Youmans: Lance's first impression a positive sign for 49ers

August 17, 2022 05:12 AM
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It’s too early to get too excited about anything that happens in the NFL, but it always happens anyway, especially with young quarterbacks. Jumping to conclusions and knee-jerk reactions are annual August exercises. So, with that said, it’s time to get fired up about Trey Lance of the 49ers.

As a rookie, the No. 3 pick of the 2021 draft started two games and won one. He’s now the future in San Francisco, and the Jimmy Garoppolo era is a thing of the past. It appears the 49ers are doing the right thing by rolling with Lance, and not just due to one big play in the first preseason game.

“The 49ers are a team that can win it all, and I think they challenge the Rams to win the NFC West,” Red Rock sportsbook director Chuck Esposito said. “If they were willing to move on from Garoppolo to Lance, they must feel confident with Lance. He’s a quarterback with a big arm and mobility.”

Lance showed something in the 49ers’ 28-21 victory over the Packers on Friday, when he completed 4 of 5 passes for 92 yards. On a 76-yard touchdown strike, he threw a 30-yard bullet to rookie Danny Gray, who caught the ball in stride and raced the rest of the way.

In his brief appearance, Lance also had a 7-yard run. At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Lance can stand tall in the pocket and escape it. He’s a threat to make plays all over the field in a variety of ways, unlike Garoppolo, who came up short against the Rams in last season’s NFC title game. 

While the Rams deal with quarterback Matthew Stafford’s elbow injury, an issue that has lingered for several months, the door at the top of the division is more than cracked open. DraftKings lists the Rams as + 125 favorites in the NFC West, with the 49ers as the + 150 second choice.

“The 49ers are going to be a good, solid team,” Las Vegas professional bettor Chuck Edel said. “The whole thing is going to hinge on Lance and how he handles the defenses they are throwing at him.”

Lance needs to improve his passing accuracy, something that should come with time. He attempted only 101 passes in game action the past two years, including a one-game, COVID-shortened 2020 season at North Dakota State. In 2019, he emerged as a top NFL prospect after leading the Bison to a 16-0 record and passing for 28 touchdowns with no interceptions.

He looks somewhat like the Bills’ Josh Allen and more like the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson, who was the league MVP in 2019.

ESPN analyst Louis Riddick, a former NFL executive, is so excited about Lance that this week he called him “my long-shot MVP candidate” who has the ability “to take this league by storm.”

Is it a perfect storm in San Francisco? Lance has the right supporting cast to succeed, starting with coach Kyle Shanahan. Lance can lean on wide receiver/running back Deebo Samuel and tight end George Kittle to make plays in what should be one of the NFL’s highest-scoring offenses.

It’s a giant leap of faith to take Lance’s 30-1 MVP odds posted at the Westgate SuperBook. It’s not a stretch to bet on the 49ers to win the division.

Lance and a couple of other developing quarterbacks — Jalen Hurts of the Eagles and Tua Tagovailoa of the Dolphins — have the type of support systems that the Bears’ Justin Fields is missing in his second season. Fields is scrambling behind a weak offensive line, he’s lacking playmakers and his head coach is a defensive guy.

The Lance-led 49ers are 7-point favorites at Chicago in Week 1 of the regular season, and it’s going to be tough to bait public bettors into taking the Bears.

“It’s a combination of how good the 49ers looked last week and how bad the Bears’ first-team offense looked,” Esposito said. “There are a lot of question marks with the Bears.”

The first 17 games of the preseason were highlighted by scoring explosions, with 14 games going Over the total. It was bad news when Fields and the Bears were held scoreless in the first half against the Chiefs in a low-scoring game.

The Over trend was surprising considering 15 of 17 games stayed Under in last year’s first week of the preseason. One difference this year is the NFL is ordering officials to emphasize illegal contact penalties — contact by defenders on receivers when the quarterback has the ball in the pocket. The 5-yard penalty is an automatic first down.

Officials threw 15 flags for illegal contact in the first week of the preseason, compared to 36 illegal-contact flags for all 18 weeks of the 2021 regular season. Offenses are passing more and defenses are essentially handcuffed.

“I think it’s pretty cut and dried that the scoring is because of more penalties for illegal contact,” Edel said. “It definitely looks like offenses are more aggressive. It’s a combination of those two things — more aggressive offenses and the illegal contact penalties. I hate giving the refs that much power. I guess the NFL wants more offense.”

Oddsmakers have dramatically adjusted the preseason totals, from an average opener of 33.5 last week to an average of 41 this week.

“All the preseason totals are moving up, but there might be some value in Week 1 of the regular season,” Edel said. “It’s something to consider with the totals.”

When the NFL last made illegal contact penalties a point of emphasis in 2014, flags increased to 148 that season from 52 the previous season, according to an ESPN study. If that trend holds, higher-scoring games could be on the way this season.

Edel said he anticipates most coaches will use Week 3 of the preseason as the dress rehearsal, the week when most starters play. That’s the plan Shanahan is reportedly using this week, and it’s part of the reason the 49ers opened as 3.5-point underdogs at Minnesota before the line was bet to -5.

Despite Shanahan’s Week 2 plan, the 49ers might not play Lance again until their final preseason game. So forecasters will have to wait to see if Lance will take the league by storm.

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