2021 NFL Draft: How Trey Lance compares to the other likely first-round QBs in his class

In terms of physical tools, Trey Lance is the quarterback you build in the lab. He has Patrick Mahomes‘ arm, Josh Allen’s athleticism and was the best player on the field in every one of his college starts.

The problem for NFL evaluators is that Lance only started 17 games and it was at the FCS level on an offense that relied heavily on the run. In fact, in those 17 starts Lance attempted more than 25 passes just twice and when you remove those games, he attempted just 16 passes a game. By comparison, last season Trevor Lawrence attempted an average of 33 passes per game, Mac Jones attempted 31, and Justin Fields and Zach Wilson attempted 28.

But Lance has arguably the most upside of any quarterback in this class. Yes, we know, “upside” is the lazy man’s way out of talking about what a prospect is and what he could be, but in Lance’s case, there’s a lot of truth here because we just don’t know that much about his game. But in the small sample size we do have, he’s been really, really, really good. It’s why in our latest mock drafts we — CBS Sports draft analysts Josh Edwards, Chris Trapasso and myself — all have him going inside the top 10.

So what, exactly, makes Lance such an exciting prospect, especially compared to the Big Four — Lawrence, Wilson, Fields and Jones? First, let’s start with looking at the other first-round quarterbacks.

Trevor Lawrence

Lawrence has been the consensus No. 1 pick since the fall and nothing he did during the 2020 season, or during his pro day, changed that. Interestingly, Lawrence did show signs of being human early in his sophomore season. Over a five-game stretch to start 2019, Lawrence completed just 61.8 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and five interceptions. These were starts 16-20 of his college career (which is exactly where Lance sits). 

Over the final 10 games, Lawrence had a completion percentage of 67.9 and threw 28 touchdowns against just three picks (and that includes the playoffs vs. Ohio State and LSU, where Lawrence completed just over half his throws with two touchdowns and no interceptions). As a junior, Lawrence completed a career-best 69.2 percent of his attempts, assuaging most of the concerns that cropped up early during the 2019 season.

The point: Young players — especially quarterbacks — make a lot of mistakes and oftentimes experience goes a long way in helping to mitigate those mistakes. Unfortunately, NFL teams picking in the top 10 rarely have the luxury on waiting for a young franchise passer to blossom into the player they think he can become.

Zach Wilson

And that will be the expectation for Wilson, whom the Jets appear set to draft with the second-overall pick. Wilson was hampered by injuries during 2019, and while he was impressive at times, he was considered a Day 3 QB heading into his junior season (in much the same way no one thought much of Joe Burrow, especially as the top pick, heading into his final year at LSU) after completing 62.4 percent of his throws with 11 touchdowns and nine picks. 

Fast forward 12 months and Wilson looked amazing in 12 starts for BYU, with a completion percentage of 73.5, 33 touchdown passes and just three interceptions. Again, to reiterate our point above: sometimes the biggest thing holding young players back is lack of experience, whether in college or on an NFL sideline to begin their career.

Justin Fields

This is also why, for different reasons, we’re high on Fields and Jones. Fields has just 22 starts since arriving at Ohio State in 2019. And while he flashed a lot of “No. 1 overall”-type potential last fall — remember, in his first three games he had 11 incompletions and 11 touchdown passes — there were moments where he struggled. The Week 4 game against Indiana immediately comes to mind, as does the Northwestern matchup. 

But again, he was basically at the same point in his college experience as Lawrence was when he was working his way through a rough patch. Basically: If Fields returned to Columbus for the ’22 season, a year from now we’d be talking about him like we talk about Lawrence. Which raises this question: Does Fields become a better NFL player down the road with another year at Ohio State, or on an NFL roster of what could prove to be a middling-to-bad team where he’ll likely have to play under trying circumstances?

Mac Jones

Jones, meanwhile, also started just 17 career games, but we all know the talking points by now: He starred behind an NFL-caliber offensive line with some of the best playmakers on the planet in DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle and Najee Harris. Anyone, the thinking goes, could’ve done what Jones did last season. Except that’s not true; Jones, who lacks the arm strength and athleticism of the other first-round QBs in this class, also processes information much quicker. He’s less likely to make the wrong read, force a ball into coverage, or make a mistake, and, it turns out, he’s a much better athlete than he’s given credit for. 

Jones is also better than Tua Tagovailoa was coming out of Alabama. The same Tua who has similar arm talent and athleticism but rarely faced questions about playing behind a top-flight O-line and throwing to top-flight receivers. Tagovailoa was the No. 5 overall pick a year ago, just months removed from a serious hip injury. But this isn’t 2001, where more traditional pocket passers were all the rage; two decades later and NFL quarterbacks are sometimes the best athlete on the field.

How Lance compares

This brings us full circle, back to Lance. Unlike the other first-round quarterbacks, Lance had plenty of snaps from under center at North Dakota State, and as we mentioned, played in a run-heavy scheme that featured a fullback. (In related news: San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan loves finding ways to use fullback Kyle Juszczyk.) Lance would also be one of the best runners on any NFL team he finds himself. We saw his toughness, vision, athleticism and speed time and again during those 17 games.

And while Lance is a better runner than true passer right now, it’s only a matter of time before he’s known as much (if not more) for his ability to win consistently with his arm. It’s all over the film.

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Lance is occasionally late on pulling the trigger on some throws, and he can sometimes miss his target on short and intermediate passes, but these aren’t red flags that keep you from taking a potentially special talent with a top-15 pick; these are things you expect to become less of a concern with the more time he’s on the field.

Another way we like to think about this: Assume all these quarterbacks were returning to college for the 2021 season, who would make the most progress in terms of being “NFL ready”? For us, it’s Trey Lance, Justin Fields and Mac Jones, in that order.

“[Lance] is able to see coverages very well, and I think it’s going to be a little bit more complex obviously at the NFL level than the college level, but I think he’ll learn that game, as he progresses through his time in the NFL,” North Dakota State University quarterbacks coach Randy Hedberg said in March, via the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Hedberg also addressed concerns about Lance’s lack of experience.

“Well, I think the biggest thing is (that NFL teams) wonder if playing just the 17 games, if that gives him enough pictures that he’s seen … you know, different pictures from defenses,” Hedberg explained. “I think that’s the biggest question, I think that I’ve gotten from different people. It would have been nice to have a full season this fall for him this past fall, so he could have played potentially 15 more games or so, but that didn’t happen…I think that would have helped him in the long run.”

And it just re-emphasizes why fit is so incredibly important. Lance in San Francisco with Shanahan and a year to learn the system certainly has an Andy Reid-Patrick Mahomes feels to it. Lance in Detroit, on a team that has languished for years and now has a new coach and general manager, feels much less stable, at least based on recent history.

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