The 49ers have danced around the topic publicly for months, but it was clear the team was moving towards a shift at quarterback despite outside speculation to the contrary. On Tuesday, a day ahead of the start of training camp practices in Santa Clara, head coach Kyle Shanahan left no doubt.
“This is Trey’s team,” Shanahan said. “We made that decision a year ago and we’ll go on with that. We’re not going to mess around with that anymore.”
But it was apparent throughout the spring that Lance was the guy by the way the team was operating, the way Lance was practicing with the starters while Garoppolo recovered from his shoulder injury and the level of investment San Francisco made in trading three first-round draft picks to take Lance third overall in 2021.
“Jimmy understands that fully,” Shanahan said.
Garoppolo was at team headquarters on Tuesday to take his physical and have a face-to-face conversation with Shanahan and general manager John Lynch. The trio had not spoken in person since Garoppolo cleaned out his locker and essentially gave his goodbye to the organization in February days after the team lost the NFC Championship Game to the Rams.
But while Shanahan finally gave clarity, the situation isn’t resolved. It remains a substantial storyline with training camp beginning this week. What Garoppolo will do in the coming days is unknown. But there’s no point in having him take practice reps or even participate in meetings if it’s a foregone conclusion he’ll be playing elsewhere some time soon.
Shanahan and Lynch reiterated that Garoppolo has been cleared to throw, but will likely be on a throwing program before he’d be allowed to participate in full-team drills, which likely aren’t coming with San Francisco. Garoppolo was excused from mandatory OTAs last month to continue his rehab in Los Angeles, which might be the case this week following his physical.
The 49ers have held on to Garoppolo since his April surgery on his throwing shoulder for a couple reasons after trying to trade him. First, they decided against flat-out releasing him while he couldn’t pass a physical because of the $7.5 million in injury guarantees he would have been due. Second, they still say they believe they can trade him and get something in return, although the market doesn’t appear to be flush with suitors who know San Francisco is moving on, one way or another.
Lance takes the reins
The organizational move to Lance puts the 49ers in an interesting place. They’re a contending team, laden with veterans who have been through a pair of deep playoff runs in 2019 and last season, now saddled with a 22-year-old, first-year starting quarterback. Shanahan acknowledged he isn’t expecting Lance’s first full season to be completely smooth.
“You’d always love to watch someone play 16 or 17 games, you’d know a lot more (about him),” Shanahan said. “We studied the heck out of him in college, and he had times in the first OTAs when he got here and rookie minicamp and in training camp where it’s like, ‘Wow, this might come fast.’ And then you see him the next day, it’s, ‘Alright, he is a rookie and he hasn’t gone through it a lot.
“We saw that through the whole rookie year, the ups and downs. That’s what’s tough about seeing young guys play because it’s tough to go through those ups and downs and win a lot of games. That’s why I thought it was great for him and our team that he didn’t have to go through that and we still had a pretty decent season.”
The team since Shanahan and Lynch took over in 2017 has regularly invested its premium resources in building out the defense, starting with the front seven, and added a new top cornerback in Charvarius Ward in the offseason to solve their most glaring weakness from last year. And with skill position players such as receiver Deebo Samuel — whose contract status remains up in the air (more on that later) — tight end George Kittle and wideout Brandon Aiyuk, Lance should have an uplifting supporting cast.
“Our best players need to play their best football,” Kittle said. “We need to do our best to make it as easy as we can for Trey. While there’s going to be ups and downs, we need to play at a high enough level where if Trey plays a game where he throws a couple picks, it is what it is and we’re going to be playing well enough where we can win those games.
“If not, just encourage him to get better. Because just his progress from being a rookie Day 1 of OTAs last year, through training camp, through the season and through OTAs these last couple months, he’s gotten better. I can see that. I’m not going to lie to you guys, he has gotten better.”
The 49ers are hoping they don’t have to put too much on Lance’s shoulders early in his career as a starter. Shanahan’s offenses have been among the most run-heavy in the NFL since he took over and that doesn’t figure to change. With a defense anchored by Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead along the defensive line and linebacker Fred Warner pulling the strings up the middle, the potential is there to be an elite group as it was when the team went to the Super Bowl in 2019.
Garoppolo that season got off to a slow start but the team began 8-0 because the defense throttled its opponents and the running game was strong. It’s fair to expect a similar formula while Lance gets his bearings.
“Quite frankly,” Armstead said Tuesday, “I’d rather be on a team where my defense is the reason why we’re winning games. Obviously I’m a defensive player so I have that mindset, and so that’s how we take the field. We’re not waiting on heroic moments by our quarterback or our offense. As a defense, if (our opponent) doesn’t score points, then we’re going to win. So that’s the mindset.
“I think Trey coming in, really taking leadership of the team, he’s not doing it alone. We have a whole talented roster of players from top to bottom who are going to go out there and play for one another. Trey just has to come in and do his job.”
Deebo Samuel contract update
Lynch doesn’t like to discuss specifics of contract negotiations publicly, but he did say the team’s conversations with Samuel and his representatives are ongoing, though there’s no timeline for its completion.
“We’ve had really productive and substantive talks,” Lynch said. “I don’t want to get everyone all excited that something’s imminent because we’re not there yet. But really hopeful that in the near future that we’ll be able announce something that’s exciting for everyone involved.”
Samuel was in the building and isn’t expected to hold out without a new deal, though it’s unlikely he would practice until putting pen to paper. He attended mandatory minicamp in June and was an active observer from the sidelines, chatting up coaches and teammates during full-team drills.
Shanahan was asked about Samuel’s usage and how that may impact contract talks. Samuel, of course, was a lethal threat out of the backfield for San Francisco during the playoff run last season, but his body took a pounding unique to just about every receiver in the NFL because of it. There have been reports indicating Samuel’s role last factored into his decision to demand a trade during the spring.
“Deebo and I had a real good discussion,” Shanahan said. “We’re on the exact same page on it.”
Samuel aside and a first-year starting quarterback aside, Shanahan said he’s confident about where the roster stands entering his sixth season as coach.
“I love our team right now,” he said. “When I sit and go through out positions, some of the young guys that we’ve added, some of the young guys in the last couple of years who have become some of our better players and leaders, I think our team’s in a great spot to turn it over to a quarterback who hasn’t played before.”