Trey Lance says that this is as long as he’s gone without a full football schedule since the third grade, so, yes, it’s been a very strange 14 months since he completed a 16–0 first season as a starter at North Dakota State and piloted the Bison to the program’s eighth FCS national championship in nine years on Jan. 11, 2020.
To be sure, he was already creeping onto the NFL’s radar at that point, and, conversely, the feeling that he could be in the pros in 2021 was moving onto his radar, as well. But the idea that he’d play only one more college game? Or that what would’ve been, if all went well, his final college season would be spent split between four different states?
That, most assuredly, was not on the 20-year-old’s radar.
“I’ve been playing football as long as I can remember. … So yeah, it’s been super weird,” Lance said during a break in his schedule late Wednesday afternoon. “But it’s been good for me, honestly, just from a being-able-to-make-yourself-uncomfortable standpoint.”
No one would draw up the path that Lance has taken to get where he is now, back in Fargo, with his pro day hours away, and that’s not even a reference to his roots as a lightly recruited, small-town Minnesota kid who turned down the likes of Cornell and Brown to pursue his football dreams in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
It’s what he’s gone through since then to get here, to the doorstep of the first round.
At his Friday morning pro day in the Fargodome, Lance will do what so many expected him to do in the fall, and that’s step onto a bigger stage with more scrutiny and the NFL’s eyes squarely upon him. And while it’s not his fault that he didn’t get the chance to do it before this—the pandemic robbed him of that—there’s very little question that this particular pro day might be as important as any in recent memory.
Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields and Zach Wilson have junior tape to lean back on. Lance does not and, to his credit, he knows the stakes.
“Yeah, absolutely,” he said. “This is pretty much my Super Bowl. It’s what I get for 2020. I’m just so excited for it, feel so prepared for it, where that just kind of handles the pressure by itself. My mindset towards it is like I’m going into a game. Whether it’s a game or this, I prepare to the point where I feel like I’ve done everything I possibly can to be as ready as I possibly can be to do my very best.
“And at that point, it’s just attitude and effort. Those are easy things for me.”
The goal is simple—he wants to reintroduce himself to the NFL after being out of the spotlight, and without game film, for a significant period of time.
If things go according to plan, he’ll give the NFL a show. And as he sees it, that show will largely be a product of all that he’s been through since he last hoisted a trophy 14 months ago.
There’s lots going on in the NFL, and we’ve got you covered in this week’s GamePlan. Inside the column, you’ll find …
• A post-franchise-tag earning-power ranking of free agents.
• The impact Dak Prescott’s deal could have (if wielded correctly).
• Which other sport one NFL team studied ahead of free agency.
But we’re starting with maybe the most interesting quarterback prospect in this year’s draft class on the eve of a very big day.
Earlier on Wednesday afternoon, Lance’s quarterback trainer was making the three-hour drive from the airport in Minneapolis to meet him in Fargo and going through the pro day mechanics with me when he, almost inadvertently, gave me the answer on how Lance has found a way to handle the football abyss he’s been in the last seven months.
“He’s the most responsible 20-year-old I’ve ever met,” Quincy Avery said. “I worked with Deshaun [Watson] and Josh Dobbs at that age, and I’m telling you, I’ve never met a more mature 20-year, just as a young guy, being a leader, doing everything right. And then he really took it to another level getting ready for this.”
Which, of course, explains how someone that age can see the hand Lance was dealt as a chance to operate outside his comfort zone—and grow.
All of it really began on Aug. 7, with the MVFC’s moving its 2020 season to the spring of 2021, which created the first decision point for Lance, on whether to hold out hope that the Bison would be able to work out some semblance of a fall schedule, or to look at transferring or getting an early start on prepping for the draft.
Lance says now that he was “way too committed” to NDSU to entertain a transfer. “There was no way I was transferring. It honestly never crossed my mind,” he said. And he felt like the NFL could wait. So he went back to Fargo, with Bison coach Matt Entz working on a plan to play a three-game slate for the fall that would be, well, better than nothing. And then, on Aug. 14, that plan was scrapped, and Lance went back home to Minnesota.
A week later, Entz called Lance to ask if he’d play if there was just a single game in the fall.
“I called a bunch of guys on our leadership council, the seniors,” Lance said. “And people don’t understand, FCS football, a lot of guys are on split scholarships. A lot of guys are paying, especially after you’ve graduated, for courses that they don’t necessarily need just to play football. From our perspective, that had a lot to do with it that people on the outside, and not just outside football, but outside FCS football, don’t necessarily understand. So my decision was giving those guys another opportunity, a sense of closure.
“It wouldn’t have been fair to them, especially the guys who were gonna be done playing football—that had great college careers and were ready to hang it up after this year. To win that national championship last year and expect to have a whole other season to play, another 16 games, and then have it shut down, and have that be the last time they’re putting on the pads, with them not even knowing. That wouldn’t have been fair to them at all, so that was more the intent of everything. It was to get those guys another opportunity.”
Lance says he’ll forever be at peace with that. But what happened from there wasn’t ideal in a couple of ways.
First, the game was positioned as a Lance showcase, which Lance swears was never even a part of the discussion. “I was really frustrated that it was called a showcase game,” he said. And there really wasn’t any way to control that narrative, since, by then, Lance’s profile as a potential top-20 draft pick, on a national level, overshadowed everything else that was happening in Fargo.
Second, the runup to the Oct. 3 game wound up being messy for Lance personally. Three weeks beforehand, his roommate tested positive for COVID-19, and that put the Bison quarterback in quarantine until about 10 days before kickoff. And even coming out of quarantine, because cases were rising in North Dakota, Lance had to go the extra mile in taking precautions just to assure he’d be able to play.
The game, frankly, wasn’t his best. He says now that the important part was getting the win, but he wound up throwing his first interception since his senior year of high school—back in the fall of 2017—completed only half his throws and threw for just 149 yards as the Bison outlasted fellow FCS power Central Arkansas 39–28. It was spun as a statistical blemish on an otherwise sparkling ledger (he completed 66.9% of his throws for 2,786 yards, 28 TDs and zero INTs, and rushed for 1,100 yards and another 14 TDs in 2019).
But while he concedes that the interception “is gonna bug me forever,” he had no regrets about playing. Because the Bison won, and because he wound up accomplishing what he intended to by playing.
“I’d do the same exact thing, a million times over again,” he said. “There was no question in my head over whether I was gonna play in that game. I heard people thought I was dumb for playing in it, or whatever. I mean, my plan was to play another whole season and win another national championship, and then make that decision in January. So for me, it was a no-brainer. Without a doubt, I was playing.”
On Oct. 6, Lance declared for the draft and, five days later, he landed in Atlanta to start work with Avery with an eye toward April. Avery saw an athlete that “physically, is just really, really explosive,” and was more in need of refinement more than any sort of overhaul. So the two spent the two months to follow working on the details of Lance’s game—to make him a little more accurate, shorten his release and get him a little quicker and more efficient moving in the pocket—before Lance went back home to Minnesota for Christmas.
From there, Lance went to work on his body at EXOS in Pensacola, with Avery joining him there for throwing sessions, for most of January and February. He went back to Atlanta after that to work on pro day plans with the pro free-agent receivers he’ll throw to (ex-Falcons WR Justin Hardy, ex-WFT WR Jordan Veasy, ex–Oklahoma State WR Jordan McCray and ex–Eastern Tennessee State TE Ari Werts), before returning to Fargo on Sunday to get reps with ex-NDSU teammate Darrius Shepherd, who spent time with the Packers this year.
And therein lies another difference: Lance doesn’t have college teammates to throw to because NDSU is playing its season right now. At this point, though, with things being sideways, to Lance, they seem straight forward.
“I’m definitely the type of person where I like to have my life scheduled out,” Lance said. “Sundays, I like to set up my week. And going back all the way to the beginning of COVID, not really knowing what the next day or next week is gonna look like with all the changing rules and regulations has been super weird. … And being outside my comfort zone, I think I’ve definitely learned a lot and grown a lot with it.”
As he sees it, now, he’s getting shots to show that growth.
The first ones have come over Zoom in meeting with teams—he’s already met with just about every team that needs a quarterback, plus a handful that aren’t necessarily in the market for one, which might surprise you. With some, he’s sat down with the head coach and GM. With others, it’s been an area scout or sport psychologist. But across the board, what he’s trying to project is the same.
That goes back to overarching advice that fellow NDSU alum Carson Wentz gave him (“He’s been an awesome mentor to me,” Lance says of the new Colt), which was just to be yourself and show yourself through the process.
“Confident, but humble,” Lance said, when I asked what he wanted teams to think leaving the Zoom. “I think that’s just kind of who I am and how I am. Like I said, the biggest thing, I want them to know what they’re getting. I don’t want teams to think they’re getting something that they’re not, or vice versa. So I’m just continuing to be myself, and obviously at the end of the day God’s gonna handle the rest and everything’s gonna work itself out. I want teams to know who Trey Lance is, and what kind of person I am.”
Which leaves the pro day as the last chance for teams to see what kind of player he is.
The script that Avery and Lance have assembled will land between 65 and 68 throws on Friday. The plan is to show Lance in quick-game, throwing off play-action and hitting intermediate routes early on, before showcasing (there’s that word again) his down-the-field accuracy at the end of the workout.
He won’t do combine testing, with he and his camp pointing to the GPS data from NDSU’s tracking to cover him in that area—he topped 20 mph on runs on the GPS three times in games in 2019, and his top speed of 21.54 mph would’ve landed in the top 15 times in the NFL last year. Which, of course, is impressive for a guy who easily carries his 225 pounds on a 6' 4" frame.
The idea was simple for Avery and Lance, and that was to show the part that all those teams, and Lance himself, missed in the fall: the football itself. As part of that effort, Avery plucked concepts from a number of different NFL schemes—pieces of Kyle Shanahan’s Niners offense, and what Falcons coach Arthur Smith did in Tennessee, for example, are incorporated—to try to give the teams there a feel for how Lance projects.
“The biggest thing for me, I wanna show overall what I’ve got, what I can do, how much better I’ve gotten the last six months,” Lance said. Whether it’s being more efficient in my movements, throwing mechanics, footwork. The gains I’ve made in the last six months are huge, and I think they’ll be noticeable. And for me, I’m honestly just excited to get out there and have some kind of competition again, even if it’s just competing against myself.”
Without a combine, or any allowable private workouts with teams, it’s not very hard to position it as a competition. It really is Lance’s one shot to show teams, physically, how he stacks up with guys like Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields and Zach Wilson.
And no, that’s not the most comfortable situation for a 20-year-old prospect to be in.
But at this point, Lance is plenty used to that kind of thing.
With franchise tags assigned, I figured this would be a good time to rank the free agents with the strongest earning power ahead of next week. It’s a simple exercise, and it was fun to take a look at the list and sort through it.
1) Trent Williams, OT, 49ers: I think San Francisco will find a way to keep him, but he won’t stay cheap. You can make a case he should be in the $20 million–per-year neighborhood, and he might get there.
2) Shaq Barrett, OLB, Buccaneers: Barrett’s coming off a Super Bowl he starred in, has a 19.5-sack season on his résumé, and this year’s draft is just so-so in players for the defensive front. Which means if Tampa Bay can’t sign him now—and the Bucs are really trying to—there’ll be a windfall out there for him.
3) Yannick Ngakoue, OLB, Ravens: Ngakoue’s got some freakish pass-rush ability to him, but his makeup has been called into question repeatedly, and his play against the run might mean a team managing his workload. Still, teams pay for players who get to the quarterback. Ngakoue does.
4) Matthew Judon, OLB, Ravens: He’s never had a double-digit sack season, and that’s at least a little troubling if you’re going to pay him at the top of the market. But he’s an excellent, versatile edge defender who you never have to take off the field.
5) Joe Thuney, G, Patriots: A really strong offensive-line class in the draft could wind up hurting him slightly, but the league’s always needy for types like Thuney, who will probably wind up getting even more now that Washington’s Brandon Scherff (another top-shelf guard who was tagged in 2020) got tagged again.
And, by the way, I also considered Lions WR Kenny Golladay for the list, particularly with Allen Robinson and Chris Godwin tagged. In the end, though, I think enough teams have concerns with his ability to separate that I’m not sure his price will get truly outrageous. (And to be clear, he’ll still do really well).
THE BIG QUESTION
How does the Dak Prescott contract affect everyone else?
Maybe the most interesting element of it is something ex-Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum forecast on my podcast a week ago—that the Cowboys would trade out guarantees, length and clauses in the contract to save on the APY (average per year). Indeed, the Cowboys got Prescott in at $40 million per, which is a lot, but only an incremental increase over what Deshaun Watson took home in September.
Prescott, meanwhile …
• Got a four-year deal, rather than a five- or six-year deal, which means he’ll be up again at 31 years old, when the new broadcast deals will have kicked into the cap formula, and gambling revenue could be part of the equation too. Length was the sticking point between Dallas and Prescott last year, so this was a big win.
• Got $95 million guaranteed at signing, and a practical guarantee of $126 million—the $31 million injury guarantee vests as a full guarantee in March, meaning Dallas either pays $95 million for one year (not happening), or Prescott’s fully assured of seeing at least the $126 million. That’s 78.8% of his deal that’s guaranteed, which is a massive percentage.
• Got a no-tag provision, a no-trade clause, and Dallas had to tag him a second time, meaning he can be tagged only once more in his career, and that tag would come at a rate of at least 144% of what he made the year previous.
So that’s good for Dak. How’s it good for all players?
Well, with cap space short across the NFL, and there being a lot of uncertainty over whether the cap will rebound in 2022, this deal could become a model for other star players. Those could offer slight discounts in total payout to get bigger percentages of their deals guaranteed, ask for shorter term, or get favorable clauses thrown in.
The more this happens, the more it normalizes such things, and becomes a part of negotiations when things do get back to normal.
I’ve said this before: There’s no CBA in the big four North American pro men’s sports that either outlaws or mandates guaranteed contracts. The leagues allow for players and teams to negotiate that stuff on their own, so to a degree it’s always been on the players and their agents to get everyone there, with the acknowledgement that, in football, for a variety of reasons, it’s always going to be harder to get more deals guaranteed.
I think Prescott’s deal can be a nice step in that direction, if enough players and agents find a creative way to make use of it.
WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT
How NFL teams studied up in advance of free agency.
I ran into one team that assigned scouts to study what happened this fall in the NHL—given the financial bath pro hockey took as a result of COVID-19. As you may recall, that league operated in bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton to complete its 2019–20 season, with play resuming on Aug. 1 and running until the Lightning won the Stanley Cup at the end of September.
The hits taken in hockey financially were more severe than in football, because hockey is more reliant on butts in seats than football is, and that was felt in a significant way during a free-agency period that kicked off on Oct. 9.
How much so? I checked in with my own hockey insider, and ex-teammate, ESPN’s Emily Kaplan, for a hand on this, and she helped with a few facts that we can learn from.
1) That sport’s top free agent, 2010 No. 1 pick Taylor Hall, signed a one-year deal with Buffalo in hopes the market would rebound by the summer of 2021. The idea in going to the Sabres was to pair up with another young star, Jack Eichel, to put together a strong contract drive during the 2020–21 season.
2) A few other high-end guys like Alex Pietrangelo (seven-year, $61.6 million deal with Vegas), Torey Krug (seven-year, $45.5 million contract with St. Louis) and Jacob Markström (six-year, $36 million pact in Calgary, and, as a football writer, I think that’s the first time I’ve used an umlaut in a story) got relatively huge hauls, proving the top guys were going to get paid regardless.
3) And from there, a sizable middle class of free agents got squeezed, and a bunch of short-term deals followed.
I think we can fairly translate all three of these things. High-end guys, the NFL’s versions of Pietrangelo, Krug and Markström (not gonna lie, I really like using the umlaut)—guys like Kenny Golladay, Shaq Barrett and William Jackson—will probably get paid like nothing ever went wrong. The middle class will feel the pinch, and one-year or “bridge” deals will be done.
And while I don’t know that there’ll be someone at Hall’s level doing a one-year deal with some team, I do think the concept he used in picking his destination will be applied, maybe with skill players looking to latch on in places like Tampa or Green Bay in an effort to put up career numbers and then cash in a year from now.
So looking at all this, I think the exercise of looking at how the pandemic hit the player acquisition process in other sports is pretty interesting.
Also, while we’re here, when I presented this to another scout I know, he countered with a basketball analogy that I really liked, that relates to how team-building might work with contenders this offseason. Given the cap crunch, he explained, he could see the NBA’s superteam model being put into practice—where a team surrounds a core of superstars with guys ring-chasing or trying to revive their stock on shorter-term deals, something that, again, could benefit teams like the Bucs and Packers.
All of which is to say what we’ll see the next two weeks will probably look a lot different than what we’re used to seeing this time of year.
THE FINAL WORD
I figured I’d just leave you with what ex-NFL quarterback Jon Kitna said on my buddy Ryen Russillo’s podcast this week.
“There were some things that were hard to believe [with the Bengals],” Kitna said. “There was a time that I played a game with a guy that was drunk in the huddle. There was a time that a guy showed up late to a game. In the NFL, you need to be there two hours, two hours and 15 minutes ahead of time. And he showed up under an hour before the game’s start. Those are weird things, now. That’s tough. I’m not sure if the staff knew.
“But I think the guy was like — that was kind of his normal. I mean he was drunk and had close to 200 yards receiving now. So it was crazy.”
Stuff like this is more common than you realize, and not just in the pros. Football is an interesting game.