49ers To Name Sam Darnold Backup QB; Team Exploring Trey Lance Options

Sam Darnold has beaten out Trey Lance for the 49ers’ backup quarterback job, Tom Pelissero and Ian Rapoport of NFL.com report (on Twitter). As a result, the former San Francisco starter’s status going into his third season is uncertain.

Playing ahead of Lance in the 49ers’ second preseason game, Darnold had been expected to begin the season as Brock Purdy‘s backup. Wednesday’s announcement, however, brings clarity on one end and adds doubt on another. After going into last season as the 49ers’ unquestioned starter, Lance has seen his stock crater. Lance is not at 49ers practice Wednesday, the San Jose Mercury News’ Cam Inman tweets.

Rumblings about a Lance trade emerged before the draft, though the 49ers denied they were shopping him. Lynch spoke to Lance about the rumors, and the athletic passer indicated he was not seeking a trade. That all may change now. The Vikings were on the radar for Lance before the draft, and Rapoport suggested this as a landing spot for the Marshall, Minn., native. But the Vikes, who roster ex-49er Nick Mullens behind Kirk Cousins, drafted Jaren Hall in Round 5.

The 49ers have continued to shop Lance for much of the offseason, The Athletic’s Dianna Russini tweets, noting no significant offer has come the team’s way. In April, however, Russini notes the Vikings and 49ers were pretty far down the road on a trade (Twitter link). Considering the lack of evidence regarding Lance’s NFL capabilities, it is difficult to foresee the 49ers receiving an especially worthwhile proposal. That will put the organization to a decision with 2021 third’s overall choice.

Prior to free agency’s outset, John Lynch spoke of the 49ers adding another QB due to Lance coming off two ankle surgeries and Purdy rehabbing a torn UCL. Rather than that quarterback becoming a third-string option that drifted off the radar once Purdy returned, the 49ers signed Darnold. Kyle Shanahan has spoken highly of the 2018 third overall pick, who signed a one-year deal worth $4.5MM early in free agency. And the 49ers will go into the season with the recent Panthers starter as Purdy’s top reserve.

The appeal of playing in a 49ers offense housing three All-Pro skill-position talents (George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, Christian McCaffrey) helped bring Darnold back to California. The USC alum is still just 26, and while he has been given considerable run as a starter (55 games), the 49ers represent a better situation compared to the Jets and Panthers offenses he piloted. Shanahan has made it clear Purdy is the starter, and he debuted for the team against the Broncos on Saturday. It is certainly interesting that Darnold — the No. 3 overall pick in 2018 — will back up last year’s Mr. Irrelevant, but even if Purdy’s leash should be lengthy, the 49ers have more stability at QB2 in the sixth-year veteran.

For Lance, this marks another setback in a career full of them. Shanahan had thrown cold water on Lance’s prospects in the spring. Rather than this being a three-way competition for the starter gig, the 49ers did not give Lance much of a shot to regain his job as Purdy rehabbed. The North Dakota State alum quarterbacked much of the second half Saturday, and although he fared decently (12-for-18, 173 yards), it is possible that becomes audition tape for another team now.

Lance’s past three-plus years have doubled as one of the strangest career arcs for any top prospect in NFL history. After Lance dominated as a dual-threat talent for a Division I-FCS dynasty in 2019, as a redshirt freshman, the COVID-19 pandemic nixed FCS football in 2020. Lance was limited to one game as a sophomore, and he declared for the draft. That monster 2019 showing still made him a top prospect, like fellow ex-Bison Carson Wentz was five years prior, but Lance went to a 49ers team that may not have been all in on him. Rumors swirled about Shanahan preferring Mac Jones.

Lance, 23, has not come close to justifying the 49ers’ nine-spot trade-up, which cost them two first-round picks. He has attempted 102 passes as a pro, starting only four games and finishing just three. The Week 2 start against the Seahawks last season, leading to Lance’s ankle fracture, may be his last cameo as a 49er. After years of injury issues at QB, the 49ers are in better shape now. Purdy is no longer under any restrictions, and Darnold is healthy. That said, Darnold has missed games due to injury in each of his five seasons. This included a high ankle sprain last year, though he has certainly been healthier than Jimmy Garoppolo as a pro.

It should be expected the 49ers will attempt to move their third-stringer; May pickup Brandon Allen remains on San Francisco’s roster as well. Considering what the 49ers gave up to acquire Lance, moving him will cement a major draft blunder for an otherwise successful operation.

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