Cary Edmondson/Brett Davis/Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Cary Edmondson/Brett Davis/Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Graziano: 49ers’ shaky QB situation creates ‘stiffest test yet’ for Kyle Shanahan

May 18, 2023 at 10:56 AM--

Kyle Shanahan and the San Francisco 49ers are no strangers to quarterback drama. In his first season as head coach, Shanahan went with Brian Hoyer and drafted C.J. Beathard. Hoyer didn't make it through an entire season with the team, and the 49ers let Beathard leave via free agency in 2021.

While holding out hope for Kirk Cousins, the New England Patriots offered up Jimmy Garoppolo. He couldn't stay healthy, though, creating even more drama. The 49ers repeatedly tried to move off of Garoppolo, flirting with nearly every available quarterback until the two finally parted ways this offseason.

Last year, San Francisco drafted what it assumed to be the quarterback of the future—Trey Lance. The former No. 3 overall pick has started just four games in his two NFL seasons and remains an unknown commodity.

It looked like the 49ers got lucky last year, drafting Brock Purdy with the last overall pick. Purdy guided the Niners to eight consecutive wins on the way to the NFC Championship Game but suffered a tear of the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his right elbow. He'll likely miss most—if not all—of the offseason.

That leaves Lance and another former No. 3 overall draft pick, Sam Darnold, competing to start Week 1 should Purdy not be ready. Lance started 2022 as the starting quarterback, but his season was cut short by an ankle injury during Week 2.

"This could be the stiffest test yet for Kyle Shanahan's ability to win in spite of a shaky quarterback situation," Dan Graziano wrote in a recent feature for ESPN. "Purdy and Lance are both coming off season-ending injuries. Lance is likely to be back sooner, but he still hasn't shown much, and it's possible newcomer Darnold (yes, same guy) could be the Week 1 starter."

All things being equal, Purdy would be the "leader in the clubhouse" to start Week 1—if he were healthy.

"I think it would have been pretty easy if Brock was healthy because of the way Brock played last year," Shanahan said in March. "He'd be the starter going into it. Trey had that position going into the year. We were real excited about that, and we think he would have had a hell of a year."

The 49ers remain hopeful that Purdy could return sometime during training camp. If not, Lance and Darnold will seek to seize this opportunity to show they can help stack up wins for the 49ers.

"The sense around the Niners is that Purdy would be the clear-cut starter if he were healthy, but he's not, which opens up a lot of possibilities," Graziano notes.

The ESPN writer has several questions regarding the 49ers' quarterback situation. Can Lance live up to his potential? Can Darnold resurrect his career? Could a trade market for Lance develop if he shows promise? Will Purdy return from injury and be the same player fans grew to love over the second half of last season?

"As long as Brock's elbow heals right, he'll be the exact same guy," Shanahan said last week. "And when you have a clean break like that or tear, it will be. You can have a setback, and you can have something heal wrong, but everything's been completely on pace.

"And just watching him now, he's doing the same drills all the other quarterbacks are doing. He's just using a towel to throw, but still doing violent motion, still moving it. He's just not doing with the football. He'll get closer to that, and as long as there's not a setback, we think he'll be there in training camp."

Graziano presented one last question: How long will the rest of this roster be good enough to succeed with a constantly shifting QB situation?

No crystal ball will give you a definitive answer. The 49ers' roster remains stacked with talent, and so long as there aren't any major draft blunders, that should remain the case. Still, newcomers like defensive tackle Javon Hargrave and some other veteran talent will eat into the Niners' salary cap in the coming years, and the team still needs to find a way to sign stars Nick Bosa and Brandon Aiyuk to long-term deals.

Graziano added, "The 49ers look like one of the best teams in the league on paper, but QB questions have sunk great-looking teams in the past. Heck, they've sunk great-looking 49er teams in the recent past."
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