should be legitimately terrified.

The only thing that’s held this team back is the quarterback position, and they now have one, who at age 20, has not just the potential, but likelihood to become a dominant quarterback in this league for more than a decade.

Great, so why didn’t I predict this beforehand?

For most of this process, I had given Shanahan the benefit of the doubt, chalking up the 2017 draft as a brutal example of inexperience and Shanahan having perhaps too much say in the draft process, and not leaning hard enough on his evaluators.

My belief, until Ian Rapoport’s report that Justin Fields was out of the conversation, was that it would be Fields. And then, after Shanahan’s presser, I talked myself into Mac McCorkle Jones. It’s explained in further depth here, but the tone of the press conference, to me, was that the 49ers were trying to trade Garoppolo, and I didn’t expect they would feel comfortable enough to ride just with Lance from day one, meaning Jones was the likelier choice.

Don’t misinterpret that to think it should have been the pick. Since day one, I’ve said that would be a cataclysmic misevaluation and likely damn Shanahan’s legacy. Maybe it was the maniacal month-long run-up that led to this overthinking, but in the end, the original logic — that Shanahan had seen the light and the 49ers had grown in the evaluation and draft process — held up.

Mac Jones never made sense, but he was on the 49ers’ board, and Shanahan admitted there was a non-zero chance they would draft him. It just would have been completely idiotic, just like it was to think Shanahan would have been dumb enough to go through with it.

Back at the start of April, you could not have talked me into Jones, as I wrote here:

“Logic, reason. This is the first time the since C.J. Beathard and the Kirk Cousins debacle (when the 49ers eschewed scouting Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes properly because they believed they were going to sign Cousins) that Kyle Shanahan has been able to choose his quarterback of the future. Beathard was his guy, but he wasn’t the guy, nor was he expected to be. Garoppolo was not and clearly has never been his choice.

“My belief is that Shanahan has evolved and that his evaluation process of quarterbacks has changed. We’ve seen the 49ers improve drastically at the top of the draft.”

Shanahan was left reeling by Mahomes in the Super Bowl, has been torched by Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson on the ground, and the 49ers were shell-shocked after Josh Allen brutalized them and crushed their playoff hopes last season, when he went 32-for-40 with 375 yards and 4 touchdowns. He had spoken multiple times about how you’d ideally draw up an athletic quarterback who has that pocket presence.

Here was my logic for why Fields should be the pick, but also what concerned me, and why Lance might make more sense.

“Fields is, and has been since high school, an elite talent. His legitimate concerns are anticipation and hesitation. He can identify when his receivers are going to come open, but he must improve at throwing those players open the moment he identifies it. That half-second of hesitation can be the difference in the NFL. But when you see everything else that’s stellar about Fields and think about Kyle Shanahan coaching him up and fixing those issues, well, that’s just too enticing to pass up.

“And those concerns are why Trey Lance also makes sense. Lance has displayed better anticipation, running a closer scheme to the 49ers than what Ohio State ran, and tends to deliver the ball quicker. The nebulous part of the Lance equation is that you have such limited tape on him against limited competition with limited snaps that it’s hard to know how long he’ll take to develop.”

I gave too much deference to level of competition, limiting the potential questions you might have about a quarterback, and talked myself out of major signs that point to or away from a Shanahan quarterback. I thought it should be Fields or Lance, giving Fields the edge because of his pinpoint accuracy against major competition and dealing with consistent pocket pressure.

Those myriad traits that Fields had weighed supreme in my mind, compared to the more technical, flawed aspects of his game. But it’s those aspects, the granular, style-related critiques that didn’t fit in line with what Shanahan wants in a quarterback.

As mentioned, Fields struggled with anticipation, overthinking, feeling pressure and tight footwork in the pocket. Perhaps most crucially, he was at his least accurate on shorter touch passes and overly deliberate in his delivery, meaning he had (though in large part due to the vertical, long-developing nature of the Ohio State offense) the slowest time to throw of any of the top five quarterbacks.

The 49ers’ offense likely would have had to change to accommodate Fields, and the core flaw in his game is about feel, which is tougher to teach than, say, footwork.

That’s why I always understood why it could, and perhaps should be Lance. Though I still think Fields is a more polished product, you can see very clearly how Lance’s skillset is an immediate fit and Fields; well, there’s nothing on tape to prove that he can be a short-game, quick-throwing passer.

That’s not to say the 49ers’ offense won’t change with Lance. But any accommodations will likely be temporary, designed to ease the burden on a young quarterback. In the medium to long term though, Shanahan’s offense won’t accommodate him. It will become him.

It will evolve and bloom into a multidimensional offense, which, like so many of the dominant teams in the league right now, holds the threat of a running quarterback over defenses and punishes them for failing to respect it. Shanahan spoke clearly that he doesn’t want a running quarterback, but he has been intrigued, he said about the prospect of a quarterback who can run. There’s a subtle, but distinct difference there.

It’s the same reason Shanahan uses a fullback, it’s a numbers game, and creates innate mismatches. If your quarterback can run, that’s one more player the defense has to account for. If they don’t, you burn them until they adapt.

Everything that Kyle wants in a quarterback was apparent in Lance, but I also saw a quarterback who had a tendency to seek contact, which I thought would be a sore subject for Shanahan, along with his inconsistencies with accuracy.

But as Shanahan said, those inconsistencies are correctable largely by amending eye positioning and footwork, and those tendencies to run towards contact, while still a concern, can also be fixed with coaching.

Lance has the best in-pocket movement and feel of any quarterback in this draft. He has an innate ability to pull his lower half away from pressure while simultaneously building momentum and moving himself into a throwing lane. And as corny as it is to say a ball “jumps off” a player’s hand, it damn sure does with Lance. He can target any area of the field with ease, and unlike with Fields, there’s not that split second of winding up. Lance’s anticipation and delivery have the ball out of his hand without hesitation.

This was the one opportunity the 49ers would have, while firmly in a Super Bowl window, to definitively upgrade their quarterback position and set themselves up for long-term success. And that’s not to mention the roughly $20-plus million per year they’ll be saving whenever they move on Garoppolo and have Lance on a rookie deal. It’s a ballsy move, but it’s necessary, and I believe San Francisco nailed it.


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