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Examining 49ers murky quarterback picture as OTAs begin

Chris Mezzavilla

For the first time since the 49ers’ calamitous downfall in the NFC Championship, most of the team returned to the field (in front of reporters) on Tuesday.

Organized team activities (OTAs) are the often unwelcome pre-teaser to the teaser that is training camp, but they came during a period when the 49ers’ quarterback situation is relatively fluid.

There was a palpable curiosity afoot for the first glimpse of Sam Darnold in a 49ers uniform, and of Trey Lance since he recovered from a fractured right fibula. Oh, and Brandon Allen was there, too.

Purdy still in pole position, and set to begin throwing

If Brock Purdy is healthy, of course, this is his team.

According to Kyle Shanahan, we should know more about his health in the next week or two. The 24-year-old is recovering from a March 8 surgical repair on a torn ulnar collateral ligament, with early June representing a key part of his return to play.

Shanahan said Tuesday that he expects Purdy to begin throwing for the first time “some time here in the next week.”

General manager John Lynch has stated that a more concrete will come in early June, after Purdy begins his throwing program. That’s the time when doctors can evaluate his progress more precisely.

As such, there is nothing concrete, yet. Purdy reminded reporters that nothing is set in stone following a proposed Week 1 return from Shanahan.

“We’re hoping for Week 1 and we feel pretty optimistic about that,” Shanahan said. That’s what we’re hoping for, that he’ll be ready to play Week 1.”

Purdy’s assessment was a bit more diplomatic.

“To say I’m going to be ready by this time or this time — we’re not trying to label any kind of timeline like that,” Purdy said. “For sure, though, that’s a goal, right? I want to be ready for the season. And if that’s the case, great, but like I said, we’re just taking it one day at a time and I don’t want to say anything that we would regret down the road.”

The trepidation about Purdy’s availability is natural given his sterling rookie campaign last year, and the mystery bag that is his likely backups.

Two No. 3’s prepare to duke it out

Purdy was described by Lynch as the “leader in the clubhouse,” which is GM-speak for “he’s the guy.”

Behind him, if you listen to the early, early offseason rumblings, would be Sam Darnold. All of a sudden, a man with a career 61-55 TD-to-INT ratio has been pegged as a golden-armed weapon who Kyle Shanahan will help immediately reach his potential.

Darnold has been in some horrid situations and ended last season with arguably the best stretch of football in his career, throwing 7 TDs to 3 INTs in a 4-2 stretch from the Carolina Panthers.

But there’s a lot of woeful tape out there.

On Tuesday offered platitudes and player-speak about his standing and the improvements he’s made over his career. They were fairly understandable for a man who doesn’t want to ruffle any feathers in a new situation which could potentially be the best he’s ever found.

What is clear, now, is that he and Lance will compete for the No. 2 job.

Lance made no bones about that reality — going from the starter to losing the job via injury to Purdy — or the trade rumors that loomed over him this offseason.

“I knew where I wanted to be,” Lance said. “This is absolutely where I want to be… I don’t want to take anything away from Brock and no one should be able to take anything away from Brock. He did what he did last year and he deserves all the credit in the world for it. I just want an opportunity to compete.” 

Lance’s journey is by far the most complex and intriguing part of this whole equation. His fractured right index finger in the preseason of his rookie year had consequences no one could have foreseen.

That injury, in concert with a ramp up to the NFL that involved nearly nonstop throwing for Lance, led to a situation where he couldn’t properly grip a football and was throwing too often and with technique that caused him pain.

This offseason, Lance has worked with private quarterback coach Jeff Christensen. He’s workshopped Lance’s throwing motion and per Matt Barrows, Lance has not been dealing with discomfort.

He said he felt fully healthy in all aspects near the end of March and offered a fairly startling, if also understated admission.

“I really feel like I am having fun playing football again,” Lance said.

For the first time since he played at North Dakota State, the 23-year-old former No. 3 overall pick said he’s enjoying his craft again.

That’s a statement that puts into perspective the situations Lance has dealt with. He lost his last season of football in a COVID-derailed year that led to him throwing too often in order to prepare for his first NFL season.

After an impressive training camp, he suffered a fractured index finger which set him back substantially heading into his sophomore campaign. That season, thanks to a gruesome fibula fracture, never got off the ground.

Now, he’s here, competing with a fellow No. 3 overall pick to try and reclaim a job he never had the opportunity to fully own.

As everyone fawns over his competitor — who, despite horrible situations, has had far longer to prove himself in the NFL — Lance remains, for the first time in a long time, healthy, and happy. That, as much as than anything, is worth monitoring over these next few months.


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