Could North Dakota State QB Trey Lance be the next Steve McNair?

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Doug Farrar
·9 min read
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In his one full season (2019) with the North Dakota State Bison, quarterback Trey Lance completed 192 of 287 passes for 2,798 yards, 28 touchdowns, and no interceptions (no, that’s not a typo. 28 touchdowns and no interceptions). On passes of 20 or more air yards, he completed 20 of 53 passes for 807 yards, 12 touchdowns, and no interceptions. On intermediate throws (10-19 yards), Lance completed 44 of 78 for 784 yards, eight touchdowns, and no interceptions. And on short throws (0-9 air yards), Lance completed 90 of 106 passes for 872 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions.

Lance excelled at every level in 2019, and though he found things more difficult in his one 2020 game against Central Arkansas, where he completed 15 of 30 passes for 149 yards, two touchdowns, and his one collegiate interception, he also made big-time throws in that game, mitigating any damage to some degree.

NFL comparisons have come thick and fast, as is always the case with quarterbacks transitioning to the next level. Lance has been compared to Dak Prescott, Andrew Luck, Deshaun Watson, and “Taysom Hill with arm talent” (thank you, PFF Draft Guide, for that bit of hilarity).

When asked on a recent conference call which quarterback he’d want between Lance, Ohio State’s Justin Fields, and 2020 Philadelphia Eagles rookie Jalen Hurts, NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah made the Lance comparison I hadn’t heard or thought of before, but made total sense from then on. It’s the Lance comparison to end all Lance comparisons: Steve McNair, the Alcorn State alum who completed 2,733 passes in 4,544 attempts for 31,304 yards, 174 touchdowns, 119 interceptions, a career quarterback rating of 82.8, a 2003 NFL Most Valuable Player award (co-MVP with Peyton Manning), and an agonizing Super Bowl XXXIV in which McNair’s Titans were one yard away from tying the game late. I recently ranked McNair as the ninth-best player in NFL history who came from historically Black colleges and universities, and his induction in anybody’s top 10 would be tough to argue.

“I would say the highest ceiling would be Justin Fields just because his speed and athleticism — Trey Lance is a great runner and I think Trey Lance is probably going to run in the high 4.5s, which is incredible; and Jalen Hurts is a really good runner,” Jeremiah said. “But Justin Fields can be a home run hitter as a runner. Just his speed makes him a little different there. You look at all three of those guys, they] have strong arms. Trey Lance, he reminds me of Steve McNair. I was around McNair late in his career with the Ravens and just the physicality that he plays with, the toughness — he’s got a little room to grow in terms of just pure accuracy, but man, I think those two guys are really, really interesting.

“I think Trey Lance and Justin Fields is kind of a toss-up.”

So, if you’re getting ready to ding Lance out of the gate because his primary opposition came against Eastern Washington and Delaware instead of Clemson and Alabama, consider that some who are in the business of isolating the quarterback regardless of the circumstance wouldn’t put a thin piece of paper between Lance and Fields.

One way in which the strength of competition issue comes up is the insistence that Lance did his thing against outmatched defenses that couldn’t force him to make the kinds of tight-window throws the NFL requires.

Well… the tape tells a different story. Markedly so.

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And if you’re of the opinion that Lance can’t handle the processing the NFL requires… well, there’s quite a bit of proof in the opposite direction there, as well.

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The McNair comparison is interesting and instructive. Both McNair and Lance were given offers by bigger schools to play defensive back, and bet on themselves at their preferred position. Both had questions about their abilities to transition to the NFL by virtue of everything from strength of schedule to the transitional value of their offensive systems. And McNair certainly had the toughness and acumen to transcend the doubters.

McNair also brought that defensive mentality to his position — one could say that he played quarterback like a linebacker at times, and as North Dakota State quarterbacks coach Randy Hedberg said this week, Lance — who played safety in high school for his father — certainly has the same mindset.

“I said this myself, probably in his second year — that Trey did have the mindset of playing like a defensive player. I think that’s his mentality. I really believe that. I saw him play a high-school game his senior year, and he was playing safety, and he’s coached by his dad. His dad was his secondary coach in high school. He came up and made a tackle, and it was a pretty physical tackle. I said after the game that I thought he would have been ejected from the game if it was a college game, but the high-school rules didn’t pertain as much to him as the college rules would have. But I do think that he plays with that defensive mentality. He’s a very physical player. I’m not sure if he can play that way at the next level with that mindset, but I do think he has that kind of mindset going into a game.”

In an October, 1994 article on McNair written by Don Pierson of the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Bears scout Jim Parmer, Jake Hallum, a scout for the National Combine, and Carroll Hardy, a scout for the Shreveport Pirates of the Canadian Football League, sat in a room and watched six straight hours of McNair’s college tape. The comments from the three scouts were a virtual superimposition of what you might see people say about Lance at this point.

“Looks like he’s a little careless here.”

“Got a little burst.”

“His position coach must have ulcers as many chances as he takes.”

“Riverboat gambler, but he gets them there.”

“Good scrambler, but he’s not scrambling against Michigan.”

“Drops all right.”

“Quick arm.”

“Awful strong. Stands flat-footed on this one and flips it and still puts a little something on it.”

“Never happy feet. His movement in the pocket is darn near amazing,”

In the end, people around the league appreciated McNair’s poise under pressure, and dismissed the perfunctory speculation that he wasn’t a genius at the whiteboard or under center — criticism that far too many Black quarterbacks have had to face throughout the decades with no actual proof to them. And in the end, it worked out pretty well.

Lance’s offenses weren’t like McNair’s — North Dakota State wasn’t running four-wide all the time, which in McNair’s case worked out at the NFL level in many ways…

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…but when you ask Randy Hedberg about Lance’s processing requirements and abilities (Hedberg also coached Carson Wentz in Wentz’s last two seasons with the Bison), you get a good sense of how much Lance was asked to do.

“Our offense puts a lot of emphasis on the quarterback processing at the line of scrimmage with protections,” Hedberg said, mentioning that he did the same for Carson Wentz. “They have an option to set the protections more often than not, and then they have the option of changing protections also. But they also have we have a “kill” system and a “maybe” system, which gets him into run/pass, pass-to-run, run-to-pass, whatever it is based on different alignments of the defense. So that’s part of our game also which I think the quarterbacks are really good at, but it’s no different.”

As far as the experience, Lance’s 17 games matches the number of games both Kyler Murray and Mac Jones started in college, and Cam Newton had just 14 starts at the major college level. Hedberg said that some NFL decision-makers have expressed concern about the idea that Lance has seen enough defensive “pictures” he might see at the NFL level, but you could say the same of a lot of quarterbacks who eventually make it at the highest possible level.

As for Trey Lance and NFL comparisons, he wasn’t really biting on that during a Zoom media availability after his Friday pro day in which he showed a less-elongated throwing motion, and better front foot placement.

“A lot of teams have said a lot of different guys, and everyone’s an analyst on Twitter,” he said. “Everyone can have their own comparison, or whatever it is. I like to take a lot of pieces from a lot of guys’ games, but in the end, I’m Trey Lance and nobody else.”

I did follow up with the McNair comparison, and the one Hedberg made — Deshaun Watson.

“I think both of those players are great players to be compared to, at the end of the day. Obviously, they’ve both done what I want to do in the National Football League, and obviously, Deshaun’s still doing what I want to do. Just the type of people… especially Deshaun, and the way he carries himself off the field — he’s a mentor for me. Thankfully, I have plenty of guys in the league right now who are willing to answer my questions and talk to me.”

One may wonder if Lance, who was seven years old when McNair played his last game in 2007, has ever seen his predecessor. If not, it might represent an interesting viewing… and perhaps, a mirror image.