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49ers Training Camp Battle: Who’s Starting QB Week 1?

  • Justin Melo
  • July 21, 2023
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The San Francisco 49ers are the only NFL team that could have any of three different quarterbacks starting under center in Week 1. Injuries and consistency will help determine the outcome of the league’s most intriguing pending positional battle. The 49ers are tasked with making a sizable decision at quarterback throughout what’s sure to be a fate-deciding summer.

Trey Lance, Brock Purdy, and Sam Darnold are the contenders. The organization undeniably has the most invested in Lance, a former No. 3 overall selection they traded up to acquire. However, an unexpected rookie revelation, Purdy, outperformed Lance last season (albeit through small sample sizes for both) en route to helping the 49ers reach the NFC Championship Game. Darnold is the most experienced, and perhaps most importantly, one of San Francisco’s healthiest quarterbacks entering training camp. If last season’s performances offer any indication, it’s Purdy, not Lance, that’s Kyle Shanahan’s QB1 when healthy. 

Purdy won all five of his regular-season starts while leading the 49ers to the No. 2 seed in the conference. Purdy threw for 1,375 yards and 13 touchdowns and was named NFC Rookie of the Month in consecutive months. Purdy’s passer rating of 119.4 was the highest for a quarterback in his first five starts since 1999. 

But Purdy was unable to physically participate in OTAs. He’s still dealing with the aftereffects of a torn UCL in his right elbow suffered against the Philadelphia Eagles. Unsurprisingly, Lance received first-team reps throughout practice sessions with Purdy sidelined.

If Purdy manages to return during training camp, he immediately becomes the favorite to start. But if Purdy is sidelined throughout camp and only receives medical clearance in late August or early September—the rumored timeline according to Ian Rapoport—then Lance will have an opportunity to impress the coaching staff while attempting to reclaim the starting gig. Timelines will have a massive impact on Shanahan’s final decision. Darnold is a newly-acquired quarterback that spent the spring simply getting familiar with Shanahan’s playbook and offense. Purdy’s return-to-play date, which has yet to be clearly defined, could have a massive impact on who starts for the 49ers in Week 1. The situation remains fluid.

Darnold’s pathway to starting is the most difficult to envision, but it’s not impossible. Purdy’s health remains a muddied projection until we’re told otherwise with a sense of definitiveness. If Purdy is out longer than expected, Darnold could begin pushing Lance if he quickly acclimates to the offense like a veteran former No. 3 overall selection should. After all, Lance has appeared in just eight regular-season contests with four starts in two seasons. He’s spent more time as a backup quarterback and on injured reserve than he has in the starting lineup. The rare on-field results haven’t been particularly impressive either.

Lance has completed just 54.9% of his passing attempts. Recurring injuries have prevented the 49ers from truly evaluating Lance’s potential. I don’t believe he’ll be handed anything this summer despite his lofty draft status. If he struggles, Darnold could begin contending for first-team reps.

The 49ers have an odd quarterbacking conundrum on their hands for an organization that played in last season’s NFC Championship Game. Success hasn’t eluded the 49ers in recent years, but a long-term solution at quarterback has. Purdy is the most talented quarterback on the roster, but the status of his health looms large. Lance and Darnold will be eager to take advantage of their opportunity.

Written By

Justin Melo