When will Trey Lance start for 49ers? Exploring rookie QB’s chances to play over Jimmy Garoppolo

Trey Lance isn’t ready to compete to start for the 49ers. That’s what the rookie first-round quarterback’s coach, Kyle Shanahan, just said in San Francisco. At the same time, their current veteran starter, Jimmy Garoppolo, has promised to be a willing mentor to help develop Lance.

It’s no surprise that Shanahan and Garoppolo are saying the right things after the 49ers made a big trade up to take Lance No. 3 overall. That’s what one would expect to hear from a class organization.

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Given that Lance is turning only 21 in 2021, it would make sense that he needs some development before being trusted to take the reins of an NFC’s contender’s promising offense. But as this situation has played out for many teams, many times before, the 49ers can’t afford to lock into making this “a redshirt year” for Lance.

Lance has to clean up many things in his passing game. He also has limited experience starring at an FCS program and is making a big leap to an elite pro system. But at the same time, Lance has rare football smarts and maturity for his age. He also has a natural dynamic running ability, another asset that can’t be taught.

Knowing that, it would follow that Lance profiles as a quick study who will accelerate his growth over three months of his first, abbreviated NFL offseason. Although most high-drafted rookie QBs end up on bad, rebuilding teams that force them to take a lot of lumps, the 49ers have the ideal support system.

Rock of a left tackle anchoring a strong offensive line? Check on Trent Williams. The ultimate security blanket tight end? Check on George Kittle. Talented receivers who can make big things happen after the catch? Check on Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel. A reliable prolific running game? Check on Shanahan’s zone-blocking machine.

Shanahan did offer the “now” qualifer on Lance’s not-readiness and Garoppolo’s status. But the same offensive genius who recognized that Lance could take his scheme to the next level also should realize that Lance has a chance to provide the higher immediate floor as as well the unlimited long-term ceiling.

Garoppolo has been a good fit for what Shanahan wants executed. But he’s also going to turn 30 later this year and is coming off a second major injury-riddled season in three years. Should the 49ers keep him starting as a bridge QB, they would miss a chance to get around $24 million in salary-cap relief in 2021 by trading or releasing him. That is only a little less than they would get if they wait to move Garoppolo in 2022.

The clock is already ticking on Lance and his bargain four-year all-guaranteed contract, which should have a total value of less than $35 million. The more that he can play as a capable starter, the better for the 49ers.

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There a few keys for Lance getting on the field when it counts as a rookie. First, Shanahan will need to find ways to incorporate Lance’s rushing element into the offense, much like his father did with a rookie Robert Griffin III in Washington in 2012. Second, Lance needs to develop a good rapport with Kittle, Aiyuk and Samuel so Shanahan feels confident that his top playmakers will still get the ball in their hands often. Third, Lance will need to show he can absorb the playbook, taking advantage of Garoppolo’s willing mentoring.

The 49ers have every reason to open up the competition between Lance and Garoppolo. Either Lance will have a great summer to earn the job, or Garoppolo will be motivated into better play, even with his time shortening in San Francisco.

Although Lance will need to show Shanahan a lot, he is capable of doing it and the 49ers have the capacity to welcome it. No one should be surprised if Lance is the choice to start in Week 1, whether Garoppolo is moved or dropped to No. 2.

The 49ers, should they overcome all the injuries from 2020, are positioned to contend for the NFC title again with all their talent beyond quarterback. Rolling with Lance while knowing that he has a lot of help to lift him up — while he lifts the offense in a new way — sounds more like a fine Plan A vs. a fallback Plan B.