The Los Angeles Rams’ window for contention will remain open for the next two to three years, based on the remaining contract duration for star players like Matthew Stafford, Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, and Cooper Kupp.
One threat to that contention window, however, could be the development and potential emergence of second-year quarterback Trey Lance for the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers traded a heap of draft capital, two first rounders and a third round selection - similar to what the Rams gave up for Stafford, in order to take Lance third overall in 2021.
But a year later, Lance is still an unknown commodity in the NFL.
A strong performance from the young quarterback could propel the 49ers, who made it all the way to the NFC championship game a year ago, into legitimate contending status.
While Lance is a supremely talented athlete, he’s still an extremely raw prospect at quarterback. He made just a single start during his 2020 season at North Dakota State and threw only 318 attempts in his college career. For reference, Stafford threw almost twice that number of passes in 2021 at 601 and had 404 completions.
In other words, Lance could easily be the next young star signal caller or he could spell the end of Kyle Shanahan’s time in San Francisco. His skillset and relative inexperience allow for a wide range of outcomes - and it’s possible that over time and over his NFL career we see performances at both the high and low ends of this spectrum.
It could take a while for Trey Lance to become the player that Shanahan envisioned when he took the quarterback at the top of the draft - and perhaps there is no better quantification of that need for development than the metric outlined below.
Lance led the NFL in average time to throw last season (3.37 seconds), per PFF.
Josh Allen quickened up to 2.89s in 2021, but was still on the long end of the spectrum — fifth-longest in football. Mahomes (2.87s) was just behind him.— David Lombardi (@LombardiHimself) June 22, 2022
D-linemen have developed a pass-rushing advantage over O-linemen, and one of the league's counters has been the mobile QB
David Lombardi of The Athletic draws a line between Lance’s time to throw as a rookie to that of then-rookie Josh Allen, and Allen is an example of a team investing in a toolsie, raw quarterback and watching him develop into an elite signal caller. Patrick Mahomes is also mentioned as an athletic quarterback that scrambles around and buys time to throw, and that’s the blueprint for what could make Lance successful in the NFL.
But teams have invested in quarterbacks with rocket arms and scrambling ability for years, and Allen’s maturation and development seems to be more of the exception than the rule.
Think Blake Bortles with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Compare Lance to the up-and-down career of another developmental product out of North Dakota State, Carson Wentz. Drew Lock and Christian Hackenberg were drafted later than Allen in the second round, but both were considered big bodies with strong arms - neither were able to overcome issues with accuracy and found little success in the NFL.
While the high-end, spectacular plays will win the hearts of Twitter users and SportsCenter watchers, it’s the routine throws that equate to long-term success in the pros. This is where Wentz’s career has gone off the rails at times - and this is also where Lance needs the most improvement.
Something Chris Ballard said to Carson Wentz in their season-ending meeting yesterday: "Make the layups. Just make the layups."— Zak Keefer (@zkeefer) January 13, 2022
The 49ers have a unique offensive scheme with a number of unique offensive talents. George Kittle runs routes like a receiver and blocks like a tackle. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk catches passes like a tight end and clears running lanes like a snow plow. Receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk can run the ball out of the backfield but are also adept at earning tough yards after the catch downfield.
In a way Lance is just the next versatile playmaker in Shanahan’s war chest, though in other ways it’s fair to wonder if the uniqueness of the offense could hinder the development of the young signal caller.
Lance enters the 2022 season as one of the most enigmatic players in all of the NFL. Could he be the incremental upgrade over Jimmy Garoppolo the team needs in order to make it back to the Super Bowl, or will he prove to be more of an athlete than professional signal caller?