From now until the 2021 NFL Draft takes place, we hope to showcase as many prospects as possible and examine both their strengths and weaknesses. Most of these profiles will feature individuals that the Pittsburgh Steelers are likely to have an interest in, while a few others will be top-ranked players. If there is a player you would like us to analyze, let us know in the comments below.
#5 Trey Lance / QB North Dakota State – 6’4” 226
- Solid build. Elite athlete for the QB position
- Able to keep plays alive and improvise out of structure. Comfortable outside of the pocket and can throw on the run
- Dual-threat QB. Can beat or influence the defense with his legs (perfect for a modern NFL offense). Strong, physical runner with good speed, burst, contact balance, and vision
- Only 1 interception in 318 career pass attempts. Takes what the defense gives him, doesn’t try to force throws when he doesn’t have to. Able to quickly progress in his reads
- Great arm talent. Strong arm with solid accuracy. Good velocity on throws, displayed touch as well. Throws with anticipation when needed
- Composed in the pocket. Able to maneuver the pocket and deliver passes with pressure in his face
- Only 20 years old (born May 9, 2000). Has plenty of time to learn and further develop
- Small school (North Dakota State University – MVFC, FCS)
- Only one year of production (2019 as a redshirt freshman)
- Only one game in NDSU’s 2020 season – stats: (15/30, 50% completion percentage, 149 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception, 107.1 passer rating. 15 rush attempts, 143 yards, 2 touchdowns)
- Can further improve his mechanics. Occasionally dips the ball/his arm in his throwing motion which slows his release and sometimes leads to a downwards pass trajectory. Can work to improve his footwork (sluggish at times when operating out of the shotgun. Raw in terms of setting his feet for short to intermediate throws in the shotgun, when on boots or when on the run, and when taking deeper drops under center). Improving his mechanics will in turn increase his accuracy (had some misses on tape – even though he had a 66.9% completion percentage in 2019)
- Was surrounded by a good supporting cast at NDSU and was also often schemed into position to make plays (not a knock on Lance, but this has to be noted). Will have to continue to learn how to read defensive coverages (he’s young and only played one full season in college, so this is obvious)
- Heavily relies upon his athleticism to beat defenders at times. This will be harder to do against NFL athletes
- 2019 Stats (16 games): 192 completions, 287 attempts, 66.9% completion percentage, 2,786 yards, 28 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 180.6 passer rating. 169 rush attempts, 1,100 yards, 14 touchdowns
- 2020 NCAA Division I Football Championship Game Most Outstanding Player (2019 season vs. James Madison)
- 2019 CFPA FCS National Performer of the Year
- 2019 STATS FCS Walter Payton Award Winner
- 2019 STATS FCS Jerry Rice Award Winner
- 2019 All-MVFC First Team
- 2019 MVFC Offensive Player of the Year
- 2019 MVFC Freshman of the Year
- 2018, 2019 MVFC Honor Roll
Of the top 2021 NFL Draft quarterback prospects, the argument can be made that Trey Lance is the most unpredictable. The NFL franchise that is going to draft him will do so because of his immense upside and raw potential, in the hope that they will be able to groom him into becoming an elite starting QB. In my opinion, that franchise needs to ensure they have a plan when it comes to how they will handle Lance’s future. He might even have as much upside as some of the guys that will likely be picked before him, but I don’t think he should be immediately thrust into a poor situation and expected to revive the franchise on his own. He should be given time to learn and grow while his team builds a strong offensive nucleus that pairs with his abilities.
A proper example of this is how the Kansas City Chiefs handled their 2017 #10 overall draft pick Patrick Mahomes (I am not comparing Lance and Mahomes as players – Mahomes has become one of the most gifted QB’s of all time and Lance has a long way to go to get there, though he does have a bright future). I loved Patrick Mahomes coming out of Texas Tech in 2017, and I would be lying if I told you that being drafted by the Chiefs wasn’t ultimately the best outcome for his NFL future (even though I wanted the Steelers to snag him at #30 – I can’t complain too much because Pittsburgh ended up drafting T.J. Watt with that pick and we’ve all seen how well that’s turned out). Mahomes was another guy with both a massive amount of potential and question marks. The Chiefs opted to give him a year to sit, learn, and further develop behind Alex Smith and under Andy Reid’s tutelage. He was then placed into an offense that was based around his skillset, which allowed him to enhance and maximize the unit as a whole.
I think Trey Lance is in a similar situation. He has the tools to run a modern style NFL offense at a high level. He has arm talent, athleticism, intelligence, and leadership traits. It’s on the NFL franchise that drafts him to ensure they get the best out of his potential through developing him, instead of immediately inserting him into a bad situation that will destine him for failure.
This clip is just one of many instances where Trey Lance demonstrated his arm strength and talent in his short collegiate career at North Dakota State University. In NDSU’s first game of their 2019 season against Butler, Lance delivers a perfectly placed deep ball from NDSU’s 45-yard line for a touchdown at the front of the end zone. The NDSU offense is in the I formation and they run play-action. Lance sells the fake on a five-step drop and has a clean pocket to work with. He then quickly locates the go route from his boundary receiver (Phoenix Sproles, cousin of former NFL running back Darren Sproles – he popped on tape when evaluating Lance) and drops the pass right in the bucket for six.
The only concern with many of Lance’s big-time throws is that he was often schemed into position to hit open pass catchers, but he still had to deliver good throws when the opportunities were there. Completing contested throws in tight windows shouldn’t be a problem for him if he continues to work on his mechanics and footwork.
Moving on, this clip is from Lance’s 2019 game vs. South Dakota State. On this play, Lance exhibits composure/poise in the pocket. Lance is in shotgun and as the defensive ends threaten him from both sides, he climbs the pocket. He now faces a new threat, however. Climbing the pocket has exposed him to the safety who has a free rush after shooting down from the secondary on a delayed blitz. Seeing this pressure, Lance is able to stand in and deliver a beautifully placed ball to his receiver while absorbing the hit. This is awesome to see from the young QB.
In this clip from NDSU’s 2019 game against UC Davis, Trey Lance exhibits the ability to extend plays with his legs, then make something happen with his arm talent. The ability to extend plays and improvise has become a seemingly necessary part of the quarterback’s game in today’s NFL. Mobility adds another wrinkle that defenses have to prepare for every snap, and this changes the number of defensive players they will be able to assign to certain roles and how aggressively they will be able to play in certain situations. A quarterback who can extend plays, improvise, and beat you out of structure with either his legs or his arm is extremely difficult to stop. Without consistent pressure, defenders can only cover for so long before someone gets open.
On this play specifically, Lance is operating out of the shotgun and after receiving the snap he quickly senses pressure to his right and rolls out to his left. As the defender who was eyeing him throughout the play rushes forwards and obscures his vision, Lance is still able to place the throw between two more defenders for a first down.
This clip from Trey Lance’s 2019 matchup with South Dakota demonstrates his intelligence. There’s a reason he rarely turned the ball over in his college career. Lance does a great job of simplifying the game and taking what the defense gives him. With USD showing out to stop the run and the corner playing eight yards off of the only wide receiver in the formation, Lance gets the ball out immediately so that his receiver can try to pick up some yards on first down. He puts the ball in the hands of one of his playmakers which allows him to make something happen.
This clip is from Trey Lance’s only 2020 game vs. Central Arkansas. He’s operating out of the shotgun. After the snap, he takes a rhythmic three-step drop with a hop at the end in order to ensure that he will have enough power to hit the out route on the far side of the field. As the receiver breaks outside, Lance delivers a strike to the sideline that only his receiver has the chance to catch. The receiver is able to secure the grab while inbounds for a completion to move the chains. Lance definitely has some arm strength.
This clip from later in the game against Central Arkansas is one you don’t want to miss. At the snap, NDSU gets multiple players moving field side as blockers to set up the threat of a jet sweep for the motioning receiver. This forces the defenders to prepare for the sweep, which pulls some of them away from Lance and makes them focus on two different locations. By pulling some of the defenders away from the QB keeper, Lance is able to worry about fewer threats as he jukes a couple defenders, finds a hole to run through, then showcases his strength by breaking two simultaneous arm tackles in order to bolt up the sideline. As if the start of the run wasn’t enough, Lance finishes it with a stiff-arm to the remaining defender on his way into the end zone.
This clip from Lance’s second game in 2019 against the University of North Dakota is extremely similar to the last one. The threat of a sweep forces some of the defenders into conflict and pulls them away from the middle of the field. All Lance has to do is follow his convoy of blockers upfield for an easy score. These types of plays lay the blueprint for how Lance’s athleticism should be used as a weapon at the NFL level (NFL defenders will play more disciplined, however). If his offensive coordinator effectively schemes him into plus situations by putting defenders in conflict through the utilization of motion, Trey Lance will be tough to stop.
This clip from later in the Central Arkansas game is another example of Lance’s athleticism. North Dakota State is backed up to their own five-yard line. UCA rushes six and Lance has to immediately maneuver out of the pocket to scramble upfield. He then utilizes the block of his right tackle and jukes two more defenders for a nice gain.
This clip from even later in the same game vs. Central Arkansas shows Lance making something happen with his legs yet again. He’s able to feel and escape the attempted tackle from the free rusher off the left side of the line, then slip past another attempt from the defensive tackle in order to tuck and run for the touchdown.
Even if the original play call isn’t there, Lance still has the ability to make something happen with his legs out of structure. Like I stated earlier in this report, that’s an enormous bonus for a quarterback in the current NFL landscape.
Lance was usually one of, if not the best athlete on the field at all times during his college career, and while these types of runs will be harder to recreate in the NFL, defenses are still going to have to respect his athleticism.
This clip is from Lance’s game against Missouri State in 2019. MSU is showing pressure pre-snap. Trey Lance is in shotgun and takes a quick drop after the snap. As the interior part of his line starts to collapse due to some push from the defensive line, he shuffles away from it to his left in order to find an open man. Lance remains composed and knows that his running back has stayed home to block. His shuffle away from the pressure along with the block from the RB buys him a little extra time to find the open receiver and deliver the throw for a completion. You can tell that the route across the middle of the field was not his first read due to the way he snaps his head from the left sideline to the middle of the field, showing he was able to quickly move through his progressions while navigating away from any possible threats.
This clip displays an incompletion that Trey Lance slightly overthrew in the same game against Missouri State, but what stands out about this play is his vision/feel just outside of the pocket. NDSU is in 12 personnel and after selling the run fake, Lance rolls out of the pocket where he’s met by converging defenders. Despite facing free pressure, he displays poise. He doesn’t get antsy, and he climbs back upwards in order to escape the threat and get the throw off. With the tight end decently covered deep and about to run out of room before stepping out of the back of the end zone, it is a throw that Lance has to deliver perfectly. As you can see, Lance ultimately ends up placing the ball slightly out of his pass catcher’s reach, although not by much.
This clip is Trey Lance’s only interception from his one game in 2020 (Central Arkansas). NDSU runs play-action and after Lance sells the fake on a five-step drop, he immediately looks at his receiver running up the seam. If he had his eyes on that route the entire play, then he must have just completely missed the safety lurking overtop in the middle of the field. The safety is reading Lance’s eyes the entire time and it leads him right to the receiver. Lance tries to force the ball to his receiver anyway and the safety jumps it for an easy interception. This wasn’t a great decision from Lance, and I’m not sure why he decided to force it underneath. A positive takeaway is that plays like this don’t happen very often for him, as he only threw 1 interception in 318 career pass attempts at North Dakota State. That’s an extremely impressive feat.
Trey Lance’s skillset would mesh well with the scheme and adaptability of new Steelers’ offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Lance seems comfortable when operating under center or in the gun, he ran a good amount of play-action at NDSU, and he has the athletic ability to influence or beat defenses with his legs (especially on plays involving the threat of motion). With Lance at QB, the Steelers would be able to maximize a quick-passing attack or air it out, as well as utilize RPO’s, QB draw/power, read-option runs, etc. The Steelers’ weapons and the way they are going to use motion in Matt Canada’s scheme will create a lot of dynamic moving parts that opposing defenses are going to be forced to prepare for. This will create uncertainty for the defense and greatly test their scheme, study habits, and discipline. Lance’s athleticism would only further increase how difficult it would be to prepare for the offense, on top of his natural arm talent.
Like a lot of you, I love the thought of Trey Lance in the black and gold. However, trading up just isn’t the Steelers’ M.O. (although they have been more aggressive recently), especially with how unpredictable Lance’s first-round draft range is. If (and that is a big if) the Steelers were to trade up to select Trey Lance in the 2021 NFL Draft, I think his NFL future would greatly benefit from sitting a year and learning behind Ben Roethlisberger (Dave Bryan breaks down what the Steelers’ future options with Roethlisberger look like here) and from Mike Tomlin in a winning environment. In that time, the Steelers would have to further develop and refine Lance’s game, while also beginning to mold their offensive scheme around his strengths. This is definitely possible considering how many things he does well on the field in terms of the modern quarterback’s style of play, and at 20 years old, Lance also has plenty of time for further growth.
Projection: Early to Mid-First Round
Games Watched: Butler (2019), North Dakota (2019), UC Davis (2019), Missouri State (2019), South Dakota State (2019), South Dakota (2019), Western Illinois (2019), James Madison (2019), Central Arkansas (2020)