Futures: NDSU QB Trey Lance
After this past year, it is only fitting to kick off the 2021 Futures series with the least normal quarterback prospect in the class. Only one of this year's top four quarterbacks did not play a full season in 2020. Only one of them has just one year of starting experience. Only one of them did not play at the FBS level. And yet, the very same quarterback to check all three boxes may have the most raw physical talent of the four. That's right, it is North Dakota State's Trey Lance.
Lance only got to play one game in 2020, which was a nonsense showcase game against Central Arkansas put together for no other reason than to say Lance played a game this year. The 20-year-old did not put his best foot forward in that lone game, completing roughly half his passes. The entire concept of that game was unnecessary, but it is easy to see how Lance could slip from the spotlight in a class that also features long-standing stars in Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields, as well as 2020 breakout stud Zach Wilson.
As expected of a one-year FCS starter, the overwhelming selling point with Lance is potential. Lance sports a sturdy 6-foot-4, 227-pound frame and has a bazooka for a right arm. Both in terms of throwing distance and velocity, there's a good case for Lance having the best arm strength in the class. Lance can unlock that arm strength in rhythm from inside the pocket, outside the pocket, or any number of platforms while under duress. The raw throwing talent is just mesmerizing.
For my money, though, it's all of the signs that point to Lance having a reasonably high floor that make him worth getting excited over. The flash and potential are clear, but so many of Lance's strengths on film suggest he will have solid ground to stand on early in his NFL career, even if there will be bumps along the way in his development.
Lance's athletic ability is a good sign for his floor as a player. Not only does Lance pack the punch that a player of his size should, but he's got the long speed to take one to the house from anywhere. Lance is also plenty explosive and flexible both inside and outside the pocket, making him just as lethal a scrambler as he is a designed runner. Even if Lance is not a lights-out passer right away, the fact that a team can open up the offense with some quarterback run game with him behind center is an advantage. Josh Allen's development curve in Buffalo is a great example.
North Dakota State loved this power read concept off of motion. It was one of their most common quarterback run concepts. If it looks familiar, it's because you've probably seen Cam Newton (especially at Auburn) and Lamar Jackson run similar versions of this concept. Lance reads whether the play-side defensive end (to his left) takes to the running back immediately or shuffles down the line to squeeze the hand-off exchange. The defensive end flies out wide immediately, giving Lance the look he wants to tuck this one himself. North Dakota State's pulling guard whiffs at the second level, but Lance shakes the defenders anyway before sprinting by the rest of the defense.
This is really just a zone lead with the quarterback as the ballcarrier. North Dakota State's running back fits up through the C-gap (between the left tackle and tight end) and gets a great isolated block at the second level. As designed, Lance is left with just a safety to beat and spins right behind him as the safety tries to lower his shoulder for a devastating hit, which is probably the kind of power a defender needs to take Lance down on a run like that.
Though Lance is plenty fast and agile, many of North Dakota State's designed runs were off-tackle or gap concepts like these two plays. Lance's sturdy frame and low, explosive rushing style make him an absolute menace rushing between the numbers, similar to what Dak Prescott was for Mississippi State under Dan Mullen. Zone-read and speed-option should certainly be in the playbook for Lance, but his best use as a runner is downhill. Only a handful of other quarterbacks in the league can say the same.
All of that athleticism also gives Lance the tools to operate outside the pocket. Playing from outside the pocket is more than just about being an athlete, but having the ability to shake off tacklers and break the pocket is the first step. Lance checks off that box with ease.
Young Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton, Josh Allen—whichever big, athletic, sack-evading quarterback you can think of, Lance shows shades of him here. Getting a pass-rusher right in one's face as soon as they turn around from the boot-action can be overwhelming, but Lance does not falter at all. A lot of quarterbacks just go down there, but Lance brushes it off without much trouble. It's frustrating beyond belief for a defense when they can get to the quarterback, yet fail time and time again to bring him down.
Playing from outside the pocket requires vision and arm talent too. In this clip, Lance does not have to do anything to break the pocket. There's no tackler to shake off. Lance drops his eyes momentarily to make sure he has found the best way out of the pocket, but brings them back up as soon as he is free. He continues scanning the field, working wider from the pocket as well as closer to the line of scrimmage, both keeping him away from pass-rushers and closing the distance for any possible throw. Lance eventually finds South Dakota State's flat player a bit too antsy to fly down and stop him as a runner, giving the Bison quarterback a nice target on the sideline.
Nothing about that play is necessarily jaw-dropping, but it is encouraging to see a first-year quarterback so comfortable to play off-script and find targets on the move. At just 19 years old, Lance was already plenty comfortable salvaging "broken" plays in a clean, efficient way. That same calmness amidst the chaos also shows up when Lance is confined to making throws with bodies around him in the pocket. Lance's ability to feel space, reset efficiently, and trigger in the face of pressure is outstanding. He is already an NFL-level pocket manager.
One could make the argument that Lance needs to throw the hitch to the boundary here, but my assumption is that Lance believes the slot defender is going to work through the No. 2 (inside receiver) straight to the No. 1 near the flat area. The outside cornerback bailing from an off alignment is a pretty good indication that somebody else should be covering the flats. Either way, Lance is presented with interior pressure the moment he turns back-side. Lance does an incredible job moving as little as possible to avoid the defender, regathering his base, and delivering a low strike to help protect the wide receiver from any contact. To take in all of that information and make such a thoughtful throw versus pressure is as legit an NFL-like clip you will find for any of this year's quarterbacks.
Between designed run game, play outside the pocket, and nuance within the pocket, Lance has the tools to open up an offense and create plays that may not otherwise be there. Lance possesses both the talent and the savvy to consistently produce these kinds of plays.
Where Lance can be frustrating, however, is in his accuracy on dropback passing. On the one hand, Lance proved to be a good processor for someone his age, especially with all the shifts and motions in North Dakota State's offense. Lance understands how the moving parts all fit together and does well to not put the ball in danger. Conversely, Lance too often missed his targets in the 6- to 20-yard range, even if he worked through his progressions in a timely manner. Lance knows what he needs to do, he just does not always execute.
Here's an example of what it looks like when Lance throws a clean ball. Lance starts by working front-side, but the slot receiver on the out route gets out-leveraged by the slot cornerback. Throwing the out route here is risky, and the go route to the outside is more of a pre-snap alert than anything. Knowing the defense dropped defenders off the line of scrimmage into hook zones, Lance knows the shallow is going to be taken away by the field hook player, so he skips right over to the 10-yard in route. Lance then delivers a great, timely pass to the receiver settling in right past the curl/flat defender and under the cornerback. Not much about evaluating young quarterbacks is more satisfying than watching them efficiently get to and throw their backside read.
In some ways, this concept is not too different from the last. The outside receiver front-side is running a clear-out vertical and the outside receiver from the back side is running a square-in, while the other two receivers book it into the area opened up by the clear-out vertical. Lance wants the intermediate crosser, but there is a safety poaching the area ready to drive on the route. The route looks more open than it is when the camera pans because the safety reads Lance's eyes/release and is trying to go back the other way to potentially make a tackle. Lance getting to the square-in here, with no other help over the middle, is perfectly fine.
He's got time, the target is past the sticks, and, again, there is no middle-of-the-field help. Lance leaves the ball a good yard or 2 behind his target, though. The receiver tries his best to slow up and go back for it, but there is no way he's hanging onto that one, unless he suddenly turned into Georgia Tech Calvin Johnson. Lance's process looks good right up until the throw itself. It's a baffling disconnect that shows up on Lance's film a bit too often for comfort.
Now, there are two avenues to be explored from here. One is that Lance is simply not an accurate passer. Lance had open receivers all the time at North Dakota State, yet misfires like these somehow plagued him more than one might expect. Maybe he just does not have innate accuracy. The other possibility is that Lance's inaccuracies on more fleshed-out passing concepts such as this have more to do with a lack of reps. Learning to get back-side and reset cleanly to make a throw 12 yards down the field is not as easy as the best NFL quarterbacks make it look, and it certainly should not look easy for a 19-year-old quarterback. Lance can see the play just fine, but perhaps a couple more years of starting experience could have really locked him into the execution side of things.
As put together as parts of Lance's game are, there is a compelling argument to be made that the rest can be figured out in time. That is not to say Lance will suddenly become one of the NFL's most accurate passers, but it is not a stretch to believe a player as sharp and talented as Lance could get himself well over the baseline in a couple years. It's not often a quarterback seems to "get" the position at a young age the way Lance does, yet go their entire career being incapable of completing passes at an average NFL level.
In all, there's a lot to admire about Lance's game. He is a prototype athlete and arm talent with evidence of nuance that suggests he is worth investing in. It makes perfect sense that a player with as unique a profile as Lance's would be QB4 behind Lawrence, Fields, and Wilson, but whoever buys in on Lance is taking a good bet. Lance is a swing for the fences worth taking.