Who should trade for Trey Lance?
The end of the Lance-Shanahan partnership, and potential landing spots for the quarterback
Trey Lance is on the trade block. The Niners don’t want to fess up to it yet, but that’s the meat of Ian Rapoport’s report that the team has fielded offers for the former third-overall pick.
The Niners are just listening, they would like you to know. They haven’t called or picked up the phone to anyone. Honest. They’ve been sounded out, and, hey, they’re just doing their jobs by listening. That, of course, is bullshit. It’s PR speak for: We have some offers we like but we want to see if there’s more out there on the market. Anyone interested in bidding, it’s time to step forward.
Give some credit to John Lynch, Kyle Shanahan, and company. They’re not holding on for holdings on sake. They understand the idea of a sunk cost. The Trey Lance deal has been done. They can’t resurrect the three first round picks they traded to move up to draft him. But they can still spin the theory of Lance into something, some tangible asset that can help them win in this precious window when their defense is still whole and Brock Purdy is still cheap.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When they selected Lance, the Niners were drafting an idea as much as a player. That may sound pompous, but it’s true. Shanahan pushing for Lance in a draft that included Mac Jones (a more prototypical ‘Shanahan’ prospect) was emblematic of a philosophical shift. What if, the theory went, they could take all the wonders of a wide-zone-then-boot-styled offense that had wreaked havoc on the league and they could pair it with some option and pistol goodness? Could you fuse those two distinct poles into one, cohesive offense? The traditional Shanahan concepts would be more lethal — Lance as a roller on boot-actions would be infinitely more dangerous for a defense than Jimmy Garoppolo. And the new ideas would bring a measure of you-go-here-I-go-there football that is, by definition, indefensible. Rather than silo the offense from play to play, the two styles would complement and then amplify one another.
As I’ve noted before, as the wide-zone-then-boot aficionados started to see defenses finding methods to slow down the offensive madness, they each sought different paths forward: Sean McVay moved to the super-spread, and bet on the arm of Matthew Stafford (success!); Matt LaFleur embraced more a smashmouth-spread, with a creative second-phase system, the unique abilities of Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams affording him a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card (success!); Kyle Shanahan drafted Trey Lance.
Adding a power-runner into the classic Shanahan makeup would have been a fresh wrinkle, and unlike anything we’ve seen in the wide-zone-then-boot orbit. We had yet to see a true power-runner in a WZTB-style system (the closest would be Ryan Tannehill, but it took too long for the Tannehill-from-A&M to land in that kind of system). Some of the principles defenses have built to try to slow the keeper are harder to maintain when you know a player could pall the ball and be g-o-n-e around the corner — which could lead to overplaying the keeper, making life easier for Lance to throw from the pocket.
Lance, specifically, would allow the Niners to oscillate between styles. One play, one series, one week, they could run out any of the classic Shanahan vintages. On the next, they could play true option-based football (both the quarterback run and RPO variety). Defenses would always be guessing.
Fusing those two ideals together isn’t easy, but the Lance-Shanahan partnership looked set to lean into the Pistol as a happy meeting ground in the middle. Fun would be had by all. Touchdowns. Wins. Championships. Parades. Start fitting the jackets.
Not quite. The early returns were so-so. Lance got injured before Shanahan had a chance to put his theory into practice. The addition of Christian McCaffrey and the play of Jimmy Garoppolo and then Brock Purdy pushed Shanahan into re-orienting his offense around the idea of matchup ball.
But the Lance theory was strong – and exciting. It feels fitting that in the week the Niners are happy to wave the white flag on the concept of Lance, the pistol, the power-spread, and its spot in the wide-zone world, that Jalen Hurts and the Eagles agreed on the largest contract in the game – by average annual value. The Hurts-led Philly offense is proof positive that Shanahan and the Niners had the right idea of how to evolve their offense.
The Niners went hunting for something new when they moved up to draft Lance. For the Eagles, it fell into their laps.
Philly crafted an augmented version of the Shanahan-Lance ideal last season. And it was dominant.
The Hurts-Sirianni-Steichen machine served as proof that some version of wide-zone paired with the pistol/option-based football (again both RPOs and quarterback reads) is the ideal distillation of the NFL’s core concepts dating back forty years and the new age of pace-and-space football.
The Eagles’ offense put defenses in a blender last season. Nobody could keep up. Defenders couldn’t find the ball – and even if they did, they were out-manned or lacked the talent to keep up. They could play keep-away, option football, slam the ball down a defenses throat, operate with a pretty, rhythmic passing game or uncork explosives down the field.
Hurts has developed into everything the Niners envisioned Lance could be: A powerful, slippery runner who offers enough as a roller and option-runner that it opens up things in the passing game. He also wound up developing into one of the most sophisticated and outstanding deep passers. The power-running threat and the down-the-field accuracy stretched the defense both vertically and laterally, which in turn opened up easy buckets to the intermediate portion of the field (and in the middle of the field), the area that Hurts struggled with most prior to 2022.
Some offenses are machines. Some are juggernauts. But not all juggernauts are stylistically beautiful; and not all stylistic offenses have substance. What the Eagles perfected was as close as scheme can come to art. Even as Purdy continued to perfect the role of conductor within a more vintage Shanahan set-up, the Eagles’ offense had to make Shanahan a little sick — what could have been.
But the Niners have concluded that Lance is not the guy — or that his development would take too long to mess around. They have a new formula now. They’d rather move forward with Purdy as an executor of the classic Shanahan offense surrounded by a raft of positionless players who can dominate playing matchup ball. Rather than overhaul the offensive design, the Niners are simply bleeping with the concepts of the positions. McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Ayiuk, and George Kittle all flit between positions. They can all either win one-on-one through talent alone or elevate the scheme (and each other) by being able to bounce around to different positions and mess with the defensive math and matchups.
It’s a different style from the Hurts-Eagles freight train, but it proved to be just as effective. With Garoppolo or Purdy at the helm, the Niners finished 4th in offensive EPA last season. The Eagles finished 5th.
In the new Niners’ world, having an on-script pocket distributor who has just enough playmaking magic to keep the chains moving, makes more sense than a big-armed bomber who can run. The value of a Lance-type in such a setup would be to stretch the defense horizontally through the threat of his arm (vertical stretch) and mobility (horizontal). The Niners' skill positions have that covered now. They just need to get the ball out on-time, to the right landmarks, and keep the offense rolling.
With this core operating on this timeline, it’s probably the right decision. But it remains a sad day for any self-anointed scheme dorks. The idea of Lance’s blend of size, speed, wiggle, power and arm talent in a re-fashioned Kyle Shanahan offense was tantalizing. But the Niners are too good, too overwhelming, to goof around with experiments. They have an offensive savant and interchangeable superstars at the skill position spots. There’s no need to overthink this or to get too fancy. Given all their pieces on offense and the wizard working the sidelines, a pocket distributor with enough creative verve to create something out of the structure is all they need to be the favorite in the NFC.
Purdy fits that bill. On current evidence, Lance does not. And Lance The Asset can be used better elsewhere by bolstering an already stacked roster.
Lance will have plenty of admirers elsewhere. There has been such a small body of work that executives will pivot back to their pre-draft evaluations. He’s still only 22-years-old. Lance’s play in short spurts has made grim viewing, but there was always going to be a steep learning curve for an undercooked quarterback who had taken very few reps in college.
Lance has still yet to take a high volume of reps in live game action — the biggest knock on him coming out of college. Last season’s ankle injury disrupted his development curve — again. He needs to see in-game action. But he has, at least, taken more practice reps. He has spent more time in a building, digesting a playbook, working on the subtleties of the craft, and understanding the nuances and mechanics of his position and the broader Shanahan offense. In a league where almost half the offenses are running some bastardized version of ShanahanBall, that matters.
As executives approach draft week, they’ll have to decide whether they prefer whoever they have in their second-tier of quarterback prospects (whether that cut-off is Anthony Richardson, Will Levis, or Hendon Hooker) or Lance.
Hooker feels like the pivot point. Teams without a clear starter heading into next season should look toward the rookie class, building out a roster and a scheme to those individual player’s strengths. But those spying Hooker as an immediate backup who could supplant the likes of Jared Goff, Kirk Cousins, or Ryan Tannehill should take a closer look at Lance.
Hooker is admired. He is a great story. But he has a long, long way to go to be able to operate an NFL offense. He can make the throws and create plays, but it’s the operational side that’s going to take some time. Hooker is 25-years old. Would you rather have a 25-year-old rookie who needs to learn the very basics of the operational side of an NFL offense, or a 22-year-old Lance, who has already spent two years inside one of the league’s most pedantic pre-snap cathedrals?
Lance’s ankle injury muddies the conversation, but Hooker is also recovering from a long-term injury.
Money will play a role, too. If a team drafts Hooker or Levis, the two rookies would be cost-controlled for five years (four years before you’d engage in extension talks). Lance has two seasons remaining on his rookie deal before a team will have to sign an extension or pick up his fifth-year option.
But that’s a difference on the margins when you’re talking about finding a viable starter. If you hit, you pay. And any Lance deal, unless he transforms into a super-duper superstar, is unlikely to make a franchise buckle at its knees. If it does, it’s proof positive that the deal was worth making in the first place. He’s only going to command Daniel Jones or Kyler Murray money if he proves he’s a worthwhile/valuable starter — whether you should pay that caliber of quarterback that kind of money is a different discussion. If he proves that heading towards his fifth year in the league, aged 24, then any team would be happy to throw him the bag.
Price-wise, a second-rounder feels sensible, though the Niners will likely hope that a weak draft class paired with a bunch of quarterback-needy teams will inflate the price to at least a low-level first-round pick. Further reports have suggested the Niners are holding out for a haul — at least a high-ish first-round pick plus filler. History suggests otherwise. In 2019, the Cardinals traded Josh Rosen (the 2018 10th overall pick) to the Dolphins for a 2019 second-round pick and a 2020 fifth-rounder.In 2021, the New York Jets traded Darnold (the 2018 third overall pick) to the Panthers for a 2021 sixth-round pick along with second- and fourth-rounders in 2022. Those price points feel fair. But it would also make sense for a team with a high-ish first-round pick — say #11 or the early teens — to move back in the first round, grab as many Day Two assets as possible, and then chuck the 25th pick (or thereabouts) the way of the Niners to land Lance.
Let’s look at some spots that could make sense.
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