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NDSU’s Trey Lance looks to prove he’s an exception to the rule

Is NDSU's Trey Lance an exception to the rule?
Photo Credit: ANTHONY SOUFFLE/ STAR TRIBUNE

When the Missouri Valley Football Conference postponed their 2020 college football season, football fans were naturally disappointed because it meant there was a real possibility that North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance may not take another snap for the Bison. This is obviously disappointing in NFL scouting circles, too, as all eyes were to be transfixed on Lance, who turned many heads with a staggering 28-0 TD-INT ratio and a perfect 16-0 record as a redshirt freshman.

NFL scouts have fallen in love with Lance’s tape from last season. However, with only one season under his belt and his college future in doubt, Lance has a decision to make. PFN Chief Draft Analyst Tony Pauline stated last month:

If the start of all FCS football is pushed back to the spring, one player we are unlikely to see on the field is North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance. Sources say if the season is delayed, there’s a good chance that Lance bypasses the season with NDSU in order to prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft.”

Trey Lance’s one-game 2020 showcase game Saturday against Central Arkansas

Luckily, we will get a chance to see Lance take the field one final time in the fall on Saturday against Central Arkansas, where he will play one of the few FCS teams who have played fall football. Matching up against one of the best cornerbacks in the FCS in UCA’s Robert Rochell, Lance will have another opportunity to showcase his talents against premier FCS competition.

All eyes will be on this one, as this could be Lance’s final game in a Bison uniform. Scouts will want to see Lance basically do it again. Take care of the football, make big plays with his arm and his legs, and show off improved accuracy.

There were several games last year where Lance’s completion percentage dipped under 60%. I do think this is a game where Lance is going to want to show he can be a high-volume passer. The most passes he’s ever thrown in a game was 31, and in his last showing, he went 6-of-10 for 72 yards. While it’s efficient, another statline like that against Central Arkansas would result in more questions than answers for Lance. This has to be a game where he raises his NFL Draft stock.

While Lance will be the main draw on Saturday, this is a huge opportunity for other North Dakota State players as well. Wide receiver Christian Watson is trying to be the first North Dakota State wide receiver drafted since 1985. Offensive tackle Dillon Radunz is one of the best tackles in the country and will be looking to put together a strong performance protecting Lance while the eyes of the scouting world are on his quarterback.

The Bill Parcells’ Rules

With only one season potentially under his belt before he declares, what is Trey Lance’s potential as a prospect? To get a better glimpse at this, I decided to cross-reference the traits that Lance displayed on tape with Bill Parcells’ quarterback evaluation rules.

Well-renowned head coach Bill Parcells was an outstanding evaluator of talent during his tenure with the New York Giants, New England Patriots, New York Jets, and Dallas Cowboys. Bill Parcells scooped up talents like Willie McGinest, Ty Law, Curtis Martin, Terrance Newman, Jason Witten, DeMarcus Ware, as well as quarterbacks Drew Bledsoe and Tony Romo, and was an influential figure in the development of NFL Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor.

Parcells’ draft philosophy has been disseminated throughout the years, and most notably of all of these was Parcells’ rules for quarterbacks. Parcells’ rules are a little dated but are important to know as they give an insight into how some NFL teams will scout quarterbacks. His rules/guidelines are:

  1. He must be a senior because you need time and maturity to develop into a good professional quarterback.
  2. The QB must be a graduate because you want someone who takes his responsibilities seriously.
  3. He must be a three-year starter, because you need to make sure his success wasn’t ephemeral and that he has lived as “the guy” for some period of time.
  4. The QB must have at least 23 wins because the big passing numbers must come in the context of winning games.

There are three other addendums that I have seen added to these. They are as follows:

5. Started 30 games.

6. Post a 60% or better completion percentage

7. Post a 2:1 or better TD-INT ratio

Related | Examining Trey Lance’s best NFL fits

What do these rules have to do with Trey Lance and his ability as a prospect? Lance doesn’t meet a single one of the original four rules, and only meets 2/7 total criteria. Some notable recent quarterbacks who have only met two rules are Mitchell Trubisky, DeShone Kizer, Dwayne Haskins, Sam Darnold, Kyler Murray, Tua Tagovailoa, and Patrick Mahomes.

While the jury is still out on Haskins, Tagovailoa, and Darnold at the NFL level, Mahomes and Murray have emerged as two of the most exciting quarterbacks in the league while Trubisky and Kizer have been given the bust label. All of these quarterbacks have failed all of the Parcells’ rules except for rules six and seven.

These rules have some pretty polarizing results on the spectrum, but in the case of NDSU’s Trey Lance, which side will he fall on? To answer that, I took to the tape and decided to compare Lance to each of these quarterbacks in some key areas that I look for.

Tale of the Tape: How NDSU’s Trey Lance stacks up to the top

Every offseason, it’s important to examine the guys at the top of their position in the NFL to have their skillsets in mind when watching prospects in the upcoming draft. For this piece, I dove back into my notes on Mahomes and Murray in college to see what traits they had that were similar to Lance as a prospect. A few critical traits stood out to me that all three of these guys share.

One of the biggest traits I look for is a quarterback’s ability to make plays happen outside of the normal structure. When the play breaks down and the bodies are flying, how well can he handle it and deliver a positive play out of it? Some people refer to it as “playmaking ability”, others simply “ability under pressure, and some as just “poise”. It’s a pretty big chunk of my grading scale, and it’s a part of why I dislike many “game managers” because they can’t handle that area.

This separates the good from the great/elite at the quarterback position. Quarterbacks like Tom Brady have a phenomenal feel for the pocket and his footwork guides him away from pressure despite a lack of athleticism. Mahomes, on the other hand, does the boot scooting boogie around defenders in the backfield before uncorking a 50-yard strike downfield. Either way, they make plays when it counts and remains unfazed by defenders.

Related | Quarterback Charting: Competition level clouds Trey Lance potential

Lance with Mahomes and Kyler Murray?

Mahomes, Murray, and Lance all excel in this area as quarterbacks. A key difference I noticed between Mahomes and Murray versus Lance was that Mahomes and Murray put the team on their back on several occasions, something Lance didn’t really have to do a whole lot. Mahomes and Murray were often involved in shootout games or played from behind, while North Dakota State outscored their opponents by nearly 400 points last season.

Lance only averaged roughly 18 passes per game in 2019, while Mahomes averaged 42 in his career and Murray averaged 27 in his one season as the full-time starter at Oklahoma. Granted, each scheme is different but the sample size in this area is moderately concerning. Lance also rarely dealt with pressure against FCS defenses, so his ability off-script in that aspect was seldom shown.

Off of traits alone however, it’s easy to gauge the similarities between the three of them. All three of these guys are outstanding athletes, which lets them escape pressure with ease.

 

Each of the three are exceptional passers downfield. We know the prowess of Mahomes and Murray on deep throws, but Lance is no slouch in this area either. From his charting, fellow PFN Draft Analyst Dalton Miller noted that Lance posted a 65% completion rate on throws that went 20+ yards downfield last season. That’s an extraordinarily high number, although it does come on a limited sample size.

The physical talent of NDSU’s Trey Lance is undeniable and up there with some of the best in recent memory. He’s well-built and athletic with a fantastic arm. Lance’s throwing is mechanically smooth and controlled. Much like Mahomes and Murray, Lance can make every throw in the book.

Yet, as we all know, talent isn’t the only guiding factor with these decisions. In the NFL, everyone is talented. The critical portion is his mental ability, and that’s where Lance’s ability might come into question.

Lance’s inexperience reminiscent of Trubisky/Kizer

Trubisky and Kizer were both very talented quarterbacks. The issue with both of those guys was never talent. However, both fell short of the experience portion of the Bill Parcells’ rules, and that’s evidence by their NFL careers. Kizer was cut from the Cleveland Browns after an 0-16 record and Trubisky has been the butt of many jokes for his play with the Chicago Bears. Is it such a critical factor that these players must be experienced? If so, why were Mahomes and Murray exceptions to the rule?

Mahomes wasn’t perfect in this aspect in college coming from Kliff Kingsbury’s air-raid offense. His progressions, while quick, were often locked onto the big play. His timing, accuracy, and decision-making were good but far from where they are now. Mahomes got several benefits many first-round picks don’t get.

He was able to sit a year behind Alex Smith, one of the NFL’s most cerebral quarterbacks and a great leader, and has Andy Reid as his head coach. The team built a supporting cast around him. He wasn’t immediately thrown out into the fire as a rookie.

Murray immediately started as a rookie with Kingsbury in charge. However, despite his exciting style of play, even Murray had some short-comings as a rookie. His post-snap processing and pocket discipline was an issue at Oklahoma, and they persisted last year with Arizona. Could a full season behind an experienced vet have helped him as well?

The comparison with Trubisky and Kizer

Trubisky and Kizer were virtually thrown to the wolves as rookies and it clearly showed in their play. Trubisky went 4-8 as a starter his rookie year and had only 7 touchdowns in 12 games. Head coach John Fox was subsequently fired. Mike Glennon wasn’t the right mentor for Trubisky either, and head coach Matt Nagy hasn’t been able to fix Trubisky yet either.

Trubisky was also throwing to the likes of Dontrelle Inman, Kendall Wright, Kevin White, and Dion Sims as well. Fox forced Trubisky into a totally different scheme than one he ran in college to great success, which inevitably hindered his development and confidence. When reading quotes from scouts and NFL personnel about Trubisky as a prospect, they all said virtually the same thing: “I love the talent, but his inexperience is cause for alarm.”

Head coach Hue Jackson threw out every veteran quarterback on the Browns’ roster. RG3 was cut and Osweiler was shipped out immediately. They were replaced by Cody Kessler and Kevin Hogan, who each only had one year of NFL experience at that time. Kizer then went on to finish 0-16, threw 11 touchdowns to 22 interceptions, and was subsequently traded at the end of the season.

Does Parcells’ rule of experience matter? Even looking at the play of Darnold and Haskins, both have had an up-and-down career so far in the NFL. These issues with experience have come up to bite quarterbacks and teams at the NFL level without proper development. Cam Newton also only started one season at the FBS level and his development took years before his MVP season. Maybe Parcells was onto something.

How does the past impact Trey Lance’s outlook?

What does this mean for NDSU’s Trey Lance? You can bet that the inexperience argument will arise in any team looking to draft him. I’ve alluded to his level of competition throughout this article, and it is a *very* important piece of the discussion. Of all the teams NDSU played, they all combined to have just one, yes, ONE defensive player drafted in Southern Illinois’ safety Jeremy Chinn.

The entire FCS had two defensive players drafted in the 2020 NFL Draft. That’s it. Lance isn’t playing NFL-caliber talent on a regular basis, unlike the aforementioned quarterbacks above. His best bet would have been this season against the Oregon secondary, but with the season canceled, he loses that opportunity.

NDSU was simply better than every team they played, and Lance was never really asked to shoulder the load for the Bison as a passer. NDSU ran the ball on 700 plays versus 303 total passes (287 of which belonged to Lance). Lance ran a mostly simple offense that didn’t require him to go through the full field of progressions often. His progressions lasted on half-field reads, and if something wasn’t there, he had the athleticism to tuck and run for a first or throw it away.

This worked more often than not, as Lance is just simply the best player on the field, but it caused him to take several unnecessary hits. At the NFL level, that won’t fly. He’ll be forced to make his reads quicker. The pass-rush is several times faster and more effective. The coverage is several times tighter and the tackling will be several times harder. All around, it’s more of an obstacle to overcome.

Related | 2021 NFL Draft: Best landing spots for top prospects

Teams have every right to be concerned about his lack of experience and level of competition. Quarterbacks have the ability to control job security. Not nailing the pick can often doom a general manager and head coach’s job. These things will play a part in his NFL evaluation.

Should Trey Lance declare? How can he make it at the NFL level?

For NDSU’s Lance, the NFL decision is both complex and simple. Complex in the fact that he could *theoretically* improve his stock with another season under his belt, yet simple in the fact that so many things could go wrong if he does stay. There are a few things he could do to improve his stock, but several that could tank it. NFL scouts have been raving about his potential, with NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah even dropping the Andrew Luck comparison. Go out while your stock is high.

What needs to happen for Lance to reach his NFL potential if he decides to declare? His physical talent will be enough to get him drafted early in the first round, but it will all depend on the surrounding situation for him (like most quarterbacks). If you look at the current draft odds going off of the Super Bowl betting lines, teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets, and Las Vegas Raiders are all picking top-10, while teams such as the Chicago Bears are in the top-20. All of these teams could potentially need a quarterback in the draft next year, and that’s without considering a team trading up.

Related | Farabaugh’s 4-round 2021 NFL Mock Draft

In my eyes, the best place for Lance to end up at the NFL level is at a stable NFL team with a veteran quarterback on the roster and talent around him. There are a few teams that stand out in a big way: The Las Vegas Raiders, Minnesota Vikings, Pittsburgh Steelers, Indianapolis Colt, and Carolina Panthers. The Atlanta Falcons would also make sense behind Matt Ryan.

Each of these teams has an experienced veteran that would be ahead of Lance that can help his development. They all have talent around him that can help ease the burden of being a young starter in the NFL. Pairing Lance with an offensive coordinator like Gary Kubiak or Joe Brady would be excellent for his development as well.

Can Trey Lance break the rules?

Lance, on a physical platform, has one of the highest ceilings of any quarterback in recent memory. He can make any NFL-level throw, can fit the ball into tight windows, throw with excellent touch downfield, and is great at improvising and making positive plays. His ability as a runner is second to none. The accuracy as a pure drop-back passer isn’t excellent, however, and must be fine-tuned.

Despite being incredibly talented, Lance must retrofit his mental game and fix his accuracy in order to reach his NFL potential. He has to prove that he can shoulder the load of being a high-volume passer. He must prove that his mental acuity is more a product of his environment than his ability. Lance is a stereotypical “boom or bust” quarterback. If he can match his mental acuity with his jaw-dropping physical gifts, there’s nothing stopping Lance. Time will tell.

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