'I'm having fun playing football again': Reinvigorated Trey Lance ready to help 49ers

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- As the San Francisco 49ers opened organized team activities last week, quarterback Trey Lance and linebacker Curtis Robinson were discussing being back to work when Lance fully realized how much it meant to him to simply participate.

"I really feel like I'm having fun playing football again," Lance said. "It's hard those first years, my first year and especially and then last year. ... I finally feel like I'm able to just have fun and enjoy it again."

Lance's road back to San Francisco's offseason program has been paved with the frustration that comes with a pair of season-altering injuries that limited him to only 102 pass attempts in his first two seasons. In 2021, it was a fractured right index finger that lingered longer than expected and created mechanical adjustments that Lance is just now putting behind him. After being promoted to starter in 2022, Lance suffered a fractured right ankle early in a Week 2 win against the Seattle Seahawks that ended his season.

Through both seasons, Lance also dealt with arm fatigue he attributes to his inability to manage the workload he put on his arm in the run up to the 2021 NFL draft and beyond.

Fast forward to now, and Lance estimates his ankle was back to 100% by the end of March and the finger injury was put to bed last offseason. According to Lance, the arm fatigue has also dissipated, and he hopes that the discussion of it can finally end.

"It's been an awesome offseason for me just being able to spend time finally getting back to football," Lance said.

All of which has brought Lance back to Santa Clara for OTAs in a vastly different position than he occupied in 2022. Last year, Lance had ascended to the Niners' starting job. There would be no competition with Jimmy Garoppolo or a then-freshly-drafted Brock Purdy. Lance didn't have to win the job; it was his to lose.

Much has changed since, as Garoppolo departed for the Las Vegas Raiders, Purdy has emerged as the presumptive starter when he recovers from right elbow surgery thanks to a 7-1 record in leading the 49ers of the NFC Championship Game last season, and veterans Sam Darnold and Brandon Allen signed as free agents. Despite interest from teams, the Niners never received a substantial enough offer to consider trading Lance and general manager John Lynch has said he expects Lance to be with the Niners in 2023.

Where does that leave Lance? Well, he took the first reps at quarterback in the opening week of OTAs, though coach Kyle Shanahan has repeatedly said that he intends to give Darnold a roughly equal amount of reps with the starters when the team begins 11-on-11 drills. Lance and Darnold are competing for the backup job, but until Purdy is healthy, Darnold and Lance are ostensibly battling to be the interim starter.

Even with all of that swirling, the Niners quarterback room is unfazed by outside speculation.

"The dynamic is great," Purdy said. "We all get along really well, and I'm really excited moving forward with this group of guys."

Lance seems at peace with the current state of things -- Shanahan and Lynch had informed him of where Purdy stands when healthy and about trade interest in him -- but made clear that he intends to push to reclaim the job he lost last season.

"Nothing's changed for me," Lance said. "As far as the stuff with Brock, that's the same thing I told you guys last year at the end of the year, my opportunity is just to come in and compete and that's all I wanted. I don't want to take anything away from Brock, and no one should be able to take anything away from Brock. ... I just want an opportunity to compete."

From a health perspective, Lance appears to finally be positioned to do that. He fractured the finger during the final preseason game of his rookie season. That injury only kept him on the sideline for a couple of weeks and though he didn't miss any regular-season games, he was unable to straighten it out for the rest of the season. Given the importance of that finger to his release, Lance had to change how he gripped and threw the ball, finishing with his middle finger instead of the index.

Those changes led to a trickle-down effect that altered his mechanics, affected his performance and led to a 2022 offseason in which he spent as much time un-learning the grip he used as a rookie as he did re-learning the one he had prior to the injury.

"Your whole body is connected from the ground up similar to a golf swing, so anything that gets thrown off, it can definitely adjust things," Shanahan said. "And when you overcompensate it, whatever it is, watch any quarterback throughout the year that's when things start to hurt and then have to go back and recalibrate it."

Lance also made a tweak to his offseason routine. Before the Niners offseason program began, he spent time in Dallas training with private quarterback coach Jeff Christensen, who has worked with Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins and, most notably, Patrick Mahomes. Lance worked out with Mahomes for a chunk of his time in Dallas, an experience he calls "awesome."

Lance's improved health allowed him to reconfigure his throwing motion and work from what Shanahan calls a stronger base where his feet are wider apart and always in position to throw. The result seems to be a quicker, smoother release -- Lance's career average time to throw of 3.13 seconds would have ranked last in the league last season among qualified quarterbacks -- that has Lance more confident in his ability to operate an offense he says is "very specific as far as just tying your feet to your progressions."

"He knew what he had to focus on," Shanahan said. "This year, he went into this offseason knowing exactly just football-wise what he had to work on, and I think that's why he is ahead of last year."

To be sure, this is an important year for Lance. Next offseason, the Niners will have to decide whether to pick up his fifth-year option for the 2025 season. And if there's a quarterback injury elsewhere during training camp, it's a safe bet trade rumors about Lance will resurface. For now, Lance isn't concerned with any of that.

"Obviously, there's ups and downs and there is stress and anxiety that comes with playing the position and playing football," Lance said. "But this is the best I've felt, for sure."