It’s easy to forget the Trey Lance trade. Heck, the 49ers front office want you to forget the Trey Lance trade. We’re almost three years removed from one of the worst trades in NFL history, but one which has been largely ignored or hand-waved away because current performance trumps languishing in history.
That said, when you lose the Super Bowl twice in four years there’s a tendency to search for answers. To decode why this wasn’t enough. Outside of coaching miscues, injuries and flubbed plays is an ever-present lingering feeling that San Francisco was missing something. Something they could have had — if only they didn’t trade up for Trey Lance.
What went into the Trey Lance trade
On March 26, 2021 the news broke. The 49ers were moving up in the draft from the No. 12 pick, to the No. 3 in a deal with the Dolphins, sending a haul to Miami in the process. This included:
- 1st round pick in 2021 (No. 12 overall)
- 1st round pick in 2022
- 3rd round pick in 2022
- 1st round pick in 2023
The trade package itself wasn’t unheard of for a jump in the top three, but the timing was beyond confusing. Making the move a full month before the draft began let the entire league know their intentions, because it was abundantly clear a team only makes this move if they’re after a quarterback. Sprinkle in that the trade came immediately following Zach Wilson’s workout and it almost seemed too obvious that the Niners wanted Wilson.
Just one problem: They had no control over this. Trevor Lawrence was a lock at No. 1, and it was very likely the Jets would take a quarterback at No. 2. Robert Saleh was the incoming head coach, Sam Darnold wasn’t looking like the guy, and all it took was a small amount of convincing to make it clear Wilson would be a member of the Jets.
So, in a very real way, the 49ers traded up to No. 3, giving up multiple years of players in the process, to know they were getting third pick at a position. Furthermore, they had no idea who they might be able to get.
This is one of the million dollar questions that goes into this deal. We’ll never really know what the 49ers saw in Trey Lance.
To be fair, Lance was always seen as a first round talent at quarterback — but absolutely not a guy who should go in the Top 10, let alone Top 5. He was extremely inexperienced at the position, lost important college reps due to the pandemic, and needed an organization where he could sit and learn comfortably for 2-3 years before being put in a starting role.
The Niners had that structure with Jimmy Garoppolo, but a quarterback who needs years to learn isn’t someone who goes at the top of the draft, it’s a player who falls to the 20s. The days of every QB getting three years to be ready are gone, and taking a player that early means they need to be ready early.
There are also major questions about Lance, and how he was structurally nothing like your typical Kyle Shanahan quarterback. He wasn’t much of a pocket passer, didn’t deal with pressure well, and seemed best suited for a team with dual-threat sensibilities considering Lance ran the ball 192 times at North Dakota State, while passing 318 times.
We’re left with a situation where the Niners managed to both overthink, and underthink the draft at the same time. They wanted a long-term quarterback, and saw a trade up as a chance to achieve that — while betting on themselves to be better in the future. They also had no control over who they’d be forced to pick, and the deal itself meant they had to select a quarterback, rather than take the best player available.
Who did the 49ers miss out on?
This is where it’s going to hurt. Now, we won’t use too much revisionist history with this. I’m not going to go back and pick some major draft surprises that ended up being Pro Bowl players. However, if we look at pre-draft grades, and match them with who the Niners could have picked we get a pretty grim picture.
No. 12 overall in 2021: Micah Parsons, Rashawn Slater, Christian Darrisaw
No. 29 overall in 2022: George Karlaftis, Christian Watson, Breece Hall
No. 29 overall in 2023: Sam LaPorta, Joey Porter Jr, Brian Branch
Can we say this deal influenced the Super Bowl at all?
For as much credit as the 49ers get in their team building, and deservingly so, it’s difficult to look at these nine players and not find a combination that could have made a difference in the outcome of the Super Bowl.
If you put Micah Parsons on the 49ers defense they move from being amazing to historic. If you put Slater or Darrisaw on the offensive line opposite Trent Williams it makes Christian McCaffrey even better.
Karlaftis would given them a rotational pass rusher, and potential replacement for Nick Bosa if he’s a cap casualty. Christian Watson similarly could have boosted the team. Breece Hall would have been an incredible change of pace pack to pair with McCaffrey.
LaPorta would have been an incredible addition. Joey Porter Jr or Brian Branch could have helped in the secondary.
When you’re talking about losing in overtime the margins a so thin that just a little more help could have gotten the 49ers over the top. If you look at these nine players, select any three, and put them on San Francisco — well, I think they win independent of what Kyle Shanahan did.
The 49ers can still be considered geniuses, while absolutely screwing this trade up
It’s not worth dragging the entire 49ers front office, because this team is incredible at drafting players — particularly in the mid rounds. They consistently find amazing NFL talent up and down the boards.
That said, the Trey Lance trade was one of the all-time screw ups when it comes to draft moves. There is a very real chance that if we looked at this current 49ers team, with Brock Purdy at the helm, and the players the Niners should have gotten — then today we’re talking about the birth of a San Francisco dynasty, not a Chiefs one.
One bad move like this can really alter the future of a franchise, and the ripples of the Lance deal will be felt for a long time.