What becomes of Trey Lance after 49ers sign QB Sam Darnold?
Adding Darnold, the No. 3 pick in the 2018 draft, and the details of his one-year deal, invite more questions about Lance, whose four uneven career starts mean he remains a mystery.
SAN FRANCISCO — Last year, the San Francisco 49ers signed quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to a restructured, incentive-laden contract that had a maximum value of $15.45 million to serve as Trey Lance's backup.
This week, the 49ers signed QB Sam Darnold to an incentive-heavy contract with a maximum value of $11.5 million to ... compete with Lance to become the 49ers' backup?
The decision to add Darnold, 25, the No. 3 pick in the 2018 draft, and the details of his one-year deal, invite more questions about Lance, 22, whose four uneven career starts mean he remains a mystery two years after the 49ers traded up to select him with the No. 3 pick.
The addition of Darnold suggests a disconnect between the 49ers' words and actions on how they view their QB position in 2023 and, by extension, Lance's ability to lead a Super Bowl contender, if necessary.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan all but yawned Feb. 1 when asked about possibly adding a "starter-level veteran" as a third QB to the roster. That wouldn't be necessary, he said, because the 49ers already had two first-string options in presumptive No. 1 Brock Purdy and Lance.
"I know we have two starters on our team right now that I believe we can win with," Shanahan said. "So when you have that situation, you're not that eager to go looking around."
But the 49ers appeared to be eager to add Darnold, a five-year veteran with 55 career starts. On Monday, about five hours after teams and players could begin negotiating contracts, it was first reported that Darnold had agreed to terms on a deal that has $3.5 million guaranteed and includes $7 million in incentives.
Those who would suggest Darnold's track record means he's little threat to Lance have some evidence. Darnold's passer rating (78.2) and completion percentage (59.7) are last among the 36 QBs with at least 1,000 pass attempts since 2018. In addition, he ranks 33rd in yards per attempt (6.7) and owns the third-worst interception percentage (3.1).
That is, Lance, who has thrown 102 passes, remains largely unknown. And what's known about Darnold isn't good.
However, Darnold's ugly numbers reflect partly his awful circumstances with the Jets (2018-20) and Panthers (2021-22), who traded a second-, fourth- and sixth-round pick to acquire him two years ago. Darnold's teams went 25-57 and the losing was accompanied by upheaval: He played for four head coaches and five offensive coordinators.
Of Darnold's ex-coaches, just one — Tampa Bay's Todd Bowles — is currently an NFL head coach. Of Darnold's coordinators, none is presently an NFL coordinator. Darnold's teams had just one pass-catcher — wide receiver D.J. Moore in 2021 — who had more than 888 yards in a season.
The 49ers believe a more stable environment can produce better results. Darnold joins a team with more total wins (27) in two seasons than his previous employers managed throughout his career. The 49ers' success derives in part from Shanahan, a well-respected play caller who oversees an offense that features four players who have had 1,000-yard receiving seasons (tight end George Kittle, running back Christian McCaffrey and wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk).
Darnold likely sees an opportunity to resuscitate his career if he gets on the field, placing himself in position for a bigger payday in 2024.
The 49ers studied Darnold long before this offseason. They scouted him when he was at USC prior to the 2018 draft before their trade for Garoppolo meant they wouldn't use their top pick on a QB. And what the 49ers saw from Darnold's 2022 season might have been his best video since his college glory days.
After losing a training-camp competition with Baker Mayfield for the starting spot, Darnold suffered a high ankle sprain and didn't play until Week 12. But then Darnold finished the season by posting a 4-2 record, throwing seven touchdown passes, three interceptions and compiling a 92.6 passer rating. For perspective: Darnold had a 17-32 record, had thrown 54 touchdown passes and 52 interceptions and had a 76.9 passer rating before that season-ending run.
Of course, the 49ers' 2022 season influenced their decision to add Darnold. They had four quarterbacks sidelined with injuries, and both Purdy and Lance are currently rehabbing. Purdy is expected to be able to play around the start of the regular season after undergoing elbow surgery last week. Lance should be cleared by the start of offseason practices in May after having a follow-up surgery on his broken ankle in late December.
Last year, the 49ers' surprise decision to keep Garoppolo on his restructured deal was something of a hedge after Lance's bumpy offseason. A year later, after Lance's lost season, they gave Darnold a very similar deal.
Lance can dismiss Darnold as competition, along with the questions surrounding him, with a strong offseason that indicates he'll realize his draft potential.
But the 49ers have made a significant investment, $3.5 million and possibly much more, because they can't bank on that happening.
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