Trey Lance Steps Into Spotlight
NFL Week 17 - Trey Lance is almost a mythical figure to the football community at this point. A 6-foot-5, 224-pound, 21-year-old FCS quarterback who runs like a monster truck and could throw a tennis ball through a cement wall, Lance has every physical tool imaginable but never got to develop those traits against the highest level of competition. Pairing him together with Kyle Shanahan—near-universally heralded as the league's best play-caller—felt like the perfect opportunity to unlock all of that talent the moment San Francisco's selection of Lance with the third pick of the draft was announced.
Seventeen weeks in and Lance has barely played. He has started two games, including this past week, and played the second half of another, all only thanks to Jimmy Garoppolo injuries. The absence of Lance has only added to the intrigue, though. Garoppolo is a known product, while Lance's skill set offers a variety of things Garoppolo's skill set does not. Mobility, .50-caliber arm strength, and the willingness to test the defense outside the numbers are all core traits for Lance that cannot be found anywhere in Garoppolo's game.
The consistency at which Lance offers those other skills is the question, and only Shanahan has the full answer. However, Lance got to put part of the answer on film against the quietly decent Texans pass defense this week. All of the skills he offers in comparison to Garoppolo were on full display, as well as a higher degree of confidence within the offense that did not exist when he saw action earlier this season.
This play does not really go for a gain, but it could have been a loss. Lance feels the pressure inside his right tackle the instant he brings his eyes back to that side of the field, which is a testament to his instincts in the pocket. He then shows off the explosiveness to gain ground out of his stance and the sturdiness to shake off the would-be tackler, giving him enough of a window in time to find a checkdown option and salvage the play.
Escapability is not as important in this example, but it does showcase some of Lance's comfort in finding targets down the field and being able to keep himself clean while doing so. When Lance first bails to his left, he is quick to realize the edge rusher is widening out to meet him, so he aborts on that plan and tracks back the other way. Lance shows good process from that point on as he works towards the line of scrimmage as much as possible before working flat towards the sideline once a defender approaches him. Working to the line of scrimmage forces the defense to respect him as a runner and minimizes the distance between himself and any potential throw, while widening out late keeps the defender away from him and out of the throwing lane. The fact that Lance could so effortlessly navigate that space while keeping his eyes downfield to find a target past the sticks, while working out of his own end zone, is an admirable level of comfort for such a young player.
Sometimes Lance's scrambling efforts did not work, but the process in getting there was encouraging.
The 49ers snap this ball with 28 seconds left in the first half. Lance could check the ball down to George Kittle in the left flat right away, but that would not get them into scoring range, save for a miraculous catch-and-run effort. Lance knows that and wants to find Deebo Samuel (wide to the left at the snap) on the dig route from the left side. Unfortunately, the route is covered early on and Lance feels the pressure coming off the right side, so he moves. Lance does a good job holding onto space in the pocket as long as possible before relocating and finding Samuel open down the field.
While Lance's efforts to get out of the pocket were good, he threw the ball expecting Samuel to settle in space somewhere. Samuel kept running and assumed the ball would be put out in front of him. The same thing happened between Lance and Brandon Aiyuk when the young quarterback saw action against the Seahawks in Week 4. Rather than casting blame on either side, it is probably more reasonable to assume this is some sort of chemistry deal that has yet to be worked out since Lance has largely been getting backup reps. Whether or not that can get fixed for potential January starts for Lance, who knows, but it's good to see him act with a plan when he gets outside the pocket.
Garoppolo simply does not offer this kind of play outside the pocket. He does not want to do it and he is largely incapable of doing it. Garoppolo is a fine athlete for the position, truthfully, but he does not have the same level of comfort operating while on the fly the way Lance does.
Lance's next-level arm talent was also on display in this game. His howitzer arm has always been clear as day even on some of the clunky misfires earlier this season, but against Houston, it became evident what his arm talent paired with a skosh of proper decision-making and timing can do for an offense.
This play directly followed the failed scramble-drill throw to Samuel. Unrattled, Lance works through his dropback with his eyes on the middle linebacker. With the Texans showing two-high structure, Lance knows the only thing stopping him from hitting this seam-bender in the first window underneath the safety could be the middle linebacker running the pole and squeezing it. Since the middle linebacker gets a bit hung up sitting with the tight end (Kittle, 85) over the middle, Lance knows he can get the ball to Aiyuk (11) inside the numbers before the linebacker has a chance to squeeze it and before Aiyuk travels too far and runs himself into coverage. That's a good blend of route design (to hold the middle linebacker), decision-making, and arm talent to get chunk yardage when the defense is explicitly trying to stop the offense from doing that before the half.
Nothing Lance did on Sunday topped this throw to Kittle, though. The decisiveness and timing to throw this ball as soon as Kittle clears the linebacker is one thing, but delivering the ball to beat the strong safety with both velocity and over-the-top placement is rare stuff. If not for the safety colliding with Kittle at the end, drawing a defensive pass interference penalty, this ball likely hits Kittle right in stride and he picks up even more yardage. Lance already having the confidence and competence to unlock his arm talent like this as a 21-year-old rookie who is not generally taking starting reps is a terrifying proposition for the rest of the league.
Lastly, Lance offers more viability outside the numbers than his superior at the position. Garoppolo is money at throwing drift routes and crossers, but he does not like to target outside the numbers. Take a glance at any of Garoppolo's passing charts on Next Gen Stats and you will find a quarterback who almost exclusively likes throws over the middle that cross into his line of sight. With Lance, that is not an issue.
The ball placement here is not ideal. Lance leaves the ball low and perhaps a hair inside. Nobody is going to argue that. However, Lance sort of self-imposes a degree of difficulty on the placement by throwing this ball as early as he does. That's what real, high-level quarterbacking can look like in its infancy.
In the first picture, Lance is just starting his windup. In the second, the wide receiver is just barely getting his head around to find the ball and it's already halfway there. The cornerback does not have any chance to play this ball because it's out so fast and with so much velocity. Throwing that early can make it a bit less clear exactly where the ball needs to arrive because the quarterback does not see the break point, as is the case here, but it also ensures nothing short of perfect defensive back play could possibly contest this ball. That Lance already has the confidence to be trying those throws, and execute on them, could help unlock a section of the passing offense that hardly exists with Garoppolo.
Now, before I get carried away, let's be clear that Lance was far from perfect. In the second quarter, he underthrew a Y-leak concept for an interception in which he did not see a cornerback floating up to defend. The sack he took was because he failed to identify a blitz pre-snap and left one of his receivers running open on a wheel route. At one point, Lance tried to rifle a ball past a linebacker on a crossing route over the middle when he had space to loft it towards the sideline. On a few occasions, the youngster also passed up the easy flat throw on rollout concepts in favor of unnecessary tough throws down the field (which he threw accurately, for what it's worth). There were certainly learning moments.
The good news is none of those issues are particularly worrisome in the long-term. Most of that is fixable with reps, especially given Lance's inexperience. In the short term, Lance's incompleteness makes getting the "easy" yards a bumpier process than it is for Garoppolo, but the expanded playbook (which hardly included designed runs for him in this match) and wider margin for error that Lance introduces as a playmaker outweighs some of his rookie inconsistencies.
Kyle Shanahan disagrees and none of this matters until next year, but that's the difference between San Francisco's quarterbacks heading into the playoffs. We know what Garoppolo is and isn't, and that he's a competent NFL quarterback. We also know Shanahan can scheme up a good offense with Garoppolo behind center. The waters with Lance are a little less clear, but he has shown the ability to do things we know Garoppolo can't. That kind of offensive spark is what the 49ers need to make the jump from scrappy wild-card team to dark horse contenders.