It is not often that a team makes it to the conference championship game and then opts for a change at the most important position. But as Matt Damon says in those weird crypto commercials, fortune favors the brave. So the 49ers are making the brave move this year by handing over the reins to second-year quarterback Trey Lance.
What makes the move even that much more confusing is what the team has done with last year’s starter Jimmy Garoppolo. The quarterback that led them to the NFC Championship game last year and Super Bowl appearance in 2019 hasn’t been traded or cut yet. As of right now, Garoppolo will start the season on San Francisco’s roster, although there is a very high likelihood he wouldn’t finish it there.
But enough about the quarterback that won’t play this year. Lance is walking into nearly a dream scenario for a young quarterback. He gets to play in a Kyle Shanahan offense on a team that has a ton of talent on both sides of the ball. Most guys drafted as high as he was have to suffer through a few years on bad teams (see Lawrence, Trevor and Wilson, Zach). But Lance gets a chance to lead a possible Super Bowl contender in his first year under center.
That also leads to very lofty expectations for the 22-year-old. Lance will be expected to produce right away and not experience any of the growing pains that a lot of young quarterbacks have early on in their careers. The 49ers are hoping that Lance’s rookie year spent as a backup will have allowed to him learn the offense and get familiar with the system in practice, making him better equipped to handle the starting role.
If Lance does demonstrate a sufficient understanding of the offense, then San Francisco can field a very dynamic group. Lance is very capable as a passer but it is his rushing ability that creates the most intrigue. Shanahan has never had a quarterback as athletic as Lance in his time as a head coach, mainly dealing with pocket passers such as Kirk Cousins, Matt Ryan, and Garoppolo.
This could be the most explosive and creative Shanahan offense we have ever witnessed due to Lance’s unique skillset. He is poised for a huge breakout season, especially if he leads the 49ers on a playoff run. The second-year quarterback may end up putting together an incredible season if he plays as well through the air as he can on the ground.
Unlike some of the other young quarterbacks in the league, Lance will have some elite offensive weapons at his disposal. Wide receiver Deebo Samuel had a huge breakout season in 2021, becoming one of the top receivers in the league due to his special playmaking ability. Samuel made countless plays for San Francisco, both through the air and on the ground, and played well enough to earn himself a big contract extension.
Lance will also have tight end George Kittle to help make some big plays. Kittle may be one of the most uniquely-gifted tight ends in the league. He has great hands and route-running ability but is also an absolute monster that can dominate defenders after the catch or while blocking. Kittle will no doubt be a reliable weapon for Lance if he can stay on the field.
The star tight end has missed 13 games over the past three seasons, including three last year. Injuries have also been a problem for other pass-catchers. Samuel missed over half the season in 2020, although he missed just one last season. Health will be a key factor for the offense because they will need everyone in top form if they want to compete in the NFC.
If Samuel were to miss some time in 2022, the Niners would at least have a solid replacement in wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk. The third-year player has been steadily improving but hasn’t quite been the player San Francisco was hoping for when they drafted him in the first round.
It is possible that the change in quarterback will bring out the best version of Aiyuk. Lance has a much stronger arm than Garoppolo and the best facet of Aiyuk’s game is his ability to stretch the field and rack up yards after the catch. He could also be on a similar career trajectory as Samuel, who had a huge season in his third year. If Aiyuk does take a step up this year, it will give Lance a great trio of pass-catchers between him, Samuel, and Kittle.
The 49ers will also have some depth behind those three. Rookie wide receiver Danny Gray has already looked pretty good in camp and preseason in his role as a burner on the outside. Jauan Jennings, whom the Niners drafted in 2021, is a big-bodied receiver that can win jump balls on the outside. And veterans Ray-Ray McCloud, Malik Turner, and Willie Snead can also jump in and produce if necessary.
San Francisco has some pretty decent depth at the running back position as well, it just doesn’t have the same star power as the pass-catchers. Elijah Mitchell, a 2021 sixth-round pick, surprisingly emerged as the lead back last season and played well in the role but he may not have the starting role locked down.
Second-year running back Trey Sermon, who was actually drafted ahead of Mitchell, and rookie Tyrion Davis-Price are two more young talented backs that could lay claim to the lead role. And then there is also the presence of Jeff Wilson and JaMycal Hasty, who may not pose a threat to Mitchell’s job, but could take some snaps away in the passing game or earn a larger role if they need to fill in due to injury.
Regardless of who ends up as the main running back in 2022, the best bet is still Mitchell, the rushing attack should be dangerous. The Niners finished seventh on rushing yards last year but that was without the added running ability that Lance provides as the starter. Even if the team does ultimately go with a committee approach at the running back position, San Francisco will once again be one of the better rushing teams in the league.
Of course, much of that depends on the play of the offensive line. The 49ers are set at tackle, where both Trent Williams (arguably the best left tackle in the league) and Mike McGlinchey return to man the end spots. The interior is much more uncertain considering the departure of Pro-Bowl guard Laken Tomlinson and the retirement of center Alex Mack.
The Niners will now have to rely on players such as Daniel Brunskil, Justin Skule, Jake Brendel, Aaron Banks, and Dohnovan West. Those players probably don’t inspire a ton of confidence since I bet you have never heard of any of them. Banks, a second-year guard, and West, a rookie center, provide some upside but the team is not in a position where they can just hope that some young players prove they can handle it up front. The 49ers need good play on the line immediately, so whoever proves they can do that this season will earn a starting spot.
At least the Niners won’t have to worry about their defense too much because that side of the ball has consistently been elite. Of course, it does help when your defense is led by superstars such as defensive end Nick Bosa and linebacker Fred Warner. But those two aren’t the only reason for the team’s success on defense.
Bosa obviously plays a big part in the defensive line’s dominance. He is one of the top pass-rushers in the entire league and is still young enough to feasibly get even better. He also gets the benefit of playing next to some pretty talented players.
Defensive lineman Arik Armstead might be the most underappreciated member of the 49ers’ defense. For a while, it looked like he would be more of a bust, but in the last three years he has really developed into a solid player. He plays a big role in clogging up the middle of the line but also possesses enough pass-rush skill to get to the quarterback occasionally.
The Niners also have some promising players to fill out the rest of the group up front. Defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, a 20200 first-rounder, should finally be ready to be a big-time player this year. Then there is an impressive mix of pass-rushers made up of defensive ends Jordan Willis, Kemoko Turay. Charles Omenihu, Samson Ebukam, and rookie Drake Jackson. None of them will have too much pressure due to Bosa’s production but if a few of them can prove to be effective as rotational pass-rushers then that would be huge for the defense.
The linebackers are probably the most reliable group as a whole on the defense even though most of them are not well-known in the league. Warner is clearly the exception to that. He has been playing out of his mind recently and might be the best off-ball linebacker in the entire league.
But the backers next to him are what truly make the position unit great. Azeez Al-Shaair and Dre Greenlaw are both very productive players in the middle of the defense but don’t have the same hype around them as Warner does. Al-Shaair really came out of nowhere last season and had a very impressive season, proving he belongs to start next to Warner. Greenlaw missed most of last season due to injury, but he was very productive in the two seasons prior.
The area of the defense that has the most uncertainty is definitely the secondary. The Niners have struggled at times to find consistent play at some of the positions, leading to a revolving door at cornerback. Last year the team relied heavily on Josh Norman and K’Waun Williams, neither of which are back this season.
Cornerback Emmanuel Moseley is still around, though, after starting 11 games last year. He should be a lock for one of the outside corner spots with free-agent signing Charvarius Ward manning the other. Ward was a good player in Kansas City and has experience playing an important role in a secondary so he should be able to handle one of the starting roles.
San Francisco also has defensive back Jimmie Ward, who they have used all over the field. He has spent time at outside corner, slot corner, and both safety positions throughout his career but will probably be needed more as a safety this year. Safety Jaquiski Tartt left in free agency, leaving a big role that needs to be filled on the back end.
With Ward taking care of one safety spot, that leaves either Talanoa Hufanga or George Odum to man the other one. Each player represents a different approach, so they could both be used in some capacity. Odum is the experienced veteran that started a handful of games during his with the Colts. Hufanga is a younger player that may still need time to develop but offers some more upside due to his ball skills and playmaking that he demonstrated in college.
It is possible that San Francisco experiences some difficulties in the secondary but, hopefully, they will have it figured out by the time the playoffs come around. It also may not end up being too big of a deal if the rest of the defense plays as well as it has in the past.
If all goes well for the 49ers then they could have another great year in 2022. The postseason seems very much within their reach again this year, with a division championship not out of the picture if the Rams have a Super Bowl hangover.
While I do think the Niners make it back to the playoffs, I think it will be as a wild-card team after an 11-6 season. I could see them starting out a bit slow this year as they figure out some things at quarterback, offensive line, and in the secondary. And with a schedule that features the Broncos, Chiefs, and Rams twice in the first eight weeks, a slow start could give them quite a few losses.
But I do have confidence that this team will put it all together in the second half of the year and end the season strong going into the playoffs. Lance will be fully comfortable in his role and will be orchestrating the offense incredibly well. The defense will once again be one of the best in the league behind elite play from Bosa and Warner. And Shanahan and the rest of the coaching staff will be making the right decisions in order to get the most out of the team.
Ultimately, I see this team capped out as a solid playoff team. They could make a similar run as last year where they pull off a few upsets and make it to the conference championship game, but I still think they are at least a year away from being a legit Super Bowl team. Obviously, that could change if Lance is as special as he has the potential to be but I wouldn’t bet on that happening, at least not this year.