Sam Darnold wins backup QB job for 49ers, putting Trey Lance's status in doubt

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — Sam Darnold has won the backup quarterback job in San Francisco, putting Trey Lance's status with the 49ers in doubt less than three years after the team traded three first-round picks to draft him.

Coach Kyle Shanahan told flagship radio station KNBR on Wednesday that Darnold recently took control of the race to be Brock Purdy's backup and that he told the quarterbacks about the decision on Tuesday night.

Lance didn't take part in practice on Wednesday and the 49ers are considering all options, including a possible trade if a partner can be found. But Shanahan said he hopes to have Lance on the roster as the third quarterback when the season starts Sept. 10 in Pittsburgh.

“This isn’t a thing that we’re giving up on Trey," Shanahan said. “This is more how Brock played in his seven games and that was decided before the season started. And then how good Sam’s looked. They both looked good but we do have to make a decision here. You only get so many reps at it. We feel starting about 10 days ago that Sam really separated himself and we have to keep it real that way.”

NFL Network first reported that Darnold had beaten out Lance for the backup job behind Brock Purdy.

Shanahan said the team gave Lance the day off Wednesday and that the plan is for him to play after Purdy and Darnold in the exhibition finale on Friday.

“We had such a light practice today, watching how Trey was when we talked, we thought it was better to ‘Hey, take the day off, clear your head some, we’ll talk later in the afternoon and get you back in there tomorrow,’” Shanahan said.

If the 49ers move on from Lance before the start of his third season in the NFL, it would be a remarkable backtrack following the hefty investment they made in hopes of Lance becoming a franchise quarterback.

San Francisco traded three first-round picks and a third-rounder to Miami in 2021 to move up from No. 12 and draft the untested Lance third overall.

Lance started only 17 games at FCS-level North Dakota State before the Niners drafted him and he never got much of a chance to gain the experience he needed in the NFL.

He spent his rookie season backing up Jimmy Garoppolo, starting just two games as an injury replacement and being hampered by a finger injury on his throwing hand.

Lance was handed the starting job last season, but that lasted less than five quarters as he broke his ankle early in Week 2 and was sidelined for the rest of the season.

“It’s been a tough road for him because the times he has gotten an opportunity, he ended up getting hurt and missed that window,” Shanahan said. “Now he’s sitting in this position.”

Purdy, taken with the last draft pick in 2022, came on late in the season and won his first seven starts to take over the starting role headed into this season.

San Francisco signed Darnold in free agency after he flamed out with the Jets and Carolina after also being drafted third overall in 2018 by New York. Darnold ended up doing enough in practices and the first two preseason games to beat out Lance.

Lance has completed 56 of 102 passes in his brief NFL career for 797 yards, five TDs, three interceptions and an 84.5 passer rating. He also has rushed for 235 yards and one TD on 54 carries.

Lance got off to a shaky start this preseason but did lead two late scoring drives after coming on in relief of Purdy and Darnold the second half last week against Denver.

If the Niners can find a trade partner for Lance, his four starts will be the fewest for any quarterback for the team that drafted him in the top 5 in the common draft era. Jack Thompson started five games for Cincinnati after being taken third overall in 1979.

Shanahan said the team would “try to do right for Trey” but finding a partner willing to give up compensation for Lance and take on the $5.3 million in guaranteed money owed in 2024 may prove difficult.

If that's the case, Shanahan said he will be happy to have Lance after running out of healthy quarterbacks last season.

“I feel very, very fortunate to have both of them here,” Shanahan said of Darnold and Lance. “I really hope when it’s said and done that all three of these guys are here, and you never know when that’s going to come up. We needed four guys last year. It doesn’t happen much, but if we can have Trey as an option here, I would feel extremely happy about that. I think the other quarterbacks in our room would and I think our team would. Trey is a very well-liked guy, one of the better people I’ve been around, and I do think he’s going to have a lot of success in this league.”