SANTA CLARA, Calif. — As he prepares for his second NFL season and, most likely, his first as the San Francisco 49ers starter, Trey Lance is aware of the questions about the team’s quarterback situation. Queries about Jimmy Garoppolo, who remains on the roster, have filled the void left by a lack of information after a rookie season in which Lance started two games.
With Garoppolo and his surgically repaired right shoulder about a month from being cleared to throw, the Niners have been unable to trade him. Coach Kyle Shanahan reiterated recently “nothing’s changed” since Garoppolo’s surgery and the quarterback is “most likely to be traded” at some point. That has delayed Lance’s official ascension to the starting job.
Regardless, Lance has been the team’s starting quarterback during organized team activities, and, for now, is ignoring all of the aforementioned questions and approaching everything he does with his job title in mind.
“In the most respectful way possible, it doesn’t change how I feel about you guys as people, but it’s not my job to care what you guys say or anyone else on social media,” Lance said, smiling. “For me, I care about what the guys in the locker room think and what my coaching staff thinks.”
Speaking to Bay Area media last week for the first time since just after the Niners’ loss to the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship Game, Lance struck a more comfortable and expansive tone than during a rookie season in which he was rarely available to media.
For the first time, Lance elaborated on the chipped bone in his right index finger suffered during last year’s preseason finale against the Las Vegas Raiders.
Lance said he could “manage” the finger well enough to get through the season but the finger was still bent even after the fracture healed. It didn’t fully straighten again until about a month after the season. That meant even as Lance started during a Week 5 loss to the Arizona Cardinals and a Week 17 win against the Houston Texans, he was never at full strength. Lance attempted 71 passes during his rookie season, completing 57.7% of them for 603 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions for a QBR of 33.4.
“The finger for me was the biggest thing just as far as throwing the ball,” Lance said. “I kind of had to learn how to throw the ball differently without using my pointer finger, I guess just because of where it was at throughout the year. But now, I feel like I’m in a great spot health-wise and throwing the ball well and I feel really good.”
With that injury seemingly behind him, Lance has spent his first full NFL offseason preparing for what’s next. He’s taking all of the reps with the starting offense in the offseason program and his comfort in Shanahan’s system has been apparent to teammates and coaches. That naturally improved grasp of Shanahan’s offense along with the supply of first-team reps, has allowed the coach to evaluate Lance and gain a greater understanding how to use him.
“You try them in everything and almost every quarterback at this level is capable of doing everything,” Shanahan said. “But you find out how consistent they are. And there’s going to be certain areas that are strengths and certain areas that are weaknesses, just like every other quarterback I’ve coached. And you put them through all of that and you don’t try to hide it. You try to understand it.”
As part of his impending promotion, Lance has embraced the expanded leadership role. After the NFL draft, Lance reached out to each of the team’s nine drafted rookies, congratulating them and welcoming them to the team. He’s also been seen at Golden State Warriors playoff games with teammates and checking in on the team’s additions at the rookie minicamp. In meeting rooms, Lance is talking more, asking questions and generally “assuming responsibility,” according to tight end George Kittle.
They’re the type of small things that aren’t necessarily unique to Lance but would be noticed if he wasn’t doing them.
“I definitely think he’s taking ownership,” Kittle said. “You can kind of tell that … I think he’s trying to better himself every single day. He’s got his personality showing a little bit and he’s going to be out there slinging the rock around, so the more practices, the more he’ll get comfortable being the No. 1 guy in the huddle and I think he’ll just get better from that.”