On Wednesday, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that the San Francisco 49ers have received multiple inquiries to trade for quarterback Trey Lance, the third overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Rapoport made clear that the calls are incoming and the 49ers have not been actively shopping him, but with general manager John Lynch making it pretty clear that if Brock Purdy were healthy, he’s QB1 in San Francisco, a trade remains a possibility.
The Detroit Lions are a team that could make sense as a trade partner. While the Lions have publicly thrown their support for Jared Goff as their starter for the here and now, questions remain about the future of the position.
Here’s why the Lions would make a fantastic trade partner for Lance and the 49ers.
Lions general manager Brad Holmes had interest in Lance during the 2021 NFL Draft
In his first draft as Lions general manager, Brad Holmes showed enough interest in Lance to suggest he likes him as a project. Not only did both Holmes and coach Dan Campbell attend his pro day, but take a look at this snippet from a Detroit Free Press article on a behind-the-scenes look at Holmes’ draft weekend that year.
Asked Thursday morning under what circumstances he would take a quarterback at No. 7, assuming (Trevor) Lawrence and (Zach) Wilson were gone, Holmes said, ‘There’s two of them that are interesting. Now that you’ve eliminated options.’
After the draft, he told the Free Press that once North Dakota State’s Trey Lance rounded out the top , he knew the Lions would be taking a different position at No. 7.”
It’s unclear how serious the Lions were about adding a quarterback in 2021—they did plenty of research on the class but ultimately did not trade up for one—and they threw their public support behind Goff. But at the very least, we know that Holmes likely has enough of a scouting profile on him to be confident in his evaluation of him.
He will be cheap for the next two years
While the Lions will have missed out on the first two years of Lance’s affordable rookie deal, they won’t carry any of the heavy signing bonus ($22 million). Lance only has salaries of $940,000 and $1.055 million left on his deal and roster bonuses of $2.8 in 2023 and $4.255 million in 2024. In other words, he’ll cost just north of $9 million over the next two seasons.
If he’s your backup in Detroit, that’s probably on par—or less—than what you’d be paying Teddy Bridgewater (he earned $6.5 million as the Dolphins' backup last year). If he’s your future starter, that’s an absolute bargain.
It’s adding competition without sealing Goff’s fate
If the Lions drafted a quarterback in the first round, it would send a message that Jared Goff is living on borrowed time. If the Lions were to spend, say, a third-round pick on Lance, that would not send the same message. Sure, Goff would feel a little more pressure—and maybe he doesn’t hold up to that pressure—but you’d by no means be handing Lance the starting job.
This is a staff that constantly preaches competition bringing out the best in players. For the next two years, the two would battle it out to see which would be the team’s future quarterback. And while quarterback competitions are oftentimes a distracting nuisance, the payoff could be huge.
It’s relatively low risk, given the Lions’ assets
It remains to be seen if the 49ers would even deal Lance and how much it would cost. But let’s start with a third-round pick. Is a third-round pick worth it for, at worst, two years of backup quarterback play and, at best, acquiring a 23-year-old who becomes your future quarterback? I would say so.
Think about it this way. Brad Holmes appears to have whiffed on Ifeatu Melifonwu with a third-round pick in 2021. Does anyone really care? Is it that big of a ding on his resume? Even if we were to bump this to a second-round pick for Lance, the Lions have managed to build a strong roster quickly despite getting no meaningful contributions from 2021 second-round pick Levi Onwuzurike.
This year, the Lions have two first-round picks, two second-round picks, and a third-round pick. If they spend one of those Day 2 picks on a cheap quarterback swing, they’ll have plenty of opportunities to improve, no matter how it plays out. Compare that to a trade-up scenario, which would deplete the Lions of more resources for an equally unknown—and more expensive—quarterback prospect.
If they make the move and decide after two years that Lance isn’t the guy, two years of an improved backup quarterback situation isn’t the worst of consolation prizes.
Better option than Hendon Hooker?
I’m not going to get into evaluations of each quarterback, because that is subjective and it’s hard to say which quarterback will have the better NFL career. But from a value standpoint, spending a Day 2 pick on Lance makes at least as much sense as spending it on Hooker. While Hooker—if picked in the second round—would come with four years of a much cheaper contract than the former third-overall pick, Lance is two years younger and can contribute right away (with two years in the NFL under his belt already). Whereas Hooker would almost certainly spend the majority of his rookie season unable to even serve as backup due to his torn ACL. Lance is coming off an injury of his own but is expected to be more than ready for training camp.
Like any move in the NFL, especially ones involving quarterbacks, there are inherent risks. If the 49ers are truly willing to trade Lance—which remains to be seen—there should be significant questions about his ceiling. Lance has only appeared in four games over his first two years, and it hasn’t been particularly pretty.
There’s also the aforementioned drama you would bring to the quarterback room for the next two years. Again, you’d hope to see the players respond positively to extra competition, but you never know which way that is going to go with quarterbacks.
Lastly, adding Lance doesn’t really solve the problem that many are hoping to fix by adding a rookie quarterback: getting the sweet benefits of that cheap contract. As of now, Lance’s contract would expire at the same time as Goff’s, meaning if he establishes himself as the starter, you’re going to have to pay him the same way you’d have to pay Goff, either in 2024 or 2025.
If Lance wins out as a starter by 2024, the Lions could cut bait with Goff, incur $5 million in dead cap, and be spending next to nothing at the position for that year. But then he’d be in line for an extension the next season, and even if you asked Lance to play on his fifth-year option in 2025, he’d cost anywhere between an estimated $21-30 million depending on if he makes a Pro Bowl in Detroit. In essence, you would only get one, maybe two, years of that “rookie cap hit” benefit, and that’s only if everything goes right.
Overall, it’s an interesting thought experiment. Again, we don’t know if the 49ers would be even willing to trade Lance. With Purdy’s injury, it seems like San Francisco would have to be blown away by an offer to make the deal and the Lions should not act desperate enough to shell out too much here. Still, if the right opportunity comes along, this would be a unique way for the Detroit Lions to improve the room and potentially land an elite, dual-threat talent.