Skip to main content

Trey Lance Explains How a Hidden Injury Derailed His Rookie Year

The 49ers quarterback is now on track to deliver in Year 2. Plus, analyzing Deshaun Watson’s suspension, an interesting Micah Parsons comparison and more.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Trey Lance caught a football, flipped to him from across the room inside Levi’s Stadium, and he worked a grip on it to try to relive how he had to hold it a little more than a year ago just to have a prayer of throwing it. His index finger was almost to the nose of the ball, his middle finger off the laces and his ring finger sitting over and between the first and second cross-laces.

It’s not how anyone would tell a quarterback to do it. But Lance had no choice.

Even more remarkable? He didn’t have much to say about it back then, either—really to anyone. So as his rookie year went up and down, as it looked like his cannon of a right arm might be wearing out, as it might’ve seemed to some like he was shot-putting the ball in games, Lance knew what was wrong. He had a broken finger, with damaged ligaments, and even if excuses would’ve saved him some criticism and grief, he wasn’t about to make any.

“I chipped the bone in my pointer finger, so I had to wait on it. It was super swollen, couldn’t really bend it or straighten it,” he said, as he flexed it over the ball. “It [happened] at the Raiders [preseason] game. We had a bye week after the Raiders game, I had a splint on just to try to get it back straight. So it chipped, it kind of stayed bent like this and we just had to keep working. I wore a little brace that kind of … it pushed down on my knuckle and up on both sides of my finger. I just kept wearing it and stretching it as much as I could, scraping it and just trying to get all the scar tissue out of there.”

As Lance was explaining it, he curled his index finger and held it in place, illustrating how hard it was to summon any strength in it and showing how, at the time, he was really trying to throw with four fingers. Add that to the learning curve he faced coming from North Dakota State, with just 17 college starts on his résumé, and then how hope the finger would straighten out in-season evaporated, and your perception of Lance might change.

No, Lance’s rookie year didn’t go as planned. And sure, there were moments of doubt in some corners of San Francisco. But the full picture wasn’t out there for public consumption, either—which was by the quarterback’s own choice—or even for almost any of the people he was working with day to day.

“I was blown away with the way he handled that, finding a way to get out there and get better every day,” said 49ers GM John Lynch. “And it was hard because of that finger, and it wasn’t always pretty. That’s the finger you throw a football with, and he didn’t have that. It was compromised. It led to some bad habits. But he still found a way to get better, to support Jimmy [Garoppolo], to be a great teammate and earn the respect of our guys.”

Six months later, on an August Saturday, Lance is the one taking first-team reps, with Garoppolo on a side field throwing and waiting for the Niners to find him a new home. That, of course, was expected, from the moment the team took Lance No. 3 in the draft 16 months ago.

But his road here? It had a lot more twists, and potholes, than most people know.

Les Snead at Rams championship parade; Trey Lance at 49ers camp; Micah Parsons at Cowboys camp

I had a week off the road, and I’ll be back on it this week. In between, we’re getting you a loaded MMQB column. Inside this week’s column, you’ll find …

• Some final thoughts on the Deshaun Watson decision.

• A Cowboy with no comparison.

• Why and how the Rams actually value their picks.

But we’re starting with one of the NFL’s most intriguing story lines—a team that was minutes away from making the Super Bowl now making a quarterback change months later, and taking on all that comes along with that.


There’s tempered enthusiasm on what the Niners are seeing from Lance this summer and, mostly, that’s because there’s still a lot left to learn.

The injury early in his de facto redshirt season created a pretty significant bump in the process the Niners would go through in evaluating his readiness to be their starter—as the plan prescribed all along—in 2022. And that was after there was, admittedly, a leap of faith in taking Lance third in the first place.

Again, he had only 17 college starts. He averaged fewer than 19 pass attempts, and nearly 11 carries, in those games. Most of them were blowouts on North Dakota State’s way to an FBS national championship in 2019, so NFL teams didn’t get to see him much in third-and-long or playing from behind. Then, of course, his ’20 season was canceled due to COVID-19, with NDSU playing just a single exhibition, in which the quarterback was a bit scattershot.

“That’s why the evaluation was so hard,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan explained, leaning back in his office chair. “I mean, it’s because of all the situations you just said, and also there was only one year of it, because they ended up getting canceled with COVID the next year. So you saw stuff in the games. You just didn’t see it over and over, because he didn’t have the reps of it. That’s what was so easy to see with Mac [Jones]. Just the system they played in with Sark [then Alabama OC Steve Sarkisian], the type of games they were in, you could see it a ton.

“Trey, you could make a tape and it’s all there, but there’s not a ton of it. … You go through it all, which isn’t enough. It’s enough to intrigue you, but still a risk. Then you learn the person, you find out more about him, and you believe in that. You don’t have to totally see it. You believe what you’re gonna see.”

And for a while, last summer, the Niners were seeing exactly what they hoped for. After OTAs that spring, San Francisco’s quarterback situation seemed clarified—Garoppolo was the starter for a Super Bowl–caliber roster, and Lance had a long way to go. Then, through the 40-day break between minicamp and training camp, the rookie worked on his footwork in Atlanta, with fellow ex-NDSU quarterbacks Carson Wentz and Easton Stick in Fargo, and on his throwing efficiency in Orange County, and came back for summer to a closed gap.

For a while, anyway.

“The first two weeks of training camp, we were considering it a real good competition, the way he came out,” Shanahan continued. “And then the more stuff went in, Jimmy being so used to it and Jimmy playing at a high level, Jimmy and him, there was separation between the two. There were some rookie things that he was doing. He just needed more time, and I was pumped that Jimmy gave him that time.”

Which is where the next hitch in the plan came—during the 49ers’ preseason finale against the Raiders at home.

With 16 seconds left in the half, Lance uncorked a ball into a wide-open space down the right sideline as blitzing Las Vegas linebacker Max Richardson bore down on him. It looked like a bad throwaway, because the receiver ran the wrong route, but the more significant action happened on Lance’s follow-through, which landed right on the crown of Richardson’s helmet, breaking the finger and stretching its ligaments.

As a rookie wanting to keep his place on the depth chart, and keep getting the practice reps he needed, Lance saw the injury as something he could grit his teeth and work through. So he had it splinted and, really, never brought it up again to the team.

“I didn’t really know how much it was affecting me until we were getting into the season,” he said. “Every week kind of got harder. And I was working on it, I knew obviously it was broken. It didn’t feel good. But I wanted to play. I wanted at least to have an opportunity to be ready and be the two, whatever my role was [going to be] that year. So yeah, I took care of it the best that I could. But there’s just kind of only so much you can do.”

And there was, all the same, only so much Lance could do when he did get shots to play in place of a banged-up Garoppolo last year.

The first came against Arizona, and his tape wasn’t great—he went 15-of-29 for 192 yards and a pick in a 17–10 loss. The second was Jan. 2 against the Texans, and the finger issue was only exacerbated by the fact he was a little under the weather for that one, too (his numbers, 16-of-23 for 249 yards, 2 TDs and a pick, were better). But by then, Shanahan had the context that almost everyone else lacked, and that context, added to the performance, only deepened his belief in the Lance he was gonna see, with a little more time.

Against Arizona, it was his toughness. Against Houston, it was more than just that.

“The pressure was on, because if we lost that game, we were out of the playoffs, and everybody knew it,” Shanahan said. “He started slow, and he came back and finished in that second half, he got on fire, threw a [45-yard] touchdown to Deebo [Samuel]. We ended up easily winning the game, and that was kind of when, All right, this guy can overcome adversity. We know he has the ability. It’s a matter of time for this guy.

“And then just having him in the offseason, the way he came back prepared, the way it went in OTAs—the difference between OTA 1 and OTA 7, and the difference between OTA 7 and right now. The guy only gets better when he’s thrown out there.”

Of course, a lot had to happen between the end of the season and OTAs to get Lance there.


Trey Lance throws a pass at 49ers training camp

Lance reworked his mechanics to fix some changes he had made to compensate for an injury as a rookie.

To be clear, Lance’s mechanics coach, Adam Dedeaux, loves everything about Lance as a person, and the toughness he exhibited in fighting through the injury. But he never wants the quarterback to be that quiet about something like that ever again.

“Yeah, he didn’t want to talk about the finger,” Dedeaux says, “because he may not have been thinking, This is the problem. But his arm took a beating.”

As Lynch said, the adjustments that Lance made to fight through the finger injury did, indeed, lead to bad habits. And that led to his arm wearing down, another thing he kept to himself on an old pro-football-player premise: Everyone’s dealing with something.

After the Niners’ season ended in the NFC championship game, Lance went to work with Dedeaux. As the two dove into the tape and kept talking, Lance told Dedeaux how he’d adjusted his grip to compensate for the lack of strength in his index finger, an index finger which, at that point, still didn’t have full range of motion. That allowed Dedeaux to dive further into how Lance was playing a sort of survival game with the ball.

“If, all of a sudden, there’s some unexplainable changes in ball flight and accuracy and things like that, All right, then let’s see what the major difference is,” said Dedeaux. “And then it was like, O.K., why did you feel like you had to make changes? And he was like, Well, honestly, when I hurt my finger that made me feel like I need to change to get a little more underneath the ball, so I felt like I had a little more control over it.”

So if it looked to you like, at points last year, Lance was pushing the ball from his body, that’s probably why. How did it happen? The tape showed that to manipulate the situation, Lance was not just gripping but maybe over-gripping the ball (which can create soreness), and he was also dropping his arm slot to try to get underneath it and control it better.

The reality was it wasn’t even a conscious thing so much as it was Lance doing what he had to do to get his throws to go where he wanted them to. But it was something that would need correcting, and in more ways than one.

The goal was to get Lance not to some sort of classic throwing motion, but simply back to where he felt most natural throwing it—“call it a mid-three-quarter arm slot,” said Dedeaux. That would happen only if they could get his finger and arm back to full strength.

Specialists helped Lance get his finger where it needed to be, and he and Dedeaux worked on a strict pitch count through the weeks leading up to the Niners’ offseason program. Dedeaux also used the example of Matt Ryan, another one of his clients, to illuminate how in Shanahan’s offense, it was more important to throw with anticipation than flat velocity, which would help Lance take something off some balls and save strength.

And when Lance wasn’t throwing, there was still plenty to learn from his rookie year, by his own admission. He worked through all his film from 2021, sometimes with teammates like Brandon Aiyuk, who attached himself to his quarterback over the last few months.

As the offseason wore on, Lance’s finger straightened, his mechanics corrected and his workload ramped up. So by the time OTAs arrived, he was ready to make the day-over-day progress Shanahan mentioned, which then carried over from spring to summer.

“I’m going to be a lot better than I was last year,” he says. “Everything’s slower. Some of [the tape] is tough to watch because you see some of the dumb mistakes. But that’s part of it. That’s part of playing the position, that’s part of being in my first year. There’s going to be mistakes again this year, and for me it’s about how I respond. It’ll be easy to turn the page. And for the frustrating moments? I had them today, I have them every day.

“But I think how we respond, how I respond personally is what’s most important.”


On the Saturday I was there, early in the day at his press conference, Shanahan looked at a reporter like he had three heads after the reporter had prefaced a question by saying his offense had its best practice the day before.

It wasn’t the reporter’s fault, of course. It’s just that Shanahan didn’t see it that way, as he explained a few minutes later from his office.

“I have opinions on whether guys have good or bad days, and then I have to go to a press conference and I get asked on things and sometimes it’s the exact opposite of what I feel,” he said. “And you’re like, Man, why do they think that? … Oh, there were three picks out there today. They wrote that down. Well, those three picks can be anybody’s fault, and sometimes those three picks I was pumped about, because he finally let it rip and he saw it right. And what happened? There was a tip or something, but it’s a good learning experience.

“I mean, today I went in there to the press conference and they asked me how pumped I was about the offense from yesterday. I had no idea what they were talking about. I was frustrated [with the offense]. So I feel for players, because they read that stuff or their wives call them or their friends. They’re like, Man, I hear you sucked today. And they start to believe it, and then I gotta go tell them, Dude, you don’t suck. You actually had a good day.”

A minute earlier, I’d brought up how the panic button was being worn out three years earlier when Garoppolo, coming back from a torn ACL, threw five picks in a practice. Shanahan smiled and corrected me. It was actually, he said, five picks “in a row.”

The Niners were in the Super Bowl six months after that practice.

And the hope is that’s where a fresh batch of reports of the ups and downs that Lance has been through get San Francisco, with its loaded roster and 22-year-old quarterback, this time around, too. Yes, Shanahan, in a very intentional way, is throwing the kitchen sink at his young QB with an edgy, fast, veteran defense.

“He’s going against a really good defense, so it’s gonna be tough early on,” said all-planet edge rusher Nick Bosa. “But he already looks better throwing the ball this year. Last year, he had the finger issue that kinda messed with his throwing motion, and when you’re a backup in the NFL, you don’t get very many reps. So this month is super important for him, and I’ve already seen some impressive plays.”

“They bring it every single day,” Lance added, of the defense. “We know they’re going to do that. I know if I’m not on it or we’re not on it, they’re going to make us look really, really bad. So I just know I need to be prepared to go every single day. They don’t take any days off at all, and you can see the intensity, you can feel it every single day. There’s nothing more I could ask for, in that sense, going against the best defense in the league every day.”

Ideally, Shanahan says, the offense and defense would hit “.500 every day” against one another. And so the breadth of training camp was never going to be about building Lance up to think he could snap his fingers and be Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes. More so, it was about getting a quarterback who lacks experience more of it.

Along those lines, Dedeaux mentioned how Ryan’s first year playing for Shanahan, 2015, was bumpy—and also the precursor for his MVP year in ’16. Point being, there’s going to be a learning curve along the way, and the more adversity Shanahan and defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans can create for Lance now, the better he’ll be equipped to handle it when it comes in game action.

The good news is, after last year, they already know Lance can handle the turbulence. And Lance knows it, too.

“Absolutely,” he said. “And I know, I’ve said it before, the guys in the locker room having confidence in me, and I know they got my back, that’s all I need at the end of the day. I feel really good about that, about these guys. They know I’ve got their back. But yeah, I’m turning the page. The pick I threw today, same thing, turn the page, come back, have a good two-minute drill and then we finish it the right way.”


That two-minute drill concluded with the kind of play that made Lance such a coveted prospect in the first place. Deep in the red zone, he took a shotgun snap, and as the Niners’ defensive ends raced around his tackles, he stepped up in the pocket and was chased left, seeing, out of the corner of his eye, Ray-Ray McCloud finding a dead spot in the coverage to his right.

On a dime, he twisted his torso and unleashed a strike across his body that tattooed McCloud right on the No. 3 of his jersey for a touchdown. Shanahan blew the whistle to end practice and, really, there weren’t any gasps from the sideline.

Everyone here knows what Lance is capable of.

What Shanahan and Lynch saw when Lance, the person, convinced them what Lance, the player, could turn all the raw ability into is slowly, surely coming to life.

“To win in this league, you’re gonna have to make plays in the pocket, you’re gonna have to be a drop-back passer, do all that stuff, and I see him having the ability to do all that, which excites me,” Shanahan said. “You want that with every single quarterback you go for, but very rarely do I feel that way about a guy who I think also is a threat to run. And you look at our division, you look at some of the guys we go against and how we can get advantages on people, and so many people in the league are running similar stuff to us now.

“Defenses see it more now. … When they’re practicing against their own offense throughout the offseason, they’re just a little bit more used to it. And I love the idea of being able to add another element that maybe some other people can’t. You can do the same stuff, but if they play it this way, we do have another option. Our guy can run.”

“We really believe in that ceiling,” Lynch added, “that it can become a reality. I also think it’s comforting to know that you don’t have to put it all on him.”

Indeed, as Lance is being weaned onto the system and working to develop into a complete quarterback, a big key for Shanahan and Lynch is that because of the state of the roster, the Niners don’t need him to be superman.

In illustrating his vision for that, Shanahan cited the 28–3 lead he, Ryan and Atlanta let slip in Super Bowl LI at the hands of Tom Brady.

“There’s no defense for the perfect throw and he was shredding us,” Shanahan said. “And how do you stop that? You don’t go get someone to one-up him. You get a pass rush.”

Conversely, he then raised the Niners’ Super Bowl LIV loss to the Chiefs, and how Mahomes made plays that made a difference, like he hopes Lance can.

“You can win with a run game and with a quarterback who can make some plays, whether it’s throwing or running it, as long as you do have a top defense,” he said. “And that’s how we’ve tried to build it here to catch some of those teams until you get someone like that. And I think we have a chance to have a player grow into someone like that.”

Maybe Lance, someday, will get there.

For now, though, they’re not asking him to. They love the talent. They love the person. They also know a lot more about him than they did a year before, after watching how he handled the injury and his wait to ascend to the starting job. And Lance, for his part, is well aware of what he’s got around him too, and the opportunity that awaits.

“I’m super blessed to be here,” he said. “I was not expecting to get drafted as high as I got drafted onto a team like this, a Super Bowl contender team. So I’m thankful to be here. The guys, like I said, in this locker room, offense, defense and special teams are different, and separate themselves in so many different ways. I’ll get Deebo back again this year …

Lance then smiled and said, “Ah man, it’s super exciting.”

It is for everyone involved with the 49ers. And especially after everything they’ve already been through together.


Deshaun Watson at a press conference after his settlement was announced

Watson will be suspended for 11 games, and his case will have a longer-term impact across the league.

WATSON SETTLEMENT FALLOUT, ON AND OFF THE FIELD

I’ll first reiterate what I wrote Thursday after the NFL, NFLPA and Deshaun Watson reached a settlement on sanctions for Watson—the quarterback took an 11-game suspension and $5 million fine, and agreed to an evaluation and counseling. That’s after settling 23 of 24 lawsuits against him describing sexual harassment and assault. and say that the NFL probably got what it was looking for in the negotiation.

One, the league wanted to come down hard on Watson in adding five games and $5 million on to the penalty recommended by Sue L. Robinson, who presided over the first phase of the process. And whether you think it did or not, it seemed relatively clear to me that the public’s focus over the last few days has been on how the Browns and Watson have handled the fallout, not on what the league agreed to.

Two, the NFL wanted to avoid going to court, and the settlement effectively achieves that. The league wanted no part of this turning into a supersized version of 2015, when the Tom Brady case lingered over an entire season (I’m obviously not comparing the substance of the two cases here, by the way), and this gives the NFL some closure in that way.

But what will it mean for the NFL, the Browns and Watson long-term? Here are a few things that I’ve considered on that topic since the decision came down.

1. Unless there’s a renegotiation of the personal conduct policy for cases like this one, a precedent has been set with the hefty fine and 11-game suspension. Remember, Robinson’s ruling wasn’t based on whether Watson was responsible in the four cases the NFL presented (she did find him responsible); it was based on precedent. So that there’s a new one is important.

2. Along those lines, I do wonder whether the NFL will try to work with the union to rework that part of the personal conduct policy, to address more specifically sexual violence and other transgressions against women. The league has clearly had its problems handling those. And I’d imagine the NFLPA would at least consider working with the league on that, based on how the union has worked with the league on these things in the past (the DUI policy is one where both sides, years ago, agreed harsh penalties should be in place).

3. I’ll be interested to see whether, when the 24th (and presumably final) lawsuit is adjudicated, we get a Watson who’s more willing to explain himself and be more specific with his apologies.

4. Jimmy Haslam was being a little disingenuous talking about taking risks during a press conference that didn’t go well for the Browns’ owner. He mentioned Kareem Hunt as a risk that worked out on the field. Fair enough. But under his leadership, there have been quite a few (Antonio Callaway, Josh Gordon, Johnny Manziel, Justin Gilbert, etc., etc.) that blew up in the team’s face.

5. As for Cleveland GM Andrew Berry, I’ll say this: There’s really not a lot that he can say about the 24 lawsuits or the four cases presented to the league. If he says he believes Watson, then he is essentially saying the women involved are lying. And if he says he doesn’t, well, then why did he trade for him? It’s why you saw him, I think, try to say as little as possible Thursday.

6. On the league’s end, I think the way this was handled follows what at least a few owners wanted a few years ago and agreed to in the CBA. And that’s for the NFL to start to outsource these cases and move Goodell away from being judge, jury and executioner. I think that’s why you saw Goodell pass on ruling on the appeal. And the effect of that? As I said earlier, not nearly as many people were pointing the finger at the league as they did in previous cases.

7. I can actually understand the league wanting to outsource these, too. No matter how many people it hires, it’s not law enforcement. It doesn’t have subpoena power. It’s a sports league, and as it’s found out over the years there’s very little upside to carrying the hammer in every arena.

8. There’s no way to turn the page to football here without it seeming like a hard left turn, but I’ll try. Obviously, the Browns now have certainty on the suspension, and with that I’d guess they’ll at least kick the tires on Jimmy Garoppolo and other available veteran options (so long as Garoppolo would work with them on the money part of it, and I think he would). With decent quarterback play (and I think Jacoby Brissett could give them that, too), the roster is good enough to get six or seven wins through 11 games.

9. I feel confident saying that the Browns know what they’ll face on the road this year, and were aware of it being part of the deal when they made the trade back in March. Regardless of whether Watson’s guilty, it’s obviously understandable why people would be upset with the team.

10. That said, this was never a move just for 2022. This was a move the Browns made believing it was a rare opportunity to get a top-five player at the most important position in sports in his mid-20s. The idea was it’d put them in position to compete with Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert and Lamar Jackson in the AFC over the next decade or so. So that the Browns would incur all this is both a sign of how vital having a great quarterback is in this era and of what kind of player Watson is.

While the disciplinary process now has closure, obviously the conversation isn’t over, and shouldn’t be over, either, regardless of where you stand on the case. 


Micah Parsons celebrates a big play as a rookie

It’s hard to find the right comparison for Parsons, who exploded onto the scene as a rookie.

MICAH PARSONS: THE DEFENSIVE GRONK?

OXNARD, Calif. — My conversation with Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn started with my trying to get a historical comparison for Micah Parsons out of him. He didn’t have one, and eventually we meandered right back there, after it hit me how he was describing him.

This sounds like the inverse of Rob Gronkowski, I said, as he described Parsons’s uniqueness.

Quinn smiled and said he liked that one. My logic was simple. Gronkowski was a nightmare for defenses from the minute the huddle was broken because that was when they had to figure out what to do with him. Put a defensive back on him, his team checks to a run, and that corner or safety is blocked into the third row. Put a linebacker over him, Gronk’s waltzing down the seam for a big gain. There literally was no right answer.

Ditto with Parsons. When the offense breaks the huddle, the 23-year-old must be accounted for. If he’s off the line, you can’t assign a back to handle him, lest he blitz and that back be responsible for slowing him. If he’s on the line, you have to treat him as if he’s DeMarcus Lawrence coming off the edge, because he almost is. And if he drops into coverage or plays the run, you’ll likely have to waste a resource accounting for him as a rusher.

“Yeah, it’s the reserve of that matchup: Like, how are we gonna guard this guy?” said Quinn of the Gronk comp. “With him, it’s like, whenever you have to double a really good receiver, it’s hard when he has to move around to different spots. Not that they’re always doubling him, but it’s, O.K., he’s over here, he’s this; he’s over there, he’s that.”

That’s why when I went to Cowboys camp, I felt like it was one of the few where the quarterback really isn’t the most interesting player—and that’s no shot at Dak Prescott.

Parsons’s singular talent, plus his drive, added up to a rookie season for the books. He had a streak of six straight games with a sack. His 12 sacks in his first 13 games as a pro were the most by any player in 20 years, and that happened even though he was only a part-time edge player. He finished with 13 sacks, three passes defensed, three forced fumbles, and was a game-changer in every way a defensive player can be, winning first-team All-Pro honors and finishing second in Defensive Player of Year voting, ahead of Aaron Donald.

But the numbers hardly cover what a different dude this really is, a sort of Swiss Army knife that’s built for the 21st century game much like Gronkowski uniquely was, where the position designation next to his name seems like more of a suggestion. Which is why even he couldn’t come up with a comp for his skill set, when I asked.

“No,” Parsons said smiling. “That’s why it’s hard for me to watch other guys, all the guys I watch, regardless of how good they are or their play style, I don’t think there’s anybody in the league that’s like me.”

And Quinn concedes now that it actually did make it something of a challenge to assess him coming out of Penn State, especially after he’d opted out of the pandemic season of 2020 to prepare for the following April’s draft. Of course, he and the Cowboys knew how special Parsons was in terms of athleticism. He ran 4.36 at his Pro Day at 6'3" and 246 pounds, and Dallas’s scouts saw, in part due to Parsons’s wrestling background, a rare ability to combine speed, power and leverage, along with an innate feel for how to use all that reactively.

What was hard to project was just how that would come together in the pros. He’d been an edge rusher in high school (and was recruited as one by a lot of schools) and an off-ball ’backer in college, and the NFL’s been littered over the years with great athletes who could never quite find their niche. So it was important for whoever drafted him to have a plan. Which is why when I asked Quinn if he was tough to grade, there was no hesitation.

“Yes, and he really only played one year [at Penn State],” said Quinn. “He blitzed a lot, you saw his speed, so it was O.K., I can see how we’d feature him; he could go out and just play. He’s really fast, so he can blitz, he can fit, he’s tough. But the end-of-the-line pass rush, you didn’t see a lot of that at Penn State, so when we started doing it, it was like …”

And Quinn smiled broadly. Last year in camp, the revelation happened in seeing Parsons go toe-to-toe with guys like Tyron Smith and Zack Martin, who legitimately may become Hall of Famers one day. Parsons, of course, didn’t take over when he was lined up against those guys. But he held his own, and that was enough to get the coaches thinking. Then, in Week 2, Lawrence was hurt, the governor was off and Quinn punched the gas. Parsons would moonlight at end.

By then, Quinn had little doubt that would work out, and not just because he had enough good tape from pass-rush drills in camp to put together a Parsons sizzle reel. It was also because he kept getting better and better the more he did it.

“I’m not saying he was beating Zack all the time, don’t get me wrong,” Quinn said. “But they were as good to go against as anyone to say, O.K., that worked, that didn’t work. And O.K., this is what the best in the league plays like, how can I win? And he just started adapting.”