SANTA CLARA, Calif. — As an eighth-round pick in 1977, Randy Hedberg departed a small school in North Dakota and walked into one of the toughest situations a young quarterback could face.
Hedberg, the first NFL player drafted from Minot State, was taken by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a franchise born a year earlier and one that had gone 0-14 in its inaugural season. Hedberg was expected to acclimate slowly as quarterbacks Mike Boryla and Gary Huff battled for the starting job with a returning Parnell Dickinson also on the roster.
None of that happened, though, as Boryla and Huff suffered knee injuries in the first two preseason games and Dickinson struggled with turnovers. Suddenly, Hedberg found himself starting for the worst team in the league with no time to adjust. The results were predictable. He started four games, played in three more and finished with no touchdowns and 10 interceptions as the Bucs lost all seven contests.
Hedberg is a cautionary tale about playing too soon under difficult circumstances. It’s one he has shared with the three signal-callers he’s tutored as North Dakota State’s quarterbacks coach since 2014. Those players — Carson Wentz, Easton Stick and now Trey Lance — all turned into NFL draft picks, with Wentz and Lance going in the top three of their respective drafts.
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“I just didn’t want them to get rushed into things because I was rushed into it because of the nature of Tampa Bay being a new team to play and I wasn’t ready to play and it kind of got after me a little bit,” Hedberg said.
The San Francisco 49ers made Lance the future face of the franchise when they selected him No. 3 overall in the 2021 NFL draft. Now the biggest question facing the franchise is when will Lance play?
Conventional wisdom points to Lance needing more time than any of the other highly-drafted quarterbacks. Coming from FCS North Dakota State, Lance has 17 college games under his belt. On the surface, the 49ers seem to offer a prime opportunity for Lance to take his time.
With Jimmy Garoppolo in place and the Niners apparently set on keeping him for the time being, the blueprint set by the Kansas City Chiefs in 2017, when Alex Smith mentored rookie Patrick Mahomes, is an option.
But just because the 49ers could sit Lance, that doesn’t mean it’s how the scenario will play out. In fact, one of the reasons coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch liked Lance so much was they believe he’s the most pro-ready quarterback in the 2021 draft.
While that might sound surprising given Lance’s lack of experience against top competition, it all comes back to what Lance was able to do in the Bison’s offense.
Upon arrival in Fargo, Wentz, Stick and Lance were asked to redshirt as freshmen. They took the time to digest a scheme that includes plenty of West Coast staples and prepared for a job that puts a lot on the quarterback.
According to Hedberg, that lengthy checklist includes spitting out long play calls in a huddle, learning and understanding protections, a “maybe” system in which the quarterback could run or pass based on the defensive front and a “kill” system that allows Lance to change from run to pass or vice versa based on coverages. All of those were among Lance’s pre-snap responsibilities.
“I was super blessed to have a coaching staff that trusted me and believed in me to make those decisions,” Lance said. “I think that was a huge advantage for me.”
Lance was so advanced in picking up the nuances of the game plan that in 2019, he began a habit of studying game film. He’d arrive early in the morning and show the other quarterbacks what they were looking for from the opposing defense. Then, he would put together a cut up of different clips from the opposition and their own practices.
On Friday mornings, Lance would show the video to the other skill position players and walk them through various concepts. He would then do the same thing for the offensive line with protections.
“He’s a football junkie,” Hedberg said. “He loves football. He loves to watch video. He learns. He knows what he’s looking for when he watches video. … That’s big, especially for a young man that’s only 20 years old and been in college football for roughly two and a half seasons.”
Once the ball was snapped, Lance did things he will be asked to do in San Francisco. Lance took 30% of his drop backs from under center, easily the most of the draft’s first-round quarterbacks. Of those, 24.3% came from under center with play action, and he completed 53 of 77 passes for 847 yards with 12 touchdowns and no interceptions on those throws. Since 2017, the Niners have run the third-most play-action drop backs from under center.
While Lance comes with less experience overall, he has more snaps doing things Shanahan will ask of him than other rookie quarterbacks.
Of course, there are still plenty of things for Lance to improve. Hedberg points to shortening his “throwing stroke” and refining his accuracy, especially on deep balls. Lance completed 39 of 93 passes — 42% — traveling 15-plus yards in the air during his college career.
“You can help people with accuracy,” Shanahan said. “I think accuracy’s going to come down to the person. … I try to get his feet in the right spot, his eyes in the right spot, because I think if you’re in a balanced position, and you’re in the club as an NFL thrower, you will be.”
Chances are Lance will get on the field sooner than later, even if it’s in a limited role. His running ability alone could allow Shanahan to install packages to get Lance meaningful reps while providing new offensive wrinkles.
When it comes to starting, history says Lance won’t have to wait long. Since 2008, 16 of the 18 quarterbacks taken in the top five have started at least 10 games as a rookie with an average of 13 starts for the entire group. The only two who didn’t (Jared Goff and Tua Tagovailoa) started seven and nine games, respectively.
In the common era, the only quarterback drafted in the top three to not start a single game as a rookie was Carson Palmer in 2003. Of course, no quarterback drafted that high has ever come to a team this closely removed from a Super Bowl, either.
All of which means Lance’s timeline will come down to how fast he picks things up, how he translates it to practice and Garoppolo’s ability to stay healthy.
With so many factors at play, there’s no need for the Niners to define Lance’s timeline. They can let it play out to ensure Lance doesn’t become another cautionary tale.
“That’s a lot of pressure on a young man,” Hedberg said. “But when you get chosen in the first round, you’ve got administrative pressure, you’ve got owner pressure, you’ve got fan pressure to play that guy, especially the quarterback. I understand how that works in the NFL. It’s just kind of the way it is and I don’t want any quarterback to be rushed.”