SANTA CLARA — The Jacksonville Jaguars have literally dropped the ball when it comes to developing quarterback Trevor Lawrence through nine games, but the No. 1 overall selection in the NFL Draft has a considerable head start over the man selected two picks later by the 49ers.
Trey Lance was already behind Lawrence as a prospect given that the No. 3 pick hailed from North Dakota State and played in only 19 career games with 17 starts at the FCS level. Lawrence played in 40 games with 36 starts at Clemson, a perennial Division I power that attracts the top talent in the country.
Lance was a spectator in a 31-10 win over the Los Angeles Rams as Jimmy Garoppolo took every snap. Lawrence is undergoing a baptism by fire. It’s been hard to watch at times, but you could make the argument Lawrence is getting more out of it than Lance in terms of becoming an upper-tier NFL quarterback.
Lawrence (6-foot-6, 213 pounds) was generally regarded as the best quarterback talent since Stanford’s Andrew Luck in 2012. Once Jacksonville ended up with the NFL’s No. 1 pick, Lawrence’s destination was a foregone conclusion. When the 49ers moved up from No. 12 to No. 3, they were looking elsewhere.
“You could have bet a lot of money where he was going,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said Wednesday. “So we didn’t spend much time on it.”
Instead, after Lawrence went No. 1 and BYU’s Zach Wilson No. 2 as expected to the New York Jets, the 49ers were left with either Lance, Ohio State’s Justin Fields or Alabama’s Mac Jones as their quarterback of the future.
The 49ers took Lance, and the plan was to let him get his feet wet while Jimmy Garoppolo remained the starter for an expected playoff run.
Jacksonville, unencumbered with such lofty goals and a new coach in Urban Meyer, could throw Lawrence off the high dive and wait until he learned to swim.
“Trevor knows how to play good football,” former 49ers quarterback Steve Young said on his weekly appearance on KNBR. “It’s just that I suspect with his lack of familiarity of what’s coming, every week is an incremental gain in what you know about the league and how to do it. That and the fact that you’re not getting much help. He got a ton of help at Clemson. Then you go to Jacksonville and all of a sudden you don’t get any help. No one thrives without help. Nobody.”
Lawrence has completed 58 percent of his passes (192 of 331) for 1,991 yards with eight touchdowns and nine interceptions. The Jaguars are 2-7 and Lawrence has played all but five snaps. The good news is that seven of those interceptions came in the first three games and his sack total of 16 is actually low for a 2021 NFL starter.
The bad news? Dropped passes have been a weekly problem — 18 in all — and the Lawrence-led offense is averaging 16.6 points per game, ahead of only the Houston Texans.
“That slows down the development of a quarterback,” Meyer said of the drops.
There was a hint of progress last week when Jacksonville fell behind 17-0 in the first quarter to Indianapolis, then closed within 23-17 and had the ball on the Colts’ 46 with just over a minute to go. Lawrence, however, lost a fumble while being sacked and the Jaguars lost the game.
First-round QB snap counts:
1) Mac Jones, NE, 638
2) Trevor Lawrence, Jax, 588
3) Justin Fields, Chi, 470
4) Zach Wilson, NYJ, 327
5) Trey Lance, 49ers, 111
— Jerry McDonald (@Jerrymcd) November 18, 2021
“I was super disappointed in how it ended,” Lawrence told reporters in Jacksonville. “I know in my career I’m going to have more opportunities like that and make the most of them.”
Lawrence is benefitting from the kind of experience that Lance won’t get in 2021 unless Garoppolo is injured or the 49ers fall out of playoff contention.
“He’s been thrown into a lot of situations and you can see that he along with his team are getting better and better,” Shanahan said.
Lance, on the other hand, has just one start against Arizona when Garoppolo was injured. The 49ers lost 17-10, with Lance mostly put on the move in hopes he could create something. Lance rushed 16 times for 89 yards, ended up with a minor knee injury which rendered him inactive for one game and was still an issue for another when Shanahan didn’t think he was healthy enough to play.
In seven of nine games, Shanahan has prepared packages to use Lance in a way that plays to his skill set, although he’s seldom used any of them. Of the five quarterbacks taken in the first round, Lance’s 111 snaps are the fewest by a considerable margin and the 49ers, given long-range plan, are fine with that.
Yet it’s undeniable the education Lawrence is getting every week dwarfs what Lance is learning during meetings and practice. There are subtleties and nuance in terms of operating in the pocket — even when you’re as big as Lawrence and mobile.
“In the NFL you can only move a yard or so and you’re going to move into trouble,” Lawrence said. “You watch someone like Tom Brady, he can move six inches in the pocket each direction and buy himself a couple of extra seconds. That’s something he and Aaron Rodgers and guys that have been playing a long time do a good job of. And that’s through experience, playing, getting a feel for it and trusting it. I’ve gotten better, but there’s work to be done.”
Fred Warner, the 49ers’ middle linebacker, is eager to get a closer look.
“Obviously, his talent jumps off the tape,” Warner said. “You can see why he was the No. 1 pick. They say he’s 6-5, 6-6 but he moves like a smaller guy. He’s not easy to get down. He’s pretty quick but the arm talent is there. They want him to get in position to make decisive throws, get him going early.”
Lawrence will continue to evolve on the field at the highest level on game day.
Lance, on the other hand, waits his turn.