Trey Lance's luckless path to the present is unlike any 'draft bust' story we've seen

Sometimes s*** happens. Sometimes an unrelenting wave of s*** ruins things before they can even get off of the ground. Trey Lance’s professional football career falls into the latter territory. Just two years after the San Francisco 49ers traded three first-round picks to select Lance with the third overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, his career with the team is all but over. The 49ers announced on Wednesday that Lance would be the third-string quarterback behind Sam Darnold and incumbent starter Brock Purdy.

The fact that Lance is third-string is not exactly surprising given that his play this preseason has been middling at best, but the path here is really unlike any “draft bust” story that we’ve seen. The most interesting way to track Lance’s career up to this point is through live in-game attempts, including NFL preseason — dating all the way back to high school.

2017: Trey Lance has 99 passing attempts

Lance attended Marshall Senior High School in Marshall, Minnesota, where he didn’t earn the starting job as the quarterback until his final year. After mulling a position change to wide receiver or defensive back at an FBS school, Lance committed to play quarterback at North Dakota State where he was promptly redshirted before appearing in two games as a freshman.

2018-2019: 288 passing attempts (387 career attempts)

After a redshirt season, Lance started 16 games at North Dakota State and threw 28 touchdowns to zero (!) interceptions to go along with 2,786 yards and 9.7 yards per attempt. The physical skills that made him a coveted college football prospect with very little on-field experience were starting to materialize. Lance led the Bison to the FCS national championship game, won the game and was named MVP, bringing a trophy-laden season to a close — and firmly putting him on the radar of the NFL who was intrigued by a quarterback with seemingly limitless upside potential.

2020: 30 passing attempts (417 career attempts)

The pandemic. That pesky, pesky pandemic of 2020. It was a tough year for the entire globe, and the effects of the pandemic trickled down into the sports world (no matter how much some people wanted to act like it wasn’t real!). While some of the larger FBS conferences powered through and continued their seasons, a lot of smaller college conferences and programs had to shut things down.

That specific experience was not unique to Lance, since thousands of college football players had their careers put on pause, but Lance was the only quarterback touted as a high draft pick who did not get to play much during the final season of his career.

North Dakota State was able to schedule one game against Central Arkansas, a contest where Lance completed only 15 of his 30 passing attempts, but added two touchdowns on the ground with 143 rushing yards. Just like that, his college career was over with 17 starts. Between high school and college, Lance started just 26 games. For comparison, Trevor Lawrence played 40 games at Clemson alone.

Still, Lance’s draft stock was high enough that it made no sense to return to North Dakota State. He ended up declaring for the draft and opting out of a spring season with his college team.

Trey Lance's football career has seen its fair share of bumps in the road. (AP Photo/Lachlan Cunningham)
Trey Lance's football career has seen its fair share of bumps in the road. (AP Photo/Lachlan Cunningham)

2021: 112 passing attempts (529 career attempts)

The 49ers traded three first-round picks to draft Lance at third overall. The plan from the start with Lance was to have him play in the preseason and then sit behind Jimmy Garoppolo so the 49ers could accomplish two things at once: compete for a Super Bowl and develop their newly drafted franchise quarterback. Lance was even able to start two games in the regular season as a rookie while Garoppolo nursed an injury.

At the time, it seemed like they were on the right track. The 49ers made it all the way to the NFC championship game before losing closely to the eventual Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams. Even though they didn’t make it to the Super Bowl, they made it far enough to show that they had built a contender around Lance if he was able to take the next step.

Lance played limited action, throwing 41 passes in the preseason and another 71 in the regular season, but this was part of a plan that seemed logical at the time.

2022: 46 passing attempts (575 career attempts)

This is it! Lance’s time to shine and play a full season as a starter for the first time since 2019! He had a much smaller preseason workload in 2022, throwing only 15 passes before taking over as the starter for the 49ers’ offense. This was going to be the chance for Kyle Shanahan to revolutionize his offense with a quarterback who could stress defenses with physical talents through the air and on the ground.

It didn’t last very long. The 49ers lost their season opener to the Chicago Bears in a monsoon where it was difficult to judge anyone’s performance. The following week, Lance broke his leg in a game against the Seahawks — reinserting Garoppolo back into the lineup.

By now, everyone knows what happened here. Garoppolo was injured again, making seventh-round rookie Brock Purdy the starting quarterback. Purdy caught fire and played well enough to help guide the 49ers' offense back to the NFC championship game against the Eagles before an injury to his elbow ended their chance to compete with the Eagles on the field. Purdy, Lance and former New York Jets first-round draft pick Sam Darnold would enter the offseason as the 49ers’ main trio of quarterbacks.

2023: 33 passing attempts (608 career attempts)

Present day. Lance had an up-and-down preseason and training camp, leading to him being the third-string quarterback behind Purdy and Darnold. Purdy was going to be the starting quarterback regardless after how efficient the offense was down the back half of last season, but Lance appeared to have a shot to compete with Darnold to be the No. 2 quarterback.

For whatever reason, San Francisco gave the nod to Darnold, effectively ending Lance’s career with the 49ers two seasons after they burned three first-round draft picks to get him. Lance will most likely play in the final preseason game this weekend, but to this point, Lance has thrown 608 passes (including the preseason) in a live game setting. For reference, five NFL quarterbacks (Tom Brady, Justin Herbert, Patrick Mahomes, Kirk Cousins and Joe Burrow) had over 600 passing attempts last season alone. Three college quarterbacks (Will Rogers, Kyle Vantrease and Austin Reed) also hit that mark.

Lance hasn’t just played a small amount of professional football. He hasn’t played much football at all. Perhaps there’s a world where Lance gets the reps of a normal first-round prospect and still struggles, but really there have been unforeseen and flat-out unlucky things happen to him that have undoubtedly affected his development.

A pandemic, getting drafted to a team that didn’t actually need his services, breaking a leg and the emergence of Brock Purdy are things that just kind of happened to Lance. Life can be random like that and unforeseen events block the path of everyone — some just see more roadblocks than others.

Luckily for Lance, he’s still 23 years old and his contract wouldn’t be too expensive to trade for if a team is interested in developing him. But at the end of the day, he needs to play football. There isn’t a spot that can happen for him in the NFL right now, barring a multitude of injuries.

So, for now, Lance gets put on ice and a legacy that matches black cats and broken mirrors follows him. Sometimes, s*** happens.