San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan has continually railed against the idea of starting Trey Lance and the rest of the 2021 rookie class in the name of experience, believing it would not make sense to do so while the team is contending for the playoffs.
He may soon need to come up with alternative justification for keeping Lance and those other members of the rookie class who have spent the majority of their first year in the role of spectator on the sideline after the 49ers’ dismal Week 9 loss to the Arizona Cardinals severely dented any playoff aspirations.
The Niners were soundly beaten 31-17 by a Cardinals team missing Kyler Murray, DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green and J.J. Watt, dropping San Francisco to 3-5 in a game that made it difficult to envision a scenario in which Shanahan’s team turns it around to reach the postseason.
As it stands, the 49ers are where they started Week 9, still only a game out of the final Wild Card spot. However, defeat to a Los Angeles Rams team smarting from their primetime upset at the hands of the Tennessee Titans last week would leave the Niners three games under .500 and facing an arduous task to make the playoffs.
Recovering from 3-6 to claim a Wild Card is not impossible but, with San Francisco facing road games with the Seattle Seahawks, Cincinnati Bengals, Titans and Rams in the final eight weeks, Shanahan and his staff will need to be honest with themselves about the direction of the season should the Niners lose at home to the Rams on Monday. That will mean accepting it is time to give the rookies some run.
Mitchell the sole rookie mainstay
The first-year player who has received the most work in 2021 is sixth-round running back Elijah Mitchell, who has shone with three 100-yard performances. Third overall pick Lance received sporadic action early in the season and started in place of the injured Jimmy Garoppolo in Week 5 but has not taken a snap since, in part due to a knee sprain that forced him to miss Week 7.
Second-round guard Aaron Banks and third-round cornerback Ambry Thomas have been conspicuous by their absence while third-round running back Trey Sermon, for whom the Niners traded up, has received one carry over the last three games and was a healthy scratch against Arizona.
Of their three fifth-round picks, injuries have forced Talanoa Hufanga into a starting role at strong safety for the last two games and Jaylon Moore could start at right tackle after Mike McGlinchey suffered a season-ending injury last week.
Moore filled in at left tackle in Week 7 when Trent Williams was hurt and turned in a strong performance in which he allowed only two pressures, according to Pro Football Focus (h/t David Lombardi of The Athletic).
The more curious case is corner Deommodore Lenoir, who was excellent in starting roles across the first three weeks of the season but has since found himself behind free agent signings like Josh Norman and Dre Kirkpatrick.
Should the Rams prevail at Levi’s Stadium as most would expect, there will be little reason not to switch the focus to rookie development and Shanahan does at least appear to be edging closer to inserting another first-year player into his starting lineup.
Per Niners Nation, Shanahan said Banks is “starting to push” Daniel Brunskill at right guard. Brunskill gave up five pressures against the Cardinals and has consistently been the weak link on the offensive line, though throwing Banks in for his first start against Aaron Donald seems unlikely.
Injuries to Norman and Kirkpatrick could force at least one of Lenoir or Thomas into action this week, but the elephant in the room is Lance.
Fields providing compelling case for Lance
Garoppolo has produced two of his finest performances of the season over the last two weeks, delivering back-to-back 300-yard displays. He was not the reason San Francisco slumped to defeat to the Cardinals, fumbles on catches from George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk costing the 49ers first-half points as a lack of execution put the Niners in a hole they could not climb out of.
Yet the reality is, with Garoppolo under center, the Niners are playing for a quarterback who in all likelihood will not be on the roster in 2022.
Garoppolo is a placeholder and, as well as he has played over recent weeks, he is essentially also a progress stopper for Lance if his performances are not resulting in wins.
Starting Lance may not increase San Francisco’s chances of winning this year. However, as the stellar play over Chicago Bears rookie Justin Fields in his last two games has demonstrated, visible progress from a young quarterback with the skill set to excel in the NFL for a long time can salvage something from a lost season and can arguably considered more important than scraping into the postseason with seemingly little hope of going far.
Questions around Shanahan and this 49ers regime will likely continue into the offseason after what has to this point been one of the more disconcerting seasons in recent memory.
However, turning to Lance and the rest of the rookies can help Shanahan somewhat quiet those doubts by offering hope that the Niners have a quarterback and a young core who in 2022 will be capable of meeting the expectations with which San Francisco entered 2021.