SANTA CLARA – Kyler Murray didn’t suddenly morph from a top draft pick into an undefeated, MVP candidate.
It took him years. OK, maybe only two years. And now he’s humming along as the Arizona Cardinals (4-0) sit atop the NFC and welcome in the 49ers (2-2) Sunday.
Wide receiver Trent Sherfield was in Arizona for Murray’s NFL infancy. Now, Sherfield is on the 49ers, watching No. 3 overall draft pick Trey Lance begin an expected, similar ascent.
“He’s going to have to take some time to learn, just like everyone does in this league,” Sherfield said of Lance, who could make his starting debut Sunday. “I do truly believe his ceiling is very, very high, because he takes his craft seriously.”
This is not to compare Murray vs. Lance. This is to explain the learning process ahead of Lance, one that Murray endured en route to this breakout season with a stronger supporting cast.
Lance was to take his time learning in Jimmy Garoppolo’s shadow. Things happen, as the 49ers anticipated.
So Lance’s first career start could be on tap if Garoppolo’s calf injury last Sunday sidelines him, as expected; Garoppolo may test his leg in today’s walk-through session.
Lance will be prepared, regardless.
“He’s here late. He’s in the film room late. He’s doing all the right things to put himself in position,” Sherfield said. “He’s 21 years old, and the guy can play football.
“He’s going to be really, really good. His ceiling is very, very high. You guys got a glimpse of that last week.”
Garoppolo’s calf strain kept him from returning after halftime, thrusting Lance into his first extensive action as a pro in an eventual 28-21 loss to Seattle.
“He didn’t have but few minutes to get his mind right,” left tackle Trent Williams said. “He handled it pretty well. He looked like he was ready for the moment. It didn’t look like a shocker to him or that he was timid in any way.
“He has a confident aura around him where you believe him the more you’re around him.”
MURRAY’S HOT START
It was a learning process for Murray, the 2019 No. 1 pick, as much as it was for coach Kliff Kingsbury. Together, they’ve learned to maximize Arizona’s Air Raid offense with more firepower, from center Rodney Hudson to wide receivers A.J. Green and Rondale Moore (while bidding farewell to franchise icon Larry Fitzgerald, as well as the seldom-used Sherfield).
“Schematically, they’re doing a good job of getting the ball in the playmakers hands and you’re not seeing Kyler try to do it all himself as he kind of did in the past, whether it’s trying to take off and run,” 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said.
“Kyler is very, very comfortable now,” Sherfield added. “He’s seen a lot of the different looks. It just takes time. That’s the main reason, because of time.”
Murray is a dual-threat wonder with blazing speed. His passing is where he’s made noticeable strides. His completion percentage has climbed from 64.4 percent as a rookie, to 67.2 percent in 2020, to a NFL-best 76.1 percent this year (with nine touchdowns and four interceptions).
“He’s been really good since he came in,” Nick Bosa said. “He’s just being a little smarter with the ball. He’s always been good at protecting himself and running, but not taking hits. He’s still doing that. It’s always a challenge.”
SO, NO COMPARISON?
Physically, Murray and Lance are dissimilar, even if they’re potent playmakers with their legs, arms — and heads, as they mentally adjust to the NFL’s schemes and speed.
Murray, 24, is 5-foot-10, 207 pounds. “Kyler is really natural when it comes to throwing the ball and running around,” Sherfield said.
Lance, 21, is 6-4, 224. “Trey, he’s a bigger body. But Trey can move, he isn’t slow. Trey legitimately has 4.4 speed,” Sherfield said. “That’s what a lot of people don’t know. He can make you miss in space. We talk about lateral quickness. I’ve seen it.”
Disclaimer: Lance’s first touchdown pass — on his first pass in the 49ers’ season opener — went to Sherfield, whose only touchdown in his Cardinals’ career came as a rookie in December 2018 (from Mike Glennon).
Lance is surrounded by no shortage of mentors, beyond Shanahan, offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel, quarterbacks coach Rich Scangarello and pass-game coordinator Bobby Slowick. Garoppolo and Nate Sudfeld have also been key tutors, Sherfield testified.
“I try to be as ready as possible, prepare that way during the week,” Lance said said. “So I obviously felt confidence in myself and my teammates.”
Murray’s backups in 2019-20: Brett Hundley and Chris Streveler. This year: Streveler and Colt McCoy.
“Kyler really didn’t have an older guy behind him to help him navigate,” Sherfield said. “Kyler and Trey are two totally different players.”
Murray’s strides as a starting quarterback (5-10-1 in 2019; 8-8 in 2020; 4-0 this year) have the 49ers on high alert after losing to Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Seattle’s Russell Wilson. Murray is 1-3 against the 49ers.
“One of the quickest, fastest quarterbacks I’ve ever seen,” Ryans said of Murray. “Very talented guy, and they surrounded him with a lot of playmakers, which makes it a very difficult offense to defend.”
The lofty draft status and extreme athleticism is something Murray shares with Lance. Their offensive systems are different. The Cardinals’ Air Raid will deploy three, four and five receivers. The 49ers’ passing scheme is predicated by a play-action element, although long-time NFL observers suspect it might resemble what Shanahan used for Robert Griffin III in Washington a decade ago.
“It’ still read-option, so to speak, but there’s not a lot of parallels you can draw from 2012 to now,” said Williams, who played in Washington. “Kyle was 30 then, a second-year coordinator. Now the scheme is way more intricate.”
There’s only way to find that out for sure: once Lance starts, perhaps down a similar road as Murray.