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Spagnola: Trey trade really a future investment


ARLINGTON, Texas – Surprising, but not shocking.

Caught off guard, but with historical precedence.

The Cowboys, out of nowhere Friday evening, trade a 2024 fourth-round draft choice for San Francisco castaway quarterback Trey Lance. My goodness, the third pick in the 2021 NFL Draft that the 49ers decided was no better than their third-string quarterback, behind starter Brock Purdy and now backup Sam Darnold.

Now, timeout. Right now. To stop the false-start perceptions certainly floating around. Already. Even in headlines. Don't even want to see what's prancing around on Twit, er, X. Can only imagine.

Look, the Cowboys are not disgruntled with Dak Prescott.

The Cowboys are not putting pressure on Dak Prescott to win big. Now.

They are not trying to replace him.

The Cowboys are not nudging Dak to hurry up and sign a team-friendly extension.

None of that.

In fact, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones went out of his way to point this out about the acquisition of Lance, saying, "He will come in, and candidly, I don't want to plan on, count on or wish for help from him this year."

This is a project. A developmental shot. More of an affordable shot in the dark. Sort of like wildcatting in the oil and gas business when taking an educated guess drilling a hole in the ground.

Lance's base salary this year that the Cowboys will inherit is but $940,000. Lance will certainly replace Will Grier as the third QB on the 53-man roster that Grier was not destined to land on. Cooper Rush will remain the backup. And think about it this way, with Grier in his fifth NFL season making that level of minimum ($1.08 million), Lance will save the Cowboys $68,000 on the salary cap.

Now then, let's not act as if Lance is ready for prime time any time soon. Do you realize what a gut punch this trade is for San Francisco, taking out the eraser on the third pick in the 2021 draft, one they sent Miami three first-round picks and a third to move up from their 12th spot to the Dolphins' third.

Not only that – and believe me, that's a lot – this is also costing the 49ers more than $11 million against the salary cap over these next two seasons.

And maybe above all that comes the humiliation with whiffing on the No. 3 pick in the draft just two years later.

"Hard day," 49ers general manager John Lynch said Friday night during the second quarter of their third preseason game. "Such a wonderful young man. We took a shot, and it didn't work. His story still is very much unwritten, and I'm excited for Trey. Dallas stepped up. …

"He struggled through injuries and this team is ready to win."

So look, there is no guarantee this works here either. It's a gamble, but basically just a fourth-round draft choice and the assumed loss of Grier, who demonstrated a lot of heart and gumption, knowing his days were numbered, yet came out here Saturday night at AT&T Stadium against Las Vegas and performed fabulously with a bunch of backups, completing 29 of 35 passes for 305 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, a QB rating of 122.0, and rushing for 53 yards and two more touchdowns on 10 carries.

That's a four-touchdown performance. My guess is someone out there needs a guy like him, and my bet is, after digging into Lance's history, he hasn't had a performance like that against whatever string of defense since 2019 when he led North Dakota State to that 16-0, national championship season. Thus, the shot in the dark.

Sure didn't realize this, but ever since 2019 when Lance threw for 2,786 yards, 28 touchdowns, no interceptions and ran for another 1,100 yards, and that being his redshirt freshman season at North Dakota State, he has only played in nine games – one in college during the 2020 COVID shortened season, six games as a 2021 rookie with the Niners (two starts), and at that playing with a broken index finger he couldn't straighten out on his throwing hand, and then just two games in the 2022 season cut short by a Prescott-like ankle/lower leg injury needing to be surgically repaired twice.

In fact, he only started his senior year in high school. This kid, and he's a kid, still just 23 years old, has only thrown 420 competitive game passes since high school. Think about that – four-twenty. Why, Dak threw 459 passes his rookie season with the Cowboys in 2016.

Who the hell advised this kid to come out after playing just one season and one game in college? He hadn't even turned 21 (May 9) before the 2021 draft.

Now get the pre-draft attraction, from the Cowboys, too, but more as a second-rounder. The kid has talent. But what quarterback less than 21 years old, with just 17 games of FCS level college experience, no matter how talented, is instantly ready for the NFL. Heck, even say after playing 17 games at Alabama. Someone should be charged with quarterback abuse.

But this is how desperate NFL teams are for quarterbacks. San Francisco wasn't satisfied with Jimmy Garoppolo. The Niners wanted better. They got worse.

Of course, the Cowboys coaching staff has its work cut out. And the clock already is ticking, Lance, with two years left on his rookie deal, expected to arrive at The Star Sunday. Man, with the limited practice time available per the CBA rules once the season starts, it's hard enough to get your backup quarterback enough practice snaps to be ready to play on Sundays just in case. But now trying to raise your third quarterback with hardly any NFL experience?

Maybe you now better understand that this Lance thing for the Cowboys is a project, not some stunt to pressure Dak. They are trusting their 2021 draft evaluation, and remember, they originally had the 10th pick in the first round that year. And there were quality quarterbacks coming out, also including Trevor Lawrence, Zack Wilson, Justin Fields and Mac Jones, all drafted within the first 15 picks.

Think about this during that 2021 draft. Originally, San Francisco had the 12th pick, and the Cowboys had the 10th, the Niners trading up and the Cowboys trading down to No. 12 after their top cornerback choices came off the board at eight and nine. And to think the Cowboys got Micah Parsons at 12. Think the Niners would like a do-over sitting still at 12 these days?

But this isn't unusual, the Cowboys using a fourth-round selection on a quarterback. How about this for some history. In 1991, the Cowboys sent a 1992 fourth-round pick to the Raiders for backup quarterback Steve Beuerlein. That same year they used a fourth-round pick to draft Bill Musgrave. In 2007, they used a fourth-round pick on quarterback Isaiah Stanback, with the idea of turning the Washington star into a wide receiver. In 2009, a fourth on Stephen McGee. In 2106, their second fourth on Dak. Also, within range, fifth-round picks on Gary Hogeboom (1980) and Steve Pelluer (1984) to join Danny White.

Also, not unusual for the Cowboys to have two starting quality quarterbacks at the same time. Remember, they used a 1965 first-round pick to draft Craig Morton to join incumbent Don Meredith. Roger Staubach finished his Navy commitment in 1969 to join Morton after Meredith up and retired, the former draft flyer in the 10th round turning into a Pro football Hall of Famer. White joined Staubach in 1976, a third-round flyer in 1974 who already had committed to Memphis of the WFL.

And who would ever forget this: After selecting Troy Aikman with the No. 1 pick in 1989, the Cowboys a few months later also used a 1990 first-round pick in the supplemental draft on Jimmy Johnson's former University of Miami quarterback, Steve Walsh, ending up forfeiting the No. 1 pick in the 1990 draft as it turned out after that 1-15 season.

That, though, turned into a lucrative investment, because on Sept. 25, 1990, the Cowboys flipped Walsh for three New Orleans draft choices, a first, second and third, with the second turning into multiple picks.

Who knows? The Cowboys have two years to develop Lance, either as a future backup quarterback or flipping their investment into a potential starter another team might desperately need for, say, at least a second rounder. Who knows?

And don't look at this as a veiled comment from Jones when saying, "My point is this. We view it as an opportunity. We view it as an additional part of this team that could pay dividends this year. But certainly, when we look to the future, it will pay dividends in our mind."

Think 24-month CD.

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