Why isn’t Trey Lance starting? 49ers’ commitment to Jimmy Garoppolo makes messy QB situation

49ers fans waiting for the return of the “Trey Area” may have to wait a little longer.

The 49ers sending away two future first-round picks for the No. 3 overall pick for, what turned out to be, Trey Lance in the 2021 NFL Draft meant that the future was now. Or later. Or, apparently, eventually.

Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers have maintained that the best way to develop their prized QB prospect is to keep him on the bench, a strategy that may or may not work out long-term for them.

With Jimmy Garoppolo still a serviceable starter for San Francisco, the 3-5 start has fans calling for a change at the quarterback spot, leading to many wondering why Lance isn’t starting. While draft philosophies differ, one thing is certain: The 49ers spent a lot of future draft capital for a guy who’s gotten a very small sample size of work so far this season. 

Shanahan’s comments haven’t painted a pretty picture for Lance’s starting prospects in 2021, either.

Why isn’t Trey Lance starting?

The answer: Anyone’s guess.

While Lance got an opportunity to fill in for Jimmy Garoppolo in Week 5 vs. the Cardinals, he’s been on the sidelines since then. Through a bye week, a knee injury and Garoppolo getting the opportunity to start once again, the 49ers have resisted the urge to let Lance see the field. Lance last got a snap in Week 5.

While Lance came out of college as something of a project, it seems like the 49ers’ direction is to do more to try and develop Lance for the future than to shoehorn him into situations now after attempting to earlier in the season.

In late October, head coach Kyle Shanahan explained why Lance hasn’t been given a longer leash to start:

“We didn’t draft Trey to just fix this year,” Shanahan said. “We drafted him so he could be the quarterback of the future and that’s a matter of time. We are not playing him just because what our record is, or just because.”

There’s also the matter of Jimmy Garoppolo, who has played “all right” (Shanahan’s words) despite missing a game with an injury. ESPN’s Dan Graziano reported that he doesn’t feel that Shanahan will make the change to Garoppolo anytime soon — not as long as Garoppolo is playing, well, all right. 

On Halloween, Lance was seemingly healthy and ready to go. Shanahan, though, didn’t want to risk putting Lance on the field in the event that Garoppolo was injured. 

To that end, the question remains: Not that Lance’s usage rate was out of this world, but why were the 49ers more willing to use Lance early on in the season (129 snaps in total through Week 5) and not now? 

The resistance to want to use Lance continued in this past weekend: Following the rough Week 9 loss to an undermanned Cardinals team, Shanahan was asked if he’d consider making a QB change for the Niners’ Week 10 game vs. the Rams.

“Probably not, but definitely not thinking about those things right now. I’m thinking about this game and the rest of our team,” Shanahan said post-game. 

Defenses have been playing the 49ers passing game tighter, with Garoppolo’s propensity to work short throws and the middle of the field (as the Shanahan system accounts for). Garoppolo’s ability to stretch the field has always been something of a question, something that Lance’s physical traits would allow him to do.

But, come hell or high water, it sounds like it’s going to be Garoppolo — for now.

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