HENDERSON, Nev. — Bad trades usually cost general managers and coaches jobs and set a team back for years. And make no mistake, the San Francisco 49ers’ trade for Trey Lance was bad.
The 49ers’ trip back to the Super Bowl is even more impressive given how badly they whiffed on the Lance decision.
Here was the deal, which should be remembered as one of the worst in NFL history but probably won’t because the 49ers overcame it so well: San Francisco acquired the No. 3 pick in the 2021 draft and traded first-round picks in 2021, 2022 and 2023 along with a 2022 third-round pick to the Miami Dolphins. The 49ers then drafted Lance, who had one great season at North Dakota State. For all of that draft capital, the 49ers got four starts out of Lance. He posted an 84.5 passer rating with five passing touchdowns and another rushing.
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For four highly valuable picks, that’s almost no return at all. You can’t waste three first-round picks and a third and not feel the effect.
Unless you’re the 2023 49ers.
Trey Lance trade was a big miss
It speaks to how good the 49ers have been building their roster that wasting all of those picks to draft Lance didn’t keep them from being the NFC’s best team this season. To add another layer to it, because the 49ers had traded away so many picks, they got the consensus worst 2023 draft grade in the NFL from the media.
The quickest and easiest answer to how the 49ers overcame the Lance trade is they got lucky with Brock Purdy. The 49ers were smart to draft him with the final pick of the seventh round in 2022, but they still fell into the pick. If they knew Purdy would be a player that could lead all NFL starters in passer rating like he did this season, they wouldn’t have drafted eight players before him. San Francisco made three sixth-round picks in that draft, none of which ended up being the starting quarterback for Super Bowl LVIII.
They hit a home run they weren’t expecting.
“It wasn’t about developing Brock, Brock was a really good player when he got here,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “He got thrown into a position and competed with other guys and got his opportunity … and when he came in he played at a high level right away. There was no time to develop him, we just had to throw him in.
“We hoped he would be good because he was in practice, but he was even better in the games.”
When Purdy became a plus quarterback in Shanahan’s system, it made the biggest issue with the Lance trade go away. The 49ers couldn’t get those picks back, but in a roundabout way they ended up finding a very good quarterback.
Before the season, Lance was traded to the Dallas Cowboys for a 2024 fourth-round pick. He didn’t appear in a game all season.
The 49ers built a great roster
Purdy might not have worked out so well if not for the great roster around him. You may have heard that debate before.
That’s the other reason the 49ers were able to overcome the Lance debacle: They’ve hit just about everything else. They’ve made great first-round picks, like defensive end Nick Bosa and receiver Brandon Aiyuk, good mid-round picks like receiver Deebo Samuel and linebackers Dre Greenlaw and Fred Warner, and some late-round gems like tight end George Kittle and cornerback Deommodore Lenoir. Two massive trades for offensive tackle Trent Williams and running back Christian McCaffrey were keys as well.
You can imagine how much better an already great 49ers roster would be with all those first-round picks they used to get Lance, but it doesn’t matter too much. Their depth and collection of high-end stars got them to a Super Bowl.
The 49ers pretty much did everything right except the Lance trade. They had to after sending off so many picks
“There are challenges each and every year,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said this week. “You have to try to make value judgments, and that’s why the draft is typically your lifeblood of who you are because those players are cheaper. I don’t like talking to players like that but that’s just the reality of how our league is set up. You better be good at drafting and have a number of hits there. It’s not the only way. We try to acquire in any means necessary, but you better be good at drafting because if you’re just trying to get free agents every year, that’s not sustainable.”
The 49ers made it harder on themselves by trading so many picks for Lance, who gave them next to nothing. But somehow, it all worked out pretty well.