What can we expect from Trey Lance & Kyle Shanahan in 2022?
Trey Lance, Greg Roman, AJ Brown, Zach Wilson, Podcasts, More!
Okay, folks, it’s mailbag time – let’s do it!
If you have a question you would like answered in a future mailbag, you can comment below, reply to this email, or reach out @OllieConnolly
Lee Sung Joon: Who is your favorite 2021 draft quarterback? And who will experience the most progress in 2022?
I’m bullish on a number of the second-year QBs. The player I’m most interested to see: Trey Lance. From a schematic perspective, the Lance-Shanahan partnership is the most interesting/exhilarating/confusing/who-knows-what heading into the season.
As I’ve noted before, as the wide-zone-then-boot aficionados started to see defenses finding methods to slow down the offensive madness, they each sought different paths forward: Sean McVay moved to the super-spread, and bet on the arm of Matthew Stafford (success!); Matt LaFleur embraced more a smashmouth-spread, with a creative second-phase system, the unique abilities of Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams affording him a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card (success!); Kyle Shanahan drafted Trey Lance (TBD!).
We’ve yet to see a true power-runner in a wide-zone-then-boot style system (the closest would be Ryan Tannehill, but it took too long for the Tannehill-from-A&M to land in that kind of system) – and, yes, Niners’ fans, the Shanahan set-up is about more than that. Some of the principles defenses have built to try to slow the keeper are harder to maintain when you know a player could pall the ball and be g-o-n-e around the corner – which could lead to overplaying the keeper, making life easier for Lance to throw from the pocket.
It's hard to get a read on Lance. We saw him twice last season with meaningful reps and his gameplan. He struggled in the Arizona game as Shanahan leaned into the quarterback run element while an obviously antsy Lance drilled throw after throw from the pocket, with little pretense of caring about such notions as rhythm, timing, or accuracy.
It was a strange outing. In it, Shanahan unveiled some creative and quirky quarterback run designs, lifted directly from the Greg Roman playbook, both in his days in San Francisco with Colin Kaepernick and with Lamar Jackson in Baltimore. The most interesting element: A series of influence blocks that would allow the team’s tight ends or fullback to effectively score a two-for-one block, or at a minimum influence the first step of a first-level defender before flying up to block the second-level. Adding some hesitation to the defensive line vs. a quarterback who’s a running back is, well, the whole ball game — that’s how you puncture big holes in the defense.
(Watch the tight end at the foot of the screen motion down to influence the EMOL and gain leverage on the overhang defender — the slot corner — before arcing back out for the kick-out. *chef’s kiss*)
It was effective. Lance ran it well. Within those snapshots, you could see the lightbulb moment: Imagine the Shanahan offense as we know it with a genuine, legitimate quarterback running threat that turns offense into one-on-one football. Even in small doses, Lance’s impact on the run-game was profound:
Yeah, that’s the real deal.
I mean, come on — and this in a game where the Cardinals front really handed it to the Niners’ dominant group. Good luck, everyone.
But then there were the concerns from the pocket. Lance was fidgety. He busted some designs from the snap. His footwork was all over the place. His base was unstable. There was a reluctance to climb and deliver throws. And he found a peculiar heel click that torpedoed the timing of the offense, and that did not exist in his dropback in college. Keep your eyes on Lance’s feet. Watch the shuffle drop. Then watch him climb. He doesn’t establish — or climb — from a throwing base. Instead, he taps his one foot to the other and then kicks his front foot out:
Rather than dropping, planting his feet in the ground, and then uncorking a throw (or climbing), he added an extra half-beat to his drop with the heel click, a half-beat that he then tried to make up for by getting the ball out with double-speed.
Playing with a heel click naturally narrows a quarterback’s base, which means they have to re-establish that base in order to drive the ball – adding in extra beats to the play or else forcing the quarterback to throw from their toes on a narrow base, leading to accuracy issues.
Lance’s accuracy was all over the place, a couple of special throws offset by somewhere-was-he-throwing-that balls.
It was all down to his feet – an understandable whiff for a quarterback who hadn’t played in a year and was starting his first game in the NFL.
Lance’s feet should settle, particularly with another offseason to work on the finer details. Issues like timing and footwork were exactly why the Niners sat him last season anyway. And those issues were not as pronounced in his second outing against the tanktastic Texans. Lance looked calmer. He took some MPH off his fastball. And he did a better job of tying his lower half to his eyes and reads, rather than the higgledy-piggledy, oh-bleep, where-am-I-supposed-to-go-with-this, bleep-it, I’m-getting-it-out-NOW that characterized his first performance.
There were some first-half wobbles, but by the second half, any issues were cleaned up. Everything was snappier.
That’s exciting. If Lance can become just a decent-ish, from-the-pocket player in his first-year as a full-time starter, that’s a big win for the Niners. It will open up all kinds of possibilities, possibilities that Shanahan and his staff can leverage into easy wins and big-time completions for their quarterback. Canvas some of the most creative quarterback run designs in the NFL and you start to put together a tasty package for Lance that the Niners can roll out in high-leverage situations or use in bit parts to at least impart the threat of the run in the minds of defenders.
Can you imagine Lance turning the corner on a fake-counter-rollout? Which DB wants to stick their nose into that particular 6-4, 230lbs buzzsaw?
I doubt Shanahan (and I don’t think that he should), will change the whole structure. But by adding some of the Lance-based pistol actions to his traditional wide-zone style, he can come up with some funky looks that will maximize a talent-laden roster.
Here’s another Cardinals example (nobody said Kliff and co. don’t come up with good one-off ideas). It’s a three-way-go: Outside-zone to one side of the field, reading the End Man On The Line of Scrimmage (EMOL), tagged with a vertical stretch (a post pattern) and another horizontal stretch (a dump-off to a tight end):
Now picture it with Deebo Samuel (or running back X), George Kittle, and Brandon Ayiuk – all with the threat of Lance pulling the ball for himself.
I’m telling you, this is going to be fun.
I am bullish on Mac Jones and Trevor Lawrence, too. For more detailed thoughts on Lawrence, I’d turn you to this. On Jones, I get all the consternation about the Patriots’ offense — who is calling it? What will it look like? — but he played well with a one-dimensional group last season was impressive. Adding Devante Parker and Tyquan Thornton should bring more pop to what was a stuffy passing game last year.
The margin for error for Jones last year was tiny. No single receiver could consistently uncover from man-coverage, which suppressed the entire offense. Parker and Thornton as field-stretchers, should make life easier for the rest of the receiving corps and Jones to pick up easy yards without every single down feeling like an effort, requiring Jones to be at his absolute best just to pick up ten-to-fifteen yards.
On the concerning side, it’s hard not to be worried about what’s going on with the Bears and Justin Fields, a player I loved heading into last year’s draft.
What in the what is the deal with the Bears offense?!?! What is going on here? What is the plan? The Bears dumped former coach Matt Nagy after a woeful season and brought in former Colts DC Matt Eberflus to head up operations. The Bears’ new staff has put out all the right sounds that the new staff believes in Justin Fields. But look at the offensive depth chart. It tells its own story:
QB – Justin Fields
RB – David Montgomery; Khalil Herbert; Darrynton Evans
WR – Darnell Mooney; WR – Equanimeous St. Brown; Byron Pringle; Tajae Sharpe; Velus Jones
TE – Cole Kmet; Ryan Griffin; James O’Shaughnessy
LT – Larry Borom
LG – Cody Whitehair
C – Lucas Patrick
RG – Sam Mustipher
RT – Teven Jenkins
I mean, good GAWD. I have stared at that for eight straight minutes, hoping and willing some of the names to change.
It is indeed offensive. Where is the investment to help a young quarterback? Chicago entered the offseason with a lousy cap situation. They didn’t have a first-round pick. They let Allen Robinson walk. All were handicapped, but they could have done more than this. They now have $45 million in dead money on their cap this season after an offseason, prepare-for-the-future cutting spree. Compare that to other teams with young quarterbacks: The Jets ($1 million), Dolphins ($3 million), Chargers ($3 million), 49ers ($5 million), Patriots ($8 million), Bengals ($9 million), Jaguars ($23 million).
The Bears have effectively hung Fields out to dry, handing him a bottom-three offensive line and a collection of pass catchers that sound more like a jazz quartet than the bedrock of a successful NFL passing game.
The long-term plan makes some sense: Chicago has cleared their books and can be aggressive in the free-agent and trade markets next offseason. But that won’t help Justin Fields now. They’ve handed a quarterback whose best strength is driving the ball downfield an offense that is unlikely to give him enough time to get the ball downfield with any kind of consistency. It could be rough this year.
Then there’s Zach Wilson.
The Jets have done everything to surround second-year quarterback Zach Wilson with as much talent as possible over the offseason. They’ve added playmakers at receiver and running back, beefed up their offensive line, and brought in a pair of versatile tight ends who will allow them to diversify what was a plodding offense a year ago.
General manager Joe Douglas could have done little more – aside from possibly strengthening the offensive line in the draft – to put Wilson in a better position to make a second-year leap. And yet the deck is still stacked against the quarterback heading into his sophomore year. Here is a list of all the quarterbacks who have had a season with a lower adjusted net yards per attempt than Wilson had in 2021: Josh Rosen, Brett Hundley, DeShone Kizer, Jared Goff, Blake Bortles, Blaine Gabbert and Jimmy Clausen. Gulp.
What was frustrating about watching Wilson’s rookie season is how constricted the offense was. He was terrible before he was injured, I get that. And so Mike LaFleur put together a reduced plan when he returned to limit his exposure. That makes sense. But isn’t the point of a redshirt season in which the player actually plays, a no expectations, it-doesn’t-matter-how-this-goes season that you can try funky things? That you can try it all, figure out what works and does not, and then build around that base for the year?
Instead, the Jets’ coaches coached as though they were scared of their own quarterback. He had already stunk, would the pressure have been much worse if he continued to stink when the bulk of the national media checked out?
The Jets should have asked more of Wilson as the season ran along, not less, to see if there was any there there – some form of foundation they could build on for this season. Instead… *shoulder shrugs*. Now, who knows?
The evaluation clock for young quarterbacks is now sped up to such an extent that if Wilson doesn’t show considerable improvement in his second year, the Jets will start considering alternatives.
If I was ranking the second-year QBs right now in terms of who will be the consensus ‘best’ after this season, I’d go with this: