SANTA CLARA, Calif. — When he put the finishing touches on a decorated college career, USC quarterback Carson Palmer had it all: an Orange Bowl victory, All-America honors and, of course, a Heisman Trophy.
If that wasn’t enough, Palmer became the Cincinnati Bengals‘ choice with the No. 1 pick in the 2003 NFL draft, a title that came with a tidy $42.69 million contract.
And then … he sat. And watched. And waited. By the end of his rookie year, Palmer had taken exactly zero snaps in a regular-season NFL game.
“You get to where you have always been trying to get to and it’s the first time in your career you have to sit and watch,” Palmer said. “But if you use that year the right way, it’s super beneficial. There’s so much to be learned and so much to be gained from that. From that standpoint, it’s hard to do but it’s so valuable for a young guy.”
Palmer is the only quarterback selected in the top three in the common draft era to not start a game as a rookie. Could history repeat itself with Trey Lance in San Francisco?
Entering the 2021 season, the 49ers are one of three teams that will have to decide when to play their prized rookie signal caller. Like Palmer, Lance earned plenty of college victories and awards, albeit at the FCS level.
Unlike the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets — the teams who drafted quarterbacks at Nos. 1 and 2 — the Niners aren’t in the early stages of a rebuild with new coaching staffs and no established quarterback option.
The 49ers still have incumbent Jimmy Garoppolo working with the starters in training camp and coach Kyle Shanahan has insisted repeatedly that Garoppolo is the starter until Lance proves he give his team a “better chance to win.”
For now, Lance is working with the backups. But Shanahan has acknowledged that, unlike Palmer, Lance is going to play this year, at least situationally. San Francisco has begun installing a variety of plays that take advantage of Lance’s athletic abilities.
All of it is part of the calculus as the Niners attempt to strike the delicate balance between competing for a Super Bowl this year and setting themselves up for the future.
“Everyone is looking at that, but we’re in a situation where I don’t see them competing,” Shanahan said. “When you have quarterbacks with different skillsets, it kind of makes it easier for me to look at it similar to other positions. And that’s why I don’t think it’s a problem on our team. And it’s not a problem in there when we’re discussing what we want to do.”
As other highly drafted quarterbacks such as Palmer, Derek Carr and Steve Young can attest, Lance’s top priority should be making sure he’s doing all he can to ensure he’s ready when his time comes. Whenever that may be.
‘Just soak it in’
For a rookie quarterback attempting to adjust to the speed, physicality and complexity of the NFL, taking it slow always seems like a good idea but it rarely ever pans out that way for players drafted as high as Palmer or Lance.
Generally, teams drafting that high don’t have the time or options to be patient. They throw their rookie in the mix hoping to catch lightning in a bottle or, at worst, make enough progress over a season that screams to the fan base (and owner) that things are trending in the right direction.
It’s why 15 of the past 16 quarterbacks selected in the top three have started at least 10 games as a rookie. But for as much as the idea of sitting and watching was foreign to Palmer, he looks back on his time behind Jon Kitna in Cincinnati as imperative to his development.
Palmer attached himself to Kitna in everything he did, whether it was the meeting room, the weight room, the field or the training room.
“I would just follow Jon around,” Palmer said. “I watched everything he did, stayed on top of every meeting I could and was just around him as much as possible and just literally followed him around.”
Even for quarterbacks who played right away such as Carr, having a veteran to lean on is only as helpful as you’re willing to make it.
The No. 36 pick in the 2014 draft, Carr started all 16 games as a rookie for the then Oakland Raiders. When he arrived in Oakland, Carr made it a point to take his cues from veteran Matt Schaub.
Like Palmer with Kitna, Carr took detailed notes on everything Schaub did, right down to the exact time Schaub would arrive in the building every morning.
Carr wanted to be seen and not heard, went out of his way to try to prove himself as a teammate and hoped his hard work would leave a lasting impression on the organization.
“The thing I’d tell every rookie, especially Trey, is just soak it in man,” Carr said. “Whatever football has for you; you can’t control everything. I know that firsthand. But what you can control is the preparation that you bring and how you can be productive. So, just always be a good teammate. Be a blessing, not a burden to the team. In that role he’s in right now, he could easily be a burden, he could easily take the attention away from Jimmy and take the attention away from the team but I’d just tell him to be a blessing to that team.”
‘Set up for success’
Long before he became a Hall of Fame quarterback with the 49ers; Young was a runner-up for the 1983 Heisman and was expected to be the No. 1 pick to the Bengals. Instead, Young went 11th in the USFL draft to the Los Angeles Express and signed there rather than going to Cincinnati.
After the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Young with the first pick in a supplemental USFL and CFL draft in 1985, Young finally landed in the NFL. In Tampa, he joined a team that had gone a combined 8-24 in the two seasons before he arrived.
With little help around him, Young went 3-16 as the Bucs starter.
That’s not the case for Lance in San Francisco where he’s surrounded by an innovative coaching staff, dynamic group of weapons and an offensive line stocked with five players drafted in the first or second round.
Given Lance’s athletic ability and skill set, Young sees something more akin to the setup he had in San Francisco when he eventually took over for Joe Montana in 1991.
“Trey is talented, smart, mature,” Young said. “Those are all big pieces to the puzzle. And he’s made for 2021. He’s my tribe. He’s a guy who can move around, the game is coming to him. It didn’t come to me back in the day but it’s now here. So, he’s set up for success.”
That doesn’t mean Young expects it to be easy for Lance. Lance only played 17 games at North Dakota State, where he didn’t face much top competition. There’s still plenty for Lance to prove, though Young is quick to point out that Shanahan and general manager John Lynch made their intentions quite clear by making the move up to No. 3 to draft Lance.
“He just hasn’t been out there very much,” Young said. “They drafted him because they think he has all the elements to go do it. And he’s going to have every opportunity because he’s got a great coach, great system and a really solid football team around him.”
Through the first few weeks of camp, Lance has earned rave reviews from teammates and coaches for his performance on the field but also his willingness to work. As NBC Sports reported, the 49ers track how long their players are logged into their iPad playbooks and Lance has been on his the most.
Of course, that should be expected for a rookie quarterback. Of more importance is just how willing Lance has been to do things that guys like Palmer, Carr and Joe Theismann suggest are important in getting his bearings at the NFL level.
Most notably, remaining patient, forging a friendship with Garoppolo and understanding how to fit in even while standing out.
“I feel a lot better,” Lance said. “Anytime you go through something and learn it and then get to take some time away and kind of re-learn it by myself and now coming through and doing it again, really learning it the third time through, it helps a ton. And it helps a ton, the relationship with my teammates I have now, feeling more comfortable here and feel more comfortable to ask questions.”
From the moment the Niners drafted Lance, it was always going to be a matter of when, not if he was going to become the team’s starting quarterback. Could he sit behind Garoppolo for the whole season while stepping in on designed plays? Sure, but history — both of previously highly drafted quarterbacks and Garoppolo’s injury issues — would suggest it’s unlikely.
If it does, though, former NFL MVP Theismann believes it would be beneficial for Lance to stay close to Shanahan while he calls plays and join Palmer in his exclusive club.
“It served Patrick [Mahomes] very well behind Alex [Smith] in Kansas City,” Theismann said. “As much as AR [Aaron Rodgers] might not want to admit it, it served him well in Green Bay. I think to be able to see what the other guys are doing is very helpful.”