There will be questions about the body of work (17 college starts) as well as the level of play (FCS) when it comes to North Dakota State’s immensely gifted quarterback, Trey Lance.
But now that Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel broke the news that Lance will forgo his remaining eligibility and enter the 2021 NFL draft, there will also be talk — from here until April — of just how high this gifted passer’s ceiling is as a prospect.
That talk really has been in full swing since this past spring when evaluators we spoke to were downright giddy about Lance’s upside. We think he will be a top-10 selection, possibly even in the top five, in the spring when it’s all said and done.
Surpassing Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence as a prospect appears too much of a reach for us. But it wouldn’t be stunning to see him selected before Ohio State’s Justin Fields even, assuming Fields also declares for next year’s draft.
Why such a lofty projection for a player with so few games? One reason: Lance already plays like a refined prospect, even with the caveats of experience and competition.
“He could have played anywhere in the country, that’s pretty clear,” a senior NFL talent evaluator told Yahoo Sports in August about Lance. “Natural throwing motion, great touch, athleticism, feet, even pocket sense and feel — the star qualities are all there.”
More than anything, Lance’s play seems to belie his age. He turned 20 years old in May, and yet Lance plays like someone who has started 20 or more games at an FBS school because of how patient and polished he looks most of the time.
Adjusting to the NFL shouldn’t be a mental hurdle he’ll struggle with more than most rookies.
“You watch him, and this is a complex offense they’re running,” the evaluator continued. “They’re not dumbing things down for a freshman. If anything, they’re opening things up to fit his skill level and understanding of it all. I give that staff a lot of credit, especially for a first-time head coach [Matt Entz].”
Stacking up Lance’s limited body of work
In Lance’s 17 career starts in college — including last week’s one-off game against Central Arkansas — he completed 207 of 317 passes (65.3 percent) for 2,935 yards, with a 30-1 TD-INT ratio. And he was just as dangerous as a runner, rushing 184 times for 1,243 yards (6.8-yard average) and 16 TDs.
The majority of that production came during a championship run last season, as the Bison took the FCS title in a 16-0 season. Lance’s next loss as a starting QB will be his first since high school, where he was a Wing-T QB and safety.
Purely for as close to an apples-to-apples comparison as we can make, here are the numbers fellow North Dakota State QB Carson Wentz put up in his final 17 college starts in parts of his 2014 and 2015 seasons: 251 of 403 passing (62.3 percent) for 3,326 yards, with a 34-10 TD-INT ratio; and 150 rushes for 744 yards (5.0 average) and 11 scores.
Wentz, the progenitor of the Bison’s NFL QB chain (which continued with now Chargers QB Easton Stick), is a bit of a touchy subject in NFL circles these days. He seemingly has regressed — or failed to progress — in Year 5.
And truthfully, Lance shares some of Wentz’s physical traits: namely in his loose, strong arm; a chiseled, pro-ready, athletic frame; a willingness to hang tough in the pocket; and a real toughness as a runner.
Too often for our taste, in fact, Lance will barrel through defenders and leave himself exposed to hits. He also can stand to perform a bit better when pressure closes in. Lance plays with a cool demeanor, but there are times when he’s almost too calm back there. And there are times when he drifts as he throws, something the mechanically wild Wentz will do too often.
But all that said, Lance has a ceiling that exceeds Wentz’s, we believe. If he lands in the right situation, with the right coaching staff that is willing to develop him appropriately, Lance could be a star in this league.
Some NFL comparisons
There are times when he throws some Russell Wilson-esque deep balls, rainbow arc and all, that drop perfectly into his receiver’s hands. Other times, Lance will look like Dak Prescott out there, running and gunning his way down the field. And there even have been young Andrew Luck comparisons with Lance, with NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah leading that parade.
If you can get over the experience and competition level, Lance’s future is downright alluring. But for teams that are not confident they have the right teachers, weapons and succession plan in place, Lance’s development could be derailed if he sits too short or too long.
In the end, though, there’s just too much to work with for Lance not to be a high pick in the spring. He’s a perfect specimen for the modern NFL, which is dictated and dominated by great quarterback play from passers with diverse skill sets.
Now comes the question: Which daring franchise, aware of the risks, will take a shot on him? Picking this player as high as he figures to be taken won’t be left to the circumspect.
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