It was a smokescreen all along.
Ever since a seismic trade March 26 in which the 49ers sent three first-round draft choices (2021, 2022, 2023) and a 2022 third-rounder to move up from the 12th pick to No. 3, coach Kyle Shanahan said he had one player in mind.
It was North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance.
“It was crazy to watch where it all went,” Shanahan said after the Niners took Lance on Thursday in the first round of the NFL Draft.
Crazy is an understatement. Just hours after the trade, it was reported that the Niners were focused on Alabama quarterback Mac Jones. That didn’t make much sense for a team expected to be a Super Bowl contender, as Jones was the fifth-best QB on pretty much everyone’s draft board.
But the Niners, knowing the pick was one that can alter a franchise’s future, kept their intentions under wraps despite never wavering from Lance. The selection of Lance was just the third time in his NFL Draft history that QBs were taken with the top three picks (1971, 1999).
“I just found out 2 minutes ago,” Lance said moments after walking onto the stage at the NFL Draft in Cleveland and hugging NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. “It means the world and I’m super-excited.”
Lance doesn’t come with the questions that surrounded Jones. At 6-foot-4 and 224 pounds, Lance has the size, athletic ability and arm strength you expect from an elite NFL quarterback. However, what Lance doesn’t have is experience. He basically played just one season at North Dakota State and the offense was run-first.
But in that one season, as a 19-year-old sophomore, Lance completed 192 of 287 passes (66.9 percent) for 2,786 yards — with 28 touchdowns and zero interceptions — in 16 games. Yes, zero interceptions. He also rushed 169 times for 1,100 yards and 14 TDs. He was named the Walter Payton Award, the Football Championship Subdivision version of the Heisman Trophy. North Dakota State did not play a fall schedule this season, but did play one exhibition to showcase Lance.
“He has the same amount of film as Mac, he has the same amount of Joe Burrow (the No. 1 overall pick) from the year before,” Shanahan said. “He’s still the same as a lot of guys and the film was very good. Unfortunately, he didn’t get a 2020 year. So that’s what was tough.”
Shanahan speculated that if Lance did have a 2020 season, he might not have been available when the Niners picked at No. 3.
“We had a lot of time to watch 2019 and there are a lot of clips. When you collect all the pluses and minuses — that’s usually how I watch film — and by the time you’ve gone through four months and you have 400 clips of just pluses and minuses and you do that for everyone, I had a lot more pluses for Trey.”
One of the aspects that eventually sold the 49ers on taking Lance was his makeup. Not only has Lance’s work ethic been noted, but his leadership skills.
“I think he’s very impressive in terms of his intellect, how he deals with people and how he just handles a social situation,” Shanahan said. “I looked at him as a CEO of a company. If I ever knew anything about that stuff. But you put that to the side and it’s one a hell of a quarterback and this is someone that I believe in and I want to go to work with.”
The question now becomes what do the 49ers do at the quarterback position. Shanahan, cleaning up a mess he created during a pre-draft media session Monday, said he expects Jimmy Garoppolo to be with the Niners and at this point is still the starter, allowing Lance to watch and learn.
“It had nothing to do with Jimmy, when I said I didn’t know if we’d be alive on Sunday, I was just trying not to get my typical answer of, ‘Guys, anybody can be traded if you get a bunch of ones, John (Lynch, 49ers general manager) should trade me and I shouldn’t be here on Sunday,’” Shanahan said. “That’s the answer for every person on our team. But Jimmy’s situation is if he isn’t here on Sunday, I would be disappointed, because Jimmy is a quarterback who’s played one year and took us to a Super Bowl and played at a very high level. He’s had some unfortunate injuries, but I believe in Jimmy as a person and he’s shown what he can do on tape.
“Now we made this move so it’s obvious what I hope and what I believe in with this guy coming in, but it would be a very tough situation if Jimmy is not on our team. I want Jimmy to be here and I want this kid to be brought along. I want to see how he does. And if it turns into a competition, it turns into a competition, I’d be excited about that if he showed he was ready for it and stuff, but we know where Jimmy’s at. He hasn’t played football in a year, he hasn’t been to an OTA, I’d love to get him out here, it’d be very hard for me to picture a situation Jimmy’s not here on Sunday.”
Meanwhile, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported just hours before the draft began that former Cal star Aaron Rodgers, the reigning NFL MVP, does not want to return to the Green Bay Packers. The Niners called the Packers on Wednesday to ask about Rodgers. The Packers sent their team president, general manager and coach on separate trips to visit Rodgers on the West Coast. Another report said Rodgers’ agent spent several days in Green Bay to work through the QB’s concerns, especially after the Packers surprisingly drafted quarterback Jordan Love last year.