SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — The San Francisco 49ers have traded quarterback Trey Lance to the Dallas Cowboys for a fourth-round pick less than three years after trading three first-round picks to draft him third overall.
Lance had lost the competition to Sam Darnold to be the backup to Brock Purdy in San Francisco earlier in the week, setting the stage for his departure on Friday just hours before the Niners played their exhibition finale against the Los Angeles Chargers.
"When we told him that he was going to be the three, if he could find another opportunity that was good, we’d allow him to do that, and he did,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “We feel he’ll be better for it, and I think we will, too.”
The move is a remarkable backtrack following the hefty investment the Niners 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.
But the 49ers are now cutting ties with a 23-year-old quarterback who was given only four starts in the NFL.
“We take full accountability,” general manager John Lynch said. “We own that. And. But I think his story is very much unwritten. I have got a lot of belief in the kid. I think with his talent, his work ethic, he’s going to forge a nice career in this thing.”
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.
“I always feel like I let Trey down,” Shanahan said. “I wanted him to come here. I believe in Trey. I believed in him before we took him, and I’m responsible for that. I didn’t throw him into the heat of battle right away, but I thought he needed to play. So we tried to figure out every way to do that.”
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.
“It sort of goes to show you when you're in the NFL, positions and how everything looks and depth chart, it all can change overnight,” Purdy said. "It is wild, sort of a, ‘Welcome to the NFL’ thing.”
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.
With Purdy set to get almost all of the practice time once the season starts and Darnold tasked with running the scout team, the Niners didn't believe Lance could get the playing time he needed to improve.
“There's just not a whole lot of opportunity to get better,” Lynch said. "That’s what he needs to do. He needs to play to get better. I think that’s going to be his opportunity to play, ideally games, but running scout team. We weren't going to have that."
Lance’s four starts are the fewest for any quarterback taken in the top five of the draft in the common draft era for the team he made his debut. Jack Thompson had the previous low after starting five games for Cincinnati after being taken third overall in 1979.
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.
The Cowboys now get a look at Lance, who is owed $940,000 this year and is guaranteed $5.3 million next season in the final year of his rookie deal.
Cooper Rush has been the backup most of Dak Prescott’s career in Dallas, including last season when he went 4-1 filling in after Prescott broke his thumb in the opener.
The trade appears to be the end of the line for Will Grier, who has been the third-stringer the past two seasons without appearing in a game.
AP Pro Football Writer Schuyler Dixon in Dallas contributed to this report
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Josh Dubow, The Associated Press