COVID-19 continues to bring unique sports experiences to our lives, the latest of which was a one-game quarterback scouting combine in Fargo, North Dakota Saturday afternoon. Instead of roaming the Northwestern sidelines as I usually would on a college football Saturday, I found myself in my living room watching a North Dakota State broadcast on ESPN+ -- complete with a halftime interview with the president a farm seed company.
(The soybean yields this year are above average, by the way.)
Alabama and Texas A&M may have been playing simultaneously, but like the 20 NFL teams that reportedly sent scouts to Fargo Saturday, I was more interested in watching North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance, who should be a first-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft if he chooses to leave school early.
The Chicago Bears were one of the 20 NFL teams represented at the game against Central Arkansas, which was Lance’s only game this fall. Due to NDSU’s conference schedule getting moved to the spring, the team decided to play one non-conference game this fall, giving Lance one opportunity to build on the 16 starts he made as a redshirt freshman in 2019.
With 31-year-old Nick Foles officially taking over as the Bears starting quarterback Sunday at Soldier Field, it’s entirely possible that general manager Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy will be searching for the team’s next quarterback project in the 2021 NFL Draft. They’ll be equipped with a first-round pick for the first time since trading for Khalil Mack in 2018, and while Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence figures to be long gone by the time the Bears go on the clock, an FCS quarterback like Lance could be a realistic option.
Scouting a quarterback off one game is incredibly shortsighted, but Lance was on my radar last year (more on that in a minute) and since he was only going to play in one game in 2020, it was a must-watch event for me. With that in mind, here’s what I know about Trey Lance and what I saw Saturday as the Bison won their 38th straight game with a 39-28 win over Central Arkansas:
Listed at 6-4, 226 this season, it wouldn’t surprise me if Lance measures in a little shorter by the NFL. Still, he’s plenty big to play the position at the next level with a thick frame that is hard to bring down. One of the knocks on Deshaun Watson was that he had a thin frame. Lance plays a lot like Watson, but is built more like Dak Prescott.
It’s ridiculous. As a redshirt freshman in 2019, all Lance did was go 16-0, win a national championship, complete 66.9 percent of his passes, throw for 2,786 yards, throw for 28 touchdowns and run for 14 more.
Oh, and he didn’t throw a single interception. That’s right. Lance went into his 17th career college game Saturday with zero interceptions.
As someone who closely followed Carson Wentz’s and Easton Stick’s careers at North Dakota State, that’s why Lance was already on my radar as a redshirt freshman. He's probably better.
Lance can run, but he’s also twitchy and can shed tackles with his strength. It’s a pretty deadly combination. The arm is plenty strong and while I still think there’s something to prove with the accuracy, you can’t really quibble with a guy with zero interceptions in a full college football season, even at the FCS level. Another strength is the offense in which he plays. The Bison huddle, they run plays under center with play-action, and they run plays out of the shotgun. They run the ball and the tight ends are heavily involved. It’s not a very exotic offense, but it translates to the NFL and, quite honestly, there are similarities to what the Bears have been running in 2020.
Lance also has no red flags off the field and he’s considered to be very good leader on the team. There are no concerns about his makeup and character.
The level of competition is No. 1. The Bison have turned into an FBS-caliber program that is still playing at the FCS level. They’ve won eight national titles in nine years and Saturday’s win was their 38th in a row. Lance gets credit for keeping the momentum going, but he’s also playing in a powerhouse program against mostly inferior competition. Also, while the offense does translate to the NFL, North Dakota State kept it pretty basic in Lance’s first season and he’ll likely jump to the NFL with only 17 college starts. That leaves a relatively small sample size to evaluate, not unlike Mitch Trubisky’s 13 college starts.
The first half of Saturday’s game was a tough watch. Lance wasn’t great throwing the ball and neither offense was terribly exciting. Playing in their first and only game of 2020, NDSU’s offense looked out of sync. Lance looked hesitant early and held onto the ball too long, which led to an early fumble lost.
As the game went on, Lance left little doubt about his running abilities, running for 143 yards, including a 54-yard touchdown run to open up the third quarter. There’s no doubt that part of his game will translate to the NFL, even if the defenders are bigger and faster at the next level.
But Lance threw his first career interception in the third quarter, leading the defender to a pass up the seam. His intended receiver looked over one shoulder while the ball went towards the other, but either way, Lance telegraphed the throw. Overall, he finished the game just 15-for-30 for 149 passing yards, but threw for two touchdowns and his best throw of the day didn’t count – a gorgeous 47-yard deep ball that was dropped at the goal line by receiver Christian Watson. You better believe that throw will still count for the scouts in attendance, because it screamed NFL.
So what’s next?
Well, technically Lance still needs to declare for the NFL Draft. And, technically, there’s a spring season he could play in. But as much as Lance and the Bison tried to downplay it, this appeared to be a showcase game for him, in addition to one last run for a few seniors on the team.
If Lance declares for the draft, it will be a tricky evaluation. He’s a redshirt sophomore who really didn’t get a second season under center. He doesn’t turn 21 until May 9.
Frankly, there’s some Trubisky-ness to the situation, with the one exception being that he was the unquestioned starter once Easton Stick (a fifth-round pick) left the program as opposed to not winning the job for a couple years. Still, the sample size is limited, and Lance is an athletic, mobile quarterback with a good arm and lingering questions about his accuracy and decision-making. Sound familiar?
The talent is tantalizing though and it’s possible Lance ends up going in the top 10 because that’s what happens with quarterbacks. I like what I’ve seen from him and I like that he’s young with plenty of room to develop. Like most quarterbacks in the draft, fit will be crucial. It almost never happens, but Lance would greatly benefit from a redshirt year in the NFL. That was supposed to be the plan with Trubisky, but it was never realistic with Mike Glennon as the starter.
If, somehow, Trey Lance is a Bear next spring -- developing behind Nick Foles -- it would be much more like what – dare I say – Patrick Mahomes experienced developing behind Alex Smith in 2017. And who was his offensive coordinator that year? Matt Nagy.
If the Bears choose to take another stab at a quarterback with a first round pick next spring, the biggest difference from 2017 is that Nagy will be heavily involved in the process. Pace will still make the pick, but he won't select a quarterback that Nagy doesn't love. How they feel about Lance at this point is unknown, but the Bears -- like most teams in the league -- are doing their homework.
For now, let the Nick Foles era begin.