The 49ers' heavy investment in Trey Lance backfires, but it hasn't destroyed the franchise

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — Few teams have ever invested as much capital into acquiring as the San Francisco 49ers did when they traded three first-round picks to draft Trey Lance.

And few teams have ever cut ties with a highly drafted quarterback as quickly as San Francisco did with Lance, trading him away for a pittance before the start of his third season.

“Obviously we took our shot, and it didn’t work out,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “So, that’s on us for that. But I’m not going to say anything is a failure. That’d be too much of a negative toward Trey. I get our deal. We took a shot to go for that. We were hoping that he could be our guy, and that didn’t work out.”

A colossal miss of this nature could set back a franchise for years as the Niners traded away the 12th pick of the 2021 draft, first-round picks in 2022 and '23 that ended up being 29th overall and a third-round pick to draft the untested Lance third overall in 2021.

They then paid him about $28 million to make four starts in two seasons before trading him to Dallas for a fourth-round pick after he wasn't deemed good enough to beat out former draft bust Sam Darnold for the backup quarterback job on the 49ers.

San Francisco managed to make it to the NFC title game the past two seasons despite little contribution from Lance and no premium draft picks, and the Niners are tied for the fourth-best odds to win the Super Bowl this season, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, thanks in part to stumbling into a starting quarterback when they took Brock Purdy with the final pick of the 2022 draft.

“This thing’s not an exact science, but when you put that much into a player, it usually is really tough to rebound from,” general manager John Lynch said. “Fortunately, we’ve been able to continue to grow this team, to make this team better. We were very fortunate for Brock to become what he’s become. Now he’s got to continue to do it.”

The blunder didn't come without a cost. Had the 49ers chosen to stand pat with oft-injured Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback in 2021 and drafted a key contributor with their No. 12 pick — All-Pro edge rusher Micah Parsons ended up going in that spot — they might have bested the Rams in the NFC title game that season.

Having late first-round picks the last two years could have bolstered key spots on the roster and put the Niners in even better shape to win the franchise's first Super Bowl in nearly three decades.

“We took a shot with Trey because we believed he could (win),” Shanahan said. “We knew it would take some time, but in the meantime, we were going to have a pretty good team. The time that we did give him when he had his (opportunities), he missed those and those weren’t his fault. They weren’t our fault. That’s what happens in football."

The 49ers drafted Lance even though he had started only 17 games at FCS-level North Dakota State after playing just once in the pandemic-altered 2020 season.

He spent his rookie season backing up Garoppolo, starting just two games as an injury replacement and being hampered by a finger injury on his throwing hand.

Lance was handed the starting job last season, but that lasted less than five quarters because he broke his ankle early in Week 2 and was sidelined for the rest of the season.

“We knew he wasn’t fully ready in every aspect, but we knew he had a skill set that we could put some stuff together to give him the chance to compete and grow with a good team as he developed as a full quarterback,” Shanahan said. “He got hurt in the first quarter of the second game, which kind of set that back.”

Purdy, taken with the last draft pick in 2022, came on late in the season and won his first seven starts to take over the starting role headed into this season.

San Francisco signed Darnold in free agency after he flamed out with the Jets and Carolina after also being drafted third overall, in 2018 by New York. Darnold ended up doing enough in practices and the first two preseason games to beat out Lance.

Lance’s four starts are the fewest for any quarterback taken in the top five of the draft in the common draft era for the team he made his debut on. Jack Thompson had the previous low, starting five games for Cincinnati after being taken third overall in 1979.

“He hadn’t played a ton of football, so we knew we were taking somewhat of a chance,” Lynch said. “But I believe to this day, if we hadn’t taken him, someone would’ve right behind us. I think the next pick. I don’t think we were the only ones seeing it. He’s a very talented young man. ... I still think that story’s unwritten, so it didn’t work for us. ... I still very much have belief that he’s going to become a player. Now it’s just not going to be for us.”