NFL.com analyst and former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah takes a "first look" at some of college football's top players for 2020. This is the 12th in a series of scouting reports that will run throughout the offseason.
When it comes to developing NFL quarterbacks, a few schools jump to the front of my mind: USC, Oklahoma and North Dakota State. Wait, what? Yes, North Dakota State! The Bison have dominated the FCS for the last decade, and their two previous starting quarterbacks emerged as NFL draft picks. After being selected No. 2 overall by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2016, Carson Wentz has emerged as a top-tier NFL starter. His successor at NDSU, Easton Stick, was picked by the Los Angeles Chargers in the fifth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. I believe their current starter, Trey Lance, has the potential to be the best of the bunch. Here's my scouting report on the redshirt sophomore.
Height, weight: 6-foot-3, 224 pounds (school measurements).
2019 statistics: 192 of 287 (66.9 percent) for 2,786 yards, 28 TDs and 0 INTs; 169 carries for 1,100 yards (6.5 average), 14 TDs.
Game tape watched: Delaware (Sept. 14, 2019), UC Davis (Sept. 21, 2019), Nicholls (Dec. 7, 2019).
What I liked: When I evaluate quarterbacks, I try to narrow my focus to these five key areas: poise, accuracy, decision-making, play-making ability and toughness. After studying the aforementioned three games, I can confidently state that Lance is off the charts in all five areas. Let's look at each of them individually:
- Poise: This is the most important trait for a quarterback, in my opinion. How do you perform when under pressure or in critical moments? When everything around you speeds up, do you have the ability to slow down and remain calm? Lance never looks rattled. He calmly and smoothly sidesteps pocket pressure while keeping his eyes downfield. He excels on third downs and in the red zone, always making the proper decision.
- Accuracy: I say this all the time: Do not get caught up in completion percentage when evaluating accuracy. Lance completed nearly 67 percent of his passes, which is impressive, but the tape showed he was even more accurate than that number indicates. His ball placement is excellent. He really trusts his eyes and throws with anticipation, which allows his receivers better opportunities to run after the catch. He can layer the ball in the middle of the field (over linebackers and under safeties) and he excels on bucket throws (deep balls over the top).
- Decision-making: I've never evaluated a draft prospect with this stat line: 28 touchdowns, 0 interceptions. You read that correctly. He had zero interceptions. When I saw that number, I expected to find an overly cautious player on tape. That wasn't the case, though. He is selectively aggressive. When there are big-play opportunities, he lets it rip and will fit the ball in tight quarters. However, he's very content to take his checkdown options if nothing emerges down the field. He makes full-field reads, and he's very quick to get to his third option before delivering the ball to the proper location.
- Play-making ability: Here are the two questions I ask myself when evaluating this skill/trait: 1) Can you make something happen when the play breaks down? 2) Can you use your legs to pick up yards when the defense provides you with those opportunities? Lance can do both, and he does it effortlessly. He has outstanding instincts to avoid and create from the pocket and excels on designed quarterback options/runs. He's very athletic and generates big plays because of it.
- Toughness: I noticed Lance's toughness mostly when he was used as a runner. He ran over a safety on the way to the end zone in the UC Davis game. He's very strong/sturdy, and he doesn't shy away from contact. I saw the same things from Wentz during his time in Fargo.
Where he needs to improve: More than anything else, Lance just needs to play more snaps. He has started for only one season. I was really looking forward to watching him play against a very talented Oregon defense this fall, but that game has been canceled. The lack of big-time competition might bother some evaluators, but I'm comfortable with what I've seen thus far. Aside from that, there is one mechanical thing he can adjust and improve on. Occasionally, he will fall off the mound on throws to his left. His front side opens up too early and his placement can be affected. That is very easily correctable.
Biggest takeaway: I was shocked at the maturity in Lance's game. It's uncommon to see a redshirt senior demonstrate this type of control and mastery of a system. Lance was a redshirt freshman! He does a wonderful job staying in the moment and executing. I didn't expect to see such a polished player at this stage of his development.
He reminds me of: Andrew Luck. I know Luck is a little bit bigger, but they are similar athletes and they both played with a maturity beyond their age at the collegiate level. I remember watching Luck run over defenders. I also remember being so impressed with his ability to execute on key plays in every game. I see the same things when I study Lance. More than anything else, these are two guys who exude confidence on the field. They are fearless, but they avoid being reckless. That's a very delicate balance. Luck was on his way to a Hall of Fame career before shocking the football world and retiring a year ago. I don't have quite the same grade on Lance, but he could get there with continued growth and development.