North Dakota State’s Trey Lance is in as awkward a position as any quarterback prospect has ever been. In 2019, he tore up the FCS en route to another Bison championship, scoring 42 total touchdowns without throwing a single pick. Lance proved himself to be a deadly dual-threat who almost never puts the ball in danger, which is an obviously dangerous combo. The floor on that kind of player is astronomically high.
With just one year of film at the FCS level, however, it can be a bit tough to project some of Lance’s game. Not a whole lot of what he saw defensively, mainly in terms of quality of play, will translate to the NFL. The windows and pockets he was working with, for the most part, just are not the same.
Then the 2020 season got cancelled, save for one showcase game against Central Arkansas. The showcase was always a bad idea for Lance to play. If he had played well, one game in 2020 was never going to move the needle on him as a prospect. If he played mediocre or bad, which he did, then the conversation would be about him not having developed, even though trying to glean that from a single game in a pandemic season is immensely stupid.
So, with that, we are going to keep all of Lance’s analysis to his 2019 season — a full, normal football season and his first year as a starter.
Lance’s skill set is easy to discuss from the ground up. Despite often being pinned as a “toolsy” or “project” quarterback, Lance is already a developed quick-game passer. That is not a sexy tagline for a quarterback prospect, but passers need to execute the mundane, in-structure stuff in order to unlock the value of any playmaking skills they may have. Ain’t no sizzle without the steak.
This throw runs twice in this clip, once at full speed and once at half speed. The toss itself is nothing fancy — it’s an open speed out on an “Ohio” concept where the outside receiver clears vertical to open up space outside. Lance’s footwork in getting to and through the throw, however, is phenomenal and well beyond his years.
One major issue young quarterbacks have when throwing quick game to their left from ‘gun is that they will not get around/deep enough on their first step. If a quarterback really brings their back foot all the way around to line up with the front foot at a good depth, it makes it very easy on the quarterback to open their hips when they reset with their front foot. As seen in the second screenshot, Lance does just that.
When his front foot is about to hit the ground on his second step, Lance can bring his back foot back up and out wide, giving him the ease of movement necessary to move his front foot even further to the left so his hips can follow through on the throw.
In that final screenshot, you can see the fruits of Lance’s meticulousness. His hips, shoulders and “flat” of his back foot are aimed right at his target. His front foot is slightly wider than his back foot, with both feet just outside shoulder width. This is literally perfect footwork.
Usually this kind of technique is not seen out of younger quarterbacks, but it’s clear Lance takes the time to understand why this stuff matters from a timing and efficiency standpoint. Granted, Lance’s throwing motion is a bit awkward because he dips the ball a bit and does not make up for it with a mean punch the way, say, Russell Wilson does, but it won’t kill him. The footwork alone goes a long way for Lance.
Now here is Lance taking a “slow 1-step.” Or at least that is what Kliff Kingsbury calls it. Rather than step straight back right away, Lance draws back his first step as slow as he can. The idea is that is gives Lance (or any quarterback) an extra split-second to process his first read and help streamline the process of getting to his second throw, if he needs to. That is exactly what happens here.
During his “slow” step, Lance catches the defense dropping their weak outside linebacker off the line of scrimmage. This takes away Lance’s first read of the inside hitch. Since he is in a “slow 1,” however, Lance does not need to completely reset his feet to move to the outside hitch. His back foot is still in the air by the time he makes that first read, so all he needs to do is adjust that step a smidgen by bringing it back around his midline just a little bit so that he can comfortably open with his front foot.
Lance’s sharp processing and footwork can be seen in his play-action work, too. North Dakota State’s offense runs a fair amount of their offense from under-center, which means Lance has thrown his fair share of play-action passes from under-center. Most quarterbacks do not get to put that on tape very much before entering the pros nowadays, but Lance does it every single game.
A big part of play-action from under-center is being able to read the defense after having your back turned. From shotgun, quarterbacks get the advantage of having their eyes up the whole time. That is not the case from under-center, so quarterbacks have to know what to look for and quickly move to their next reads, if need be. Lance shows that in the following clip.
Before the snap, Delaware’s defense is in a two-high shell. As the tight end motions over, the safety to the left tightens his alignment slightly, but still seems to maintain the same defensive shell as before. At the snap, though, the “new” strong safety rolls down a bit, while the weak safety flies to the middle of the field to play a deep third.
Delaware get into a three-deep, three-under zone pressure. As Lance gets his eyes up from the fake, he sees his tight end is getting re-route inside right to the middle of the field safety who rotated up. Lance knows right then and there to move on. He shifts his feet outside and immediately pulls the trigger to the outside receiver on the curl, hitting him for an easy gain as the deep-third cornerback trailed off into the next continent.
Here is another example of Lance playing with good timing. Since the defense rotates to a heavy box and a one-high shell, Lance knows there should be 1-on-1 coverage outside.
As he gets his head around during the last couple steps of his drop back, he is reading the 1-on-1 to the right side. Lance knows the decision to throw must be made by the time he finishes his drop back. The moment his final foot hits, Lance decides to not throw that route and instead come back to the middle of the field. He takes one “settle” step off the top of his drop before another, bigger slide up in the pocket to avoid the rush, which he quickly transitions into a throw to his tight end.
It seems someone on the defense blew their coverage on this pressure look, but Lance’s process in getting through and out of his drop back was impressive and repeatable stuff.
Lance has enough arm strength and touch to test down the field on play-action shot plays, too. In this clip, North Dakota State runs a simple two-man play-action concept with max protection, which just about every Shanahan-esque offense (Gary Kubiak included) absolutely loves. Lance’s arm is not quite elite, but he can keep that sucker in the air for at least 50 yards and do so with decent velocity and arc. There should not be any worries about what parts of the field he can and can not test.
Of course, the young Bison passer is far from perfect. Lance’s game becomes a lot less stable when looking at his work to the intermediate area of the field. It’s not that Lance does not have the raw arm strength to fit those windows or that he does not know what he is looking at. Rather, Lance’s process can be a bit stiff and a tick late (even if he is on the correct progression), and his accuracy can waver.
Take this throw below, for example. NDSU shifts to a 2×2 formation with their slot receiver to the boundary on the ball. NDSU loves running slot fade from the boundary and Y-cross into the boundary from this look, which is what they do here. The defense sends a six-man pressure, with the late safety rolling down to “green dog” blitz based off the back, creating a seven-man blitz.
Lance opens to the slot fade upon catching the snap. He knows this is 1-on-1 and that it’s fine to check how the slot defender is going to handle this. The slot defender does well to gain depth and outside leverage with his first couple steps, though, prompting Lance to move on. Lance brings his eyes back to the middle, where his receiver running the Y-cross has a step on his defender with zero help underneath. This window should be wide open for Lance and he was able to get to it before the pressure arrived. Alas, Lance just does not connect and throws this one high and outside, forcing the Bison punt team onto the field.
Maybe you call this “weak Flood,” maybe you call it “cross-country Dagger.” It doesn’t really matter. The point is the back-side read is the dig route, which should be cleared out by the two crossing routes underneath and away from the dig.
Lance’s first issue here is that he takes an extra hitch waiting for the intermediate crosser. The ball should be out after the first hitch, but it seems Lance was waiting and hoping for the weak safety who dropped down to “rob” would not be there. Lance comes back to the dig a touch late, but this should still be open enough for him to throw a ball inside, and perhaps low to make it a tough reach for the defender. Lance does neither, leaving the ball high and inside. The receiver ends up with no real shot at the ball and the Bison again fail to convert.
This clip is a bit better, even if still a tick late. In this clip, Lance wastes a bit of time at the top of his drop holding onto his first read. If he is throwing the speed out, it needs to be out as soon as his back foot hits. Lance instead holds and hitches, which burns some clock when he eventually works back side. Lance does get through his next two progressions quickly, but since he was already a bit behind due to his stall on the first read, he is still “late” by a smidgen. The defensive back trailing the dig gets a good chance to recover after the route break and is in a decent position to play this one. Lance delivers a great ball this time, though, and keeps it inside and low-ish to prevent the cornerback from playing it.
Lance is a passer whose process on every play is painfully clear in how he moves his feet. He often does a fantastic job tying his feet to his eyes and cycling through his progressions in succession without skipping any steps. That, of course, means his game comes with a high floor. He has a consistent process and never strays from it. However, Lance could stand to speed things up from time to time, which is not so much a flaw in his game as it is something we could say about basically any redshirt freshman quarterback ever. Lance has all the mechanisms to be a smart, efficient passer, he just needs a bit of grease to really get those gears turning smoothly on intermediate drop pack passing concepts.
So, what happens when things break down and Lance has to move outside the pocket? Lance is a clearly capable and sharp quarterback within structure, but every quarterback has to make plays outside of structure, too. With Lance, there is not a whole lot of creativity or daringness to his game a la Deshaun Watson or Josh Allen, or even fellow draft classmate Zach Wilson. However, Lance can keep his wits about him outside the pocket and can throw comfortably while on the move, allowing him to hit throws that open up during the chaos of a scramble.
Check out these two throws, both of which feature Lance moving to his right once the pocket starts to crack a bit. In neither clip does Lance do anything outrageous like throw back across his body or heave it 50 yards down the field while on the run. He does do well to manage the traffic, though. The second throw, in particular, shows Lance’s ability to direct traffic down the field by communicating with his receiver, eventually finding him settled down right between three nearby defenders.
It’s perfectly fine that Lance is more a manager of chaos than someone who creates and thrives in it. Lance is so good at quick game and good enough within the structure of play-action shot plays that the offense should run itself so long as he can avoid disaster on these kinds of play. Between his overall cool-headedness and accuracy on the move, that should be no issue for Lance moving forward.
The final pillar to Lance’s game is what he provides on the ground. On 169 carries last season, Lance racked up 1,100 yards (6.5 yards per attempt) and 14 touchdowns. In all honesty, he will never come close to that in the NFL. He is a clearly superior athlete to most of his FCS competition, which makes it easier for him to put up these numbers than if he were in the FBS, especially the Power Five. That said, it is clear Lance is still a capable athlete, one who crosses the threshold on forcing defenses to respect designed quarterback runs.
North Dakota State often preferred designed runs that featured pullers. The entire ethos of their run game is power, so it makes sense that the power mentality would be incorporated into their QB run game as well. At 6’4″, 226 pounds, Lance has the size for this style of play, too. His dimensions are similar to Dak Prescott’s, who is a good comparison for Lance’s strengths as a runner, though Lance is about an inch taller.
Lance’s skill set is enticing. Not only does he have the mobility and comfort to play outside the pocket and provide value on the ground, as all good young quarterbacks seem to nowadays, but he has ample arm strength and a good baseline for how he processes within structure. He checks a lot of the necessary boxes, even if you may not point to anything he does outside of quick game passing as elite or transcendent.
The question with Lance is how much further his processing can be brought along. Lance is already ahead of the curve for such a young player, but it’s hard to look at some of the wide-open windows he was throwing to in the FCS and not wonder whether his trigger readiness will change at all when he gets to the pros.
But teams cannot afford to pass on a player with above-average physical tools and a good baseline to work with. There may be some degree of projection with Lance in regards to throwing NFL windows and working NFL pockets, but that’s a risk you have to take. Lance has all the tools and skills to be a decent rookie out of the gate while becoming a top-10 passer down the line.
A reasonable expectation for Lance is something along the lines of a lesser Prescott. Maybe that isn’t as sexy of a ceiling as some of the other options that will be available, but it would still be a top-12-ish quarterback with the mobility and arm strength to open up the offense in a way Cousins can not quite match right now. It’s a bet worth taking, especially if the Vikings believe they can sit Lance for a year behind Cousins.