John Lynch: Brock Purdy 'earned the right' to start for 49ers

ByNick Wagoner ESPN logo
Monday, March 27, 2023

PHOENIX -- The San Francisco 49ers aren't yet sure when quarterback Brock Purdy will be back on the field as he recovers from right elbow surgery.

But they do seem to know what role he will fill when it happens: QB1.

In what was easily the strongest endorsement yet for the reigning Mr. Irrelevant, Niners general manager John Lynch made clear Monday at the NFL's annual owners meetings that he and coach Kyle Shanahan view Purdy as being in the driver's seat to be the starter when he is healthy.

"I think Brock has earned the right with the way he played that he's probably the leader in the clubhouse at that," Lynch said. "I'll let Kyle make those kinds of decisions but I know when we talk, Brock has probably earned that right to be the guy. If we were to line up, he'd probably take that first snap."

That Purdy is considered the favorite to start is no surprise after he led the 49ers to a 7-1 record after taking over for an injured Jimmy Garoppolo in Week 14. Purdy, who was the final pick in the 2022 NFL draft, was third in the NFL in QBR (68.8), fifth in completion percentage (68.5) and first in yards per attempt (8.9) after becoming the starter.

Purdy's presumed coronation as San Francisco's starter was thrown in flux when he took a hit from Philadelphia Eagles pass-rusher Haason Reddick on the Niners' sixth snap of the NFC Championship Game. Purdy suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow on the play. After delaying surgery because of continued swelling in the elbow, Purdy had what is known as an InternalBrace repair on the elbow March 10.

The Niners hoped all along that Purdy would be able to have a repair rather than Tommy John reconstruction surgery because it comes with a shorter recovery window, but they weren't certain until Dr. Keith Meister performed the operation. Lynch said he, Shanahan and owner Jed York were in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, for a pre-free agency retreat when Meister called with the news that he repaired Purdy's elbow. They let out a collective sigh of relief and entered free agency with the idea that Purdy would be back and likely starting.

"That was really good news," Lynch said. "We'll see at 12 weeks; we should be able to give you a little more direction on how he's tracking."

The 12-week mark is when Purdy is expected to be able to begin throwing again. For now, he's rehabbing with physical therapist Keith Kocher in Gilbert, Arizona. Kocher has worked with throwing athletes, including many major league baseball pitchers, over the past 25 years. Purdy is still in the early stages of recovery, working on things such as range of motion, and though a six-month recovery timeline has always been assumed, Lynch hinted that Purdy could be back a bit sooner.

"I think like a lot of those things, timelines are just guidelines," Lynch said. "Every person is different. There probably is some amount of time in talking to the docs that you want to make sure you get to that point before he's out there but our hope is he's ready to go in training camp."

In part because Purdy is on a shorter timeline than the Tommy John surgery would have required, the 49ers entered free agency with no plans to take a swing at some of the bigger quarterback names -- such as Aaron Rodgers or Lamar Jackson -- floating around as available. According to Lynch, those conversations were had but the Niners opted to sign Sam Darnold to provide further depth in a quarterback room that has required plenty of it in recent seasons.

For now, Darnold joins former No. 3 overall pick Trey Lance as the only available signal-callers on the roster. Lance is coming off a broken right ankle but is expected to be cleared during organized team activities. Considering what the Niners gave up to acquire Lance -- three first-round picks and a third-round selection -- Lynch acknowledged it's fair to wonder what Purdy's ascent to presumptive starter says about how they feel about him.

"We've always said we don't care where you were drafted, if you were drafted, that's always been our stance," Lynch said. "It's what we believe in. I think both things can be true. We're still very excited about Trey but I think the way Brock played, he probably has earned that right to be the guy. But it's certainly a competition, we'll always have that. Again, these are decisions Kyle makes but I know in our discussions, this is the way we're talking."

As for potentially trading Lance, Lynch pointed out the Niners' continued need for depth at quarterback considering the injuries they've consistently suffered at the position.

"We like Trey on our team right now," Lynch said. "Kyle and I always joke we'd trade each other if someone would give us a good enough deal. So we listen to anything but we like Trey on our team. We're very excited about the way he's progressing, about his opportunity. I think he's chomping at the bit to get back out there, get back under center and be healthy again."

Until Purdy returns, Lance and Darnold will get plenty of snaps during San Francisco's offseason program and have a chance to open eyes and change minds. And while Purdy accomplished what he did in just eight starts, the Niners once signed Garoppolo to what was, at the time, the richest contract in NFL history, based off five starts. Which is to say Lynch and Shanahan believe that what Purdy showed them in his finishing flourish is sustainable.

"The way he played, the way he processed, the way he led, it was very impressive," Lynch said. "Yes, he's done it for part of one year but it's not just that he did it but the way he did it. I think that gave a lot of confidence to everybody in our building. He earned that. ... Is there room for growth? Absolutely. But he has left us all with a lot of confidence that he's a real guy and we're excited about that."

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