Coach Kyle Shanahan stepped outside his comfort zone with his selection to replace Jimmy Garoppolo as the 49ers’ next quarterback.
Trey Lance of North Dakota State brings a style to the position that is in stark contrast to the quarterbacks of Shanahan’s past, such as Kirk Cousins and Matt Ryan.
The selection of Lance with the No. 3 overall pick in the NFL Draft on Thursday night signals the 49ers are intent on keeping up with the trend of young, dynamic quarterbacks who have entered the league and excelled in recent seasons.
General manager John Lynch engineered a March 26 trade to move the 49ers from No. 12 to the third spot in the draft to land their quarterback of the future.
The team knew it needed to come up with three quarterbacks they liked in order for the trade to make sense.
Shanahan and Lynch had to determine which quarterback to rank next on their draft board after Trevor Lawrence of Clemson and Zach Wilson of BYU, the top two picks, went to the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets, respectively.
The 49ers spent extensive time over the past month evaluating their options and traveling to the pro days of Lance, Alabama’s Mac Jones and Ohio State’s Justin Fields before arriving at their ultimate decision.
“We probably started with one in mind, but that one’s gotten better since, and so have all of the other candidates,” Shanahan said in a meeting with reporters three days before the draft.
In his role, Lynch has contractual power over trades, free agency and the draft. But he said he’d defer to Shanahan on the decision of which quarterback was best-suited to be at the controls of the 49ers’ offense for, perhaps, as long as the coach remains with the organization.
The move came at a cost, of course. In swapping first-round picks with the Miami Dolphins to move up nine spots, the 49ers also parted ways with first-round picks in 2022 and ’23, as well as a third-round pick in 2022.
For much of the pre-draft process, Jones was considered in NFL circles to be the favorite, based on Shanahan’s known preferences for accuracy, timing and anticipation in order for a quarterback to make plays within the confines of his offense.
Jones set the NCAA single-season record with a completion percentage of 77.4 percent en route to Alabama’s 13-0 record and national championship. But the 49ers determined Lance provides those pocket skills, as well as an abundance of physical tools that Jones lacks.
The league appears to be trending toward such dual-threat quarterbacks such as Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Kyler Murray and Deshaun Watson.
Lance fits nicely into that mold. He can drive the ball down the field to make big plays in the passing game or break out on designed and improvised running plays.
During the 2019 season in which he led North Dakota State to a 16-0 record and an NCAA FCS championship, Lance completed 66.9 percent of his pass attempts with 28 touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed for 1,100 yards and 14 touchdowns.
However, one drawback with Lance is the fact he has played only one football game in the past 15 1/2 months. After the championship game of the 2019 season, North Dakota State was limited to just one game in the fall because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Bison continued its football season in the spring, but Lance already had declared for the draft. He spent a lot of time with private quarterbacks coach Quincy Avery to make sure he continued to grow his game even without the benefit of playing games.
“Trey Lance is a true threat at the quarterback position,” Avery recently told NBC Sports Bay Area. “He has an ability to carve you up from the pocket, and if he’s given the opportunity and the space to run, he will also hurt you in a bad way there.”
Lance, who turns 21 on May 9, is regarded as incredibly smart and passionate about learning the game. He also has an infectious personality and is known to be a strong leader.
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The 49ers felt the need to target a quarterback with a high draft pick because of the frustration that built with Garoppolo missing large portions of two of the past three seasons due to injuries. He was sidelined for 13 games in 2018 with a torn ACL. He was out for 10 games in 2020 with two high ankle sprains.
When Garoppolo was healthy in 2019, he played well enough for the 49ers to win the NFC West, cruise through the NFC playoffs and hold a 10-point lead before a fourth-quarter collapse against Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV.
Obviously, Shanahan determined something dramatic had to change with the 49ers’ offense. And Lance is the player Shanahan trusts to determine the fate of the franchise — and his future as 49ers coach.