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NFL Draft

Breaking Down Best Fits For Trey Lance’s Development

  • The Draft Network
  • April 18, 2021
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The charging bull of NFL draft coverage is careening toward the finish line, as the 2021 NFL Draft is but two short weeks away. In its single-minded rage over the latest egregious NFL source or outlandish shift in stock, the media machine always has blind spots in its coverage. The current blind spot? The landing spot for North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance.

Everyone knows Lawrence at No. 1 and Wilson at No. 2. Everyone knows that No. 3 was definitely Mac Jones, and with every passing day, it is increasingly Justin Fields. But those aren’t the only four quarterbacks at the top of this year’s class. There is a fifth, and his name is Trey Lance.

Could we be looking at a Lamar Jackson-esque fall for this talented dual-threat quarterback? I don’t think so, but some teams will look at one year of starting experience at an FCS program—a year which included 287 passing attempts to 169 rushing attempts—and politely pass on Lance, allowing another team to make that risky bet.

Lance’s inexperience not only puts his stock in question, but also his ideal fit. Unlike Lawrence and Wilson and Fields, all of whom clearly have the collegiate experience to start in the NFL—and unlike Jones, who has 400-plus passing attempts in one dominant season in the SEC, and is generally viewed as a more polished player—Lance may not start in Year 1 for his NFL team. Lance won’t be 21 until the week after he’s drafted, and the last time the NFL started 21-year-old quarterbacks on Week 1 (Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen), it didn’t go too well.

When I watch Lance, I don’t see a player that is prohibitively bad in any one area, and accordingly, the idea that he needs significant development may be overblown. Lance threw pro-style passing concepts with traditional reads, took dropbacks from under center and the gun, set protections at the line of scrimmage, and checked his own plays. He was far more responsible for the big-boy trappings typically associated with pro transitions than Lawrence or Wilson. 

With that said, Lance is jumping from the FCS to the NFL level, which inevitably invites some growing pains as the pace of the game suddenly shifts to warp speed. Lance has also done necessary work on his throwing motion this offseason, and when the live bullets begin to fly, may see that work tested as he continues to habituate new mechanics against old habits when throwing on the move or taking a hit. He may not need that long runway to develop, but it sure would be nice to have it.

So, Lance needs a fit that not only builds around his strengths but also affords him the freedom to sit for either a full or partial season, as the coaching staff deems appropriate. I looked through several QB-needy teams at the top of the draft and highlighted the two that I think are most conducive to Lance’s development, as one of the most talented and high-ceiling passers in the last few drafts.

No. 3 Overall: San Francisco 49ers

I won’t go too long on Lance’s fit with the Niners here, as I already did in a publish dedicated to Shanahan’s offense and the quarterback options the 49ers could enjoy at No. 3 overall. While I acknowledge the 49ers’ choice will likely come down to Fields and Jones, I found myself talking myself further and further into Lance as the ideal Shanahan scheme fit. Though I understand his developmental timeline, relative to Fields’ or Jones’, may be off-putting, Lance has everything Shanahan has ever liked or desired in a quarterback. It’d be a home run, and certainly, an excellent spot for Lance’s development.

No. 4 Overall: Atlanta Falcons

OK, now let’s start to get serious.

As we currently see the top of the draft, the Falcons at No. 4 are the first team with a legitimate chance to grab Lance. He’ll be one of two quarterbacks remaining, and his arc works for the Falcons.

Atlanta’s 2021 starting quarterback is clearly set: it’s Matt Ryan. Due $27M on the cap with a dead hit of $71M in 2021, there’s no way Ryan isn’t on the roster for the Falcons; and at 36, Ryan’s still playing fine football. With a new coordinator in place that utilizes an intermediate/deep play-action passing attack with some similarities to the Shanahan offense that saw Ryan deliver an MVP-caliber season in 2016, Ryan could well enjoy the sudden surge in efficiency that Ryan Tannehill saw under Arthur Smith over the last two seasons.

So let’s talk about that system. In Tennessee, Smith utilized play-action passes out of heavy personnel as the base of his passing game. No team had more snaps of offense with multiple tight ends on the field than the Titans, and no quarterback had a higher percentage of his passing attempts come on play-action than Tannehill.

With a towering skyscraper of a running back in Derrick Henry powering the running game, the Titans didn’t have to be a pass-heavy team. They ran the ball at the third-highest clip of all teams (only the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots were higher; both had running quarterbacks) and had one of the most effective rushing attacks in both success rate and EPA/play. The Titans were a heavy inside/outside zone team under Smith, and sprinkled in a lot more Duo this year—so they can give a lot of different looks, while infrequently pulling a lineman in the running game.

In the same way that Lance would be a successful boot-action passer in the San Francisco offense, so would he be in Tennessee. While Shanahan is better known for his boot series, the Titans and 49ers have called about the same number of play-action bootlegs (70) over the last two seasons, per Sports Info Solutions charting. Lance’s ability to throw on the move is arguably the best in this class, and he’s inarguably the best runner with the ball in his hands, adding to the danger of the boot.

Throwing On The Move
Attempt Rate Completion Rate Catchable Placement
Trey Lance 12.38% 76.32% .924 .690
Justin Fields 21.36% 76.60% .915 .731
Zach Wilson 16.62% 69.09% .854 .675
Mac Jones 6.14% 62.50% .833 .240
Davis Mills 8.33% 68.00% .829 .376
Trevor Lawrence 12.82% 60.00% .803 .611
Kyle Trask 7.09% 76.67% .771 .632
Kellen Mond 7.93% 60.87% .732 .542
Sam Ehlinger 11.54% 58.33% .713 .467

But the 49ers and Titans’ play-action passing games differed when they asked their quarterback to hang in the pocket. With a quick-release quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo, the 49ers favored quicker, shallower targets off of their play-action passing game; meanwhile, the Titans were more likely to drive the ball on intermediate crossers or deep shots, asking a strong-armed, big-bodied passer in Tannehill to hang onto the ball for an extra beat, step into a hit, and deliver into a downfield window.

Play-Action Passing Stats
Attempts Completions Completion % Time to Throw Avg Depth of Target
49ers 2019 155 105 67.74% 2.86 8.2
Titans 2020 169 102 60.36% 3.17 10.7

This Smith approach is more familiar to Lance’s play-action passing game at North Dakota State. The Bison ran Lance as a quick-game dropback passer with success, but when they wanted or needed a big gain, they went for a deep dropback from Lance and asked him to uncork downfield passes. Big-bodied, big-armed, and at times with an imperfect release, Lance is much closer to Tannehill’s mold as a quarterback than Garoppolo’s.

There is reason for concern here, however. That middle, intermediate area of the field is the targeted location for much of Smith’s offense because that’s the area behind the linebackers, vacated by their reaction to the play-action fake. That’s where Corey Davis lived last season, and however Smith divides up targets between Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, he’ll continue to hammer that intermediate window. It’s the natural function of the play-action offense to throw those routes.

That’s an area of the field where Lance struggled in college. A generally accurate passer, Lance’s biggest whiffs of inaccuracy come when he’s trying to throw with velocity over the middle of the field. These are tough throws, as they often require a distinct trajectory: they have to be delivered over the first level of defenders, but not sail too high, missing the target and ending up in the second level of the defense. In Lance’s young resume as a passer, this throw is the only one glaringly absent from his quiver.

Lance’s offense with the Bison was a little less reliant on crossing patterns, and a little more reliant on vertical routes, both from tight ends and running backs. Instead of leading a receiver horizontally, he’d have to lead him vertically. But even when filtering down to the crossing patterns, the inaccuracy remains.

So if you’re looking to add Lance to this offense, I think that’s a smart decision. He adds a QB run dimension that will help on boot-action, he’s a quality quick-game passer, and he can find your shot plays with his arm strength, size, and ability to manage pressure in the pocket. He can even take snaps in Year 1 as a gadget player, a la Jackson under Joe Flacco in Baltimore during his rookie season. But the growth necessary for Lance as a passer may be most stark in Atlanta if he’s forced into action in Year 1.

No. 15 Overall: New England Patriots

I’d argue the Patriots are the best developmental spot for Lance. And that’s not with giving them phantom credit for the development of players like Garoppolo or Jacoby Brissett or Matt Cassel. That’s just in looking at the scheme fit and the situation.

The Patriots are clearly interested and willing to implement the QB run. The Patriots were as effective of a rushing offense last season as the Titans were, by EPA and success rate, despite handing it off to some decisively non-Derrick Henrian players; Damien Harris, Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead. Tied for the team lead in carries was Newton, who buoyed the effort with 592 yards and a stunning 12 touchdowns on 137 carries.

It was far from Newton’s most dangerous or efficient rushing season, but he did see more rushing attempts per game than in any of his younger years, as the Patriots tried to buoy a floundering passing game with a clever running attack. The attrition of the season, which included a COVID-19 absence, sapped Newton’s efficacy as a passer and a runner—but the Patriots returned him to New England and earnestly believe they can win with a healthy Newton for 17 games.

But expecting Newton to play at 100% for a 17-game season is a long bet at this stage in his career—and even if he does come back to health, he’s still only on a one-year deal. If the Patriots and Belichick want to continue indulging in the QB run game as the next exploitable edge of modern NFL offenses, they need an investment over a longer timeframe than Newton’s age and health allows for. Enter Lance.

That classic inverted veer with which Newton gashed SEC defenses at Auburn? New England was running it last year with Newton still, and Lance was running it at North Dakota State. Lance isn’t quite as big as Newton is, but he’s just as physical and dynamic in the third level.

And in the passing game? Yeah, everyone knows that the Shanahan/McVay tree and Buffalo and Baltimore hammered play-action passing. But 33.8% of Newton’s passing attempts came with a play-action fake, which was sixth in the league—and unlike systems like San Francisco’s and Tennessee’s, the Patriots incorporated a lot more pullers in both their play-action fakes and designed QB runs, which is more analogous to the Bison’s offense under Lance. You can see in the acquisition of a move H-back like Jonnu Smith and re-signing of FB Jakob Johnson that the Patriots are well-equipped to go with heavy backfields and continue to run their quarterback behind lead blockers.

Lance is a dream quarterback for their interest here. Even when the Patriots had Brady under center, an inert passer, they loved seam routes to quick-releasing tight ends and peppering zone defenses with the quick game. Lance again has experience in both areas. While his limited experience is concerning, he bit off a healthy chunk of pro-caliber responsibilities in the North Dakota State offenses: checking plays and setting protections. Even for a meaty, option-heavy passing attack like Josh McDaniels, there’s no reason to believe Lance is incapable of taking on much of the offense in Year 1 and having it fully under his belt through Year 2.

Targets 0-9 Yards Downfield
Attempt Rate Completion Rate Y/A Catchable Placement
Mac Jones 30.18% 85.59% 9.55 .971 .683
Justin Fields 40.45% 75.28% 6.96 .944 .702
Trey Lance 36.93% 78.76% 8.12 .930 .635
Davis Mills 47.51% 71.83% 6.47 .903 .624
Kyle Trask 42.08% 74.72% 8.17 .873 .688
Jamie Newman 48.42% 74.51% 6.77 .853 .660
Zach Wilson 35.65% 84.75% 9.94 .846 .755
Trevor Lawrence 34.62% 82.41% 5.65 .836 .703
Kellen Mond 45.86% 75.94% 6.89 .761 .764
Sam Ehlinger 20.65% 53.57% 7.07 .756 .559

Like Atlanta and San Francisco, New England has the veteran quarterback in place to afford Lance a long developmental runway, if that’s what he needs. I would argue the New England offensive staff is best equipped to utilize Lance’s top-flight rushing ability immediately, and that their personnel and passing designs historically also fit snugly with Lance’s familiar tropes from North Dakota State. This is the ideal fit for him now and long term.

Dark Horses

No. 8: Carolina Panthers

There is nothing particularly good or bad about the Panthers as a developmental spot. They currently have two quarterbacks in place in Sam Darnold and Teddy Bridgewater, so Lance certainly wouldn’t be forced into playing time—though, if either quarterback is playing poorly, the fan base and ownership likely will clamor for Lance. Their offensive coaching staff is relatively young and new to the league, but Joe Brady historically employs a shotgun-heavy, spread ‘n shred philosophy that does not incorporate much designed QB run. Lance could execute the quick game and bring a desirable creative development, but the running game would demand an overall shift to incorporate Lance.

No. 9: Denver Broncos

This is a dangerous spot for Lance, as I don’t think Drew Lock can play well enough, long enough to fend Lance off in Year 1. Playing early in his career may well benefit Lance—reps can help the growth process, even if you’re not fully “pro ready” yet!—but you’d like to have the option to bring him along slowly. If Denver’s defense is solid (looks like it will be), their pass-catchers are getting open (seems likely), and Lock is the anchor of the offense (as he’s been to this point in his career), that talented rookie QB2 starts burning a hole in your pocket.

Furthermore, it is hard to trust Pat Shurmur—author of milquetoast, shallow, traditional passing games—to fully unlock Lance’s ability as a runner and play-action passer. They did allow Lock to throw the ball deep fairly often last season and would benefit from letting Lance attack vertically as well, as you should use such a delightful arm when you have it. But this is another roster and coaching staff suited for a spread ‘n shred approach that does not fully unlock Lance’s potential as a pro.

No. 13: Minnesota Vikings

A hometown return for Lance? It would be beneficial. The Vikings under Gary Kubiak were stylistically similar to Shanahan’s 49ers, and accordingly, a Lance fit looks good on paper—heavy use of play-action, deep depth of target on play-action, even more boot-action, heavy personnel. Kirk Cousins is in hand and will likely play as he always has: well enough to be inoffensive, which lets you keep Lance on the bench long term. Of course, Cousins is a little harder to move on from, as his deal in 2022 will fully guarantee, leaving a trade as the only option if you want to start Lance and get Cousins out of the building. Scheme fit is nice though!

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