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NFL Draft

When Will Trey Lance Get His 1st Start?

  • The Draft Network
  • September 6, 2021
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All offseason in San Francisco there’s been talk about the QB “competition”’ between incumbent starter Jimmy Garoppolo and prized rookie Trey Lance. At the end of the day, we know it won’t be a competition for long. The 49ers traded a handsome price to get Lance for a reason. He’s their future.

In the present, however, Garoppolo will enter the year as the starter, a move head coach Kyle Shanahan made after seeing both perform in preseason action. It was a sensible choice given Lance’s raw and unseasoned nature, but the former NDSU signal-caller is simply too talented to keep on the bench for long, even if he hasn’t picked up all the nuances to the pro game yet.

Yes, the team is planning on using him in a package role that showcases his athleticism while backing up Garoppolo, but it’s only a matter of time before he’s handed the reins completely.

So when exactly will that be?  Let’s explore all the possible options.

Week 1

Odds of starting by then: 0%

Shanahan has already made the decision to start Garoppolo. Lance might see a few rushing reps in his package role, but he’s dealing with a small chip in his finger that should take a couple weeks to fully heal, so don’t expect him to be incorporated into many passing plays.

Week 3

Odds of starting by then: 20%

The odds of Lance starting Week 2 are low—not only is it unlikely the 49ers make a QB switch that early in the season, but it’s also unlikely that San Francisco drops their first game to Detroit, even if Garoppolo plays poorly. The same goes for Week 2 against Philadelphia, where the team should pretty easily handle their business against one of the worst teams in the league. That leaves a Green Bay primetime game in Week 3 that seems like a less than ideal match-up to throw Lance in for.

Still, it’s possible they make the switch if San Francisco shockingly drops either of the first two games—an outcome that isn’t totally unrealistic given the current parity in the NFL—so I wrote it down as a potential outcome.

Weeks 7 or 8

Odds of starting by then: 75%

After Green Bay, the 49ers play Seattle at home, Arizona on the road, have a bye in Week 5, and then get Indianapolis at home in primetime in Week 7. Usually, teams love to throw their guy in right before or after that pivotal bye week, but all three match-ups that surround it are tough—with two relatively strong defenses thrown into that mix (SEA, IND). Yes, Week 7 after the bye still makes a lot of sense (even in primetime against a top-tier defense), but an even more sensible choice would be the week after in Chicago.

When teams decide to sit their rookie QB to start the season, it means that they have the patience to not rush the process—a sign that they’ll wait for the right spot against a weaker opponent to hand him the reins. The Colts aren’t really that. Fast forwarding a week, however, and the Bears—who are almost all but guaranteed to also be starting their rookie QB by then—fit the description to a T. And assuming the 49ers have a reasonable 3-3 record by that time, it would give Lance a virtually clean slate to work from, albeit with fewer games remaining than a normal 17-game season.

Weeks 11 and 14

Odds of starting by then: 85%

If the full-time switch doesn’t happen in Week 7 or 8, it honestly might not happen for the rest of the year. Maybe the 49ers fall in love with the two-QB system and decide to stick with it for the entire year before making Lance “the guy” in 2022. Given some of Shanahan’s genius and the way he might be able to run rampant with Lance in QB power and counter situations, it’s not impossible.

Assuming that isn’t the case, though, the next best opportunities would be against Jacksonville in Week 11 and against the Bengals in Week 14—two bottom-end teams that would make for cupcake match-ups.

Any game after that would also be conceivable if San Francisco is out of the playoff race or an injury occurs, but switches that late into a season rarely happen for rookies—the notable current exceptions being Lamar Jackson and Drew Lock.

Bottom Line

Trying to predict when Lance will be in the lineup is next to impossible given the injuries and wackiness that occur in the NFL. After all, I’m sure the Chargers didn’t want to hastily rush Justin Herbert in the starting lineup against a star Chiefs team last season, but sometimes that’s life. Unpredictable, wild, and never going as you expected.

Still, trying to pinpoint certain matchups and fits where Lance could make his starting debut isn’t completely useless, as more often than not teams already have an idea of when the switch is going to take place before the regular season begins.

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