2021 NFL draft prospects: North Dakota State QB Trey Lance

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Eric Edholm
·7 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Eric Edholm's criteria for grading NFL draft prospects. (Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)
Eric Edholm's criteria for grading NFL draft prospects. (Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)

North Dakota State QB Trey Lance

6-foot-4, 227 pounds

Yahoo Sports draft grade: 6.20 — possible immediate starter

TL;DR scouting report: Impressive FCS passer has all the tangibles and intangibles to be a star, but inexperience and jump in competition are sticking points

Games watched: Illinois State (2019, regular season), Southern Illinois (2019), Western Illinois (2019), Missouri State (2019), Central Arkansas (2020)

The skinny: A 2-star Rivals recruit, Lance was recruited mostly by FCS schools as a quarterback. He turned down FBS offers — including from Minnesota, his first choice — to switch positions, such as to safety. Lance committed to the Bison and redshirted in 2018, appearing in only two games, completing 1 of 1 passes for 12 yards and rushing eight times for 82 yards (scoring twice on runs of 44 and 23 yards).

In 2019, Lance won the starting QB job and completed 192 of 287 passes (66.9 percent) for 2,786 yards, 28 TDs and no interceptions, and ran 169 times for 1,100 yards and 14 scores. He won the Walter Payton Award (top player in FCS), the Jerry Rice Award (top freshman in FCS) and the Missouri Valley Conference Offensive Player of the Year award while leading the Bison to a 16-0 mark and a national title.

North Dakota State postponed its fall season until the spring but played a single game vs. Central Arkansas, with Lance completing 15 of 30 attempts for 149 yards, two TDs and one INT and rushing 15 times for 143 yards and two TDs. Following the game, he declared early for the 2021 draft.

Upside: Rare combination of athleticism, arm talent, maturity and intelligence — might have as much of those qualities as any QB in this entire class. Big, thick, build. An outstanding template with which to work.

Loose, lively arm — can absolutely thread it. Could possess the best raw arm talent of anyone in this class. Not too many throws he can’t attempt. Ball shoots off his hand beautifully. Rips it outside the numbers like a confident, seasoned pro. Can be an elite thrower with even more velocity with a few mechanical adjustments.

Mature player for his age. Made checks and protection changes at the line as a 19-year-old redshirt freshman in a championship program. Operated a multiple offense with a deep playbook that varied personnel, concepts and formations quite a bit. Showed some ability to go through progressions and make NFL-style reads and adjustments.

Elusive when pressure closes in. Can slide in the pocket and step up well amid the rush. Throws well on the move and can carve up man defenses as a scrambler. Great play-action passer who carries out his fakes well. Works well with a moving pocket and is dangerous outside the pocket.

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - AUGUST 31:  Quarterback Trey Lance #5 of the North Dakota State Bison looks to pass against the Butler Bulldogs during their game at Target Field on August 31, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  (Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images)
North Dakota State QB Trey Lance has the goods to be special in time. (Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images)

Took care of the ball — zero interceptions in 2019. Didn’t throw too many balls in harm’s way. Not many cringeworthy plays on his tape. Balances a healthy aggression with smart caretaking. Tucks the ball well as a runner and will switch hands.

Terrific runner with strength and burst. Featured as a major arm of the Bison’s run game — draws, counters, power, you name it. Dangerous pulling it and running from the shotgun. Creative and smart scrambler. Tough after contact and can pinball off tackle attempts. Adds a new dimension to an offense.

Character and intelligence have received very high marks from evaluators. Unselfish, team-first player with natural charisma. Has all the tools an NFL starting quarterback needs. Won all 17 collegiate starts. Comes from a program whose past two starting quarterbacks – Carson Wentz and Easton Stick – are currently on NFL rosters. His biggest weaknesses can be coached out. Won’t turn 21 until after the draft.

Downside: Highly inexperienced — almost certainly not ready for immediate starting duty. Only 17 college starts at the FCS level — and just one in 2020, in a showcase game vs. Central Arkansas. Fewer than 400 career dropbacks and only 319 pass attempts (plus 154 rushes). Six fumbles in 662 career snaps — a touch on the high side. Could need an entire “redshirt” season.

Struggled throwing in his only 2020 appearance — first college INT, 50 percent completions (with two drops and no throwaways). Wasn’t asked to throw that often in college — only two games with more than 25 pass attempts. Ran fairly basic passing concepts with some predetermined reads or half-field reads. Gun shy at times attacking man coverage, especially in the middle of the field.

Lacks great precision right now. Limits YAC opportunities by not leading his receivers, overshooting it or hitting their cleats with some throws — close enough to be caught but not on the money. Occasionally bricks a few layups. Deep accuracy is scattershot — completed only 37.7 percent of throws 20-plus yards in 2019 and threw his one pick on his only deep attempt in 2020.

Clunky mechanics at the top of his drops — slower operation than it should be. Gets straight up and down and loses power to drive the ball. Has a little hop in his drop as he transitions to throw — needs to be cleaned up to prevent losing timing, accuracy and rhythm. Can’t always manipulate different arm angles. (To be fair, some of these issues appeared cleaner at his pro day positional drills).

Throwing operation could be sped up a tick — not slow, but not as fast as others. Will go heavy on the mustard on some throws when more touch is preferred. Bit of a see-it-throw-it passer now — a little more anticipation needs to come as he develops. Will bail out of the pocket after one read here and there.

Exposes himself to some hits as a runner. Could do a better job protecting himself. Not a natural slider yet.

Can he rally his team back? We don’t know — only 41 dropbacks while trailing in his entire college career. Trailed in only nine of 182 possessions in the 2019 season. Didn’t convert many third-and-long situations. Played ahead of the sticks a lot.

Best-suited destination: Wherever Lance lands, whether it’s San Francisco at 3 or lower, he needs to be insulated. Expecting a 21-year old with so little experience to come in and start Day 1 could be a recipe for disaster. We’d love to see him receiver extensive preseason snaps and be treated similarly to Patrick Mahomes was as a rookie, with a veteran starting Year 1 (or most of Year 1) and then being allowed to start.

But that in no way is a knock against Lance’s future upside. He appears to have all the qualities a successful QB needs and could be a Pro Bowl level talent, even as soon as two or three years from now. There will be lumps along the way, but he’s got the heart and raw talent to be special.

Did you know: Lance’s father, Carlton, played football and ran track at Southwest Minnesota State, where he’s in the school’s Athletics Hall of Honor. The former cornerback spent time on the offseason rosters of the Houston Oilers and also spent a year each with the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders (where he ran back a pick and a fumble for a TD) in 1993 and in the World League’s London Monarchs in 1995.

Carlton Lance spent two weeks on the Niners’ training-camp roster in 1994, and he likes to joke that he was replaced by Deion Sanders.

Player comp: It’s by no means an exact comp, but we could see Lance winning in the same ways Josh Allen does. Lance also has some Steve McNair-like elements to his game.

Expected draft range: Top-10 pick and as high as No. 3