The Patriots typically draft quarterbacks with plenty of experience under center in college.
Since Bill Belichick arrived in 2000, all 11 quarterback selections by New England spent four seasons in college, and all of them were multi-year starters for mainly power five schools.
Belichick also hasn’t selected a quarterback higher than 62nd overall (Jimmy Garoppolo) in his tenure as the Patriots’ head coach since he had Tom Brady at the helm for two decades.
Due to Brady’s departure and a 7-9 season in 2020, Belichick was uncharacteristically aggressive in free agency and could once again take an atypical approach to the draft.
If he’s willing to think a bit outside the box, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance is uniquely talented to operate the old Pats playbook and the new adaptations we saw last year with Cam Newton.
Lance only started one season for the Bison with 318 career pass attempts, which isn’t the large sample size the Pats work with usually.
However, Lance led North Dakota State to the 2019 national title as the first modern-era division one squad to go 16-0, scoring 42 total touchdowns (28 pass, 14 rush) to zero interceptions.
After the pandemic mostly wiped out the 2020 FCS season, Lance began working with heralded QB coach Quincy Avery to shorten his throwing motion and improve his technique at the top of his drops.
Pro Football Focus charted just 47.1 percent of Lances’ throws in his lone season as the starter in 2019 as on-target, the lowest mark of any quarterback in the 2021 class.
Although Lance was hit-or-miss in terms of accuracy in 2019, he’s a natural thrower that was wise beyond his years and handled significant responsibilities at the line of scrimmage. He’s an incredibly hard worker, and it’s unfathomable that he put the tape out that he did at age 19.
With the smoothness in his delivery and already solid mechanical foundation, Lance could see an improvement in accuracy once he gets to the NFL, similar to Josh Allen or Dak Prescott.
Neither Allen nor Prescott were accurate college passers, but they had natural throwing motions, as does Lance, and with a few tweaks became accurate downfield throwers.
Furthermore, Lance’s fit in New England’s system is tremendous, coming from a North Dakota State’s pro-style scheme. As he would in Josh McDaniels’s offense, Lance was asked to operate in the quick game, from under center off play-action, from the shotgun, and would seamlessly take over the option package installed for Cam Newton last season.
Newton would also serve as an excellent bridge and mentor to Lance, who might benefit from backing up a veteran as a rookie, and would have a veteran team around him as he develops.
On the surface, an inaccurate and inexperienced quarterback prospect might not strike you as a fit for the Patriots, but Lance is the draft’s best fit when you factor in his college system and upside.
Let’s go through Lance’s tape from the 2019 season to show why he’d work well in Foxboro:
If you’re going to draft a quarterback in the first round, most evaluators would tell you that they need to do things physically that are uncoachable.
With Lance, his upside stems from incredible arm talent and mobility, allowing him to make every throw possible from the pocket or on the move.
Mac Jones is widely considered the best schematic fit for the Patriots. Still, Lance’s physical tools are well beyond what the Alabama product brings to the table, giving him significantly more upside.
The first thing that stands out with Lance is how effortlessly he throws the deep ball. Lance can send the ball over 60 yards in the air on a dime with a flick of the wrist. In the play above, the play call presents Lance with a slot fade to his right. After confirming the safety rotation in his drop, Lance knows he has single coverage and throws it 50-plus yards in the air on a three-step drop. Most quarterbacks need a five or seven-step drop to generate that kind of distance on a throw, but that isn’t the case with Lance.
Along with easy distance on the deep ball, Lance’s arm talent translates to driving the ball downfield on a frozen rope. Here, the pre-snap motion indicates that it’s zone coverage when nobody follows the motion receiver. Lance reads the cover-three structure and knows he has the vertical route taking the boundary defender away from the deep out from the slot. He throws the ball over the underneath defender into the hole along the sideline from the far hash (whew).
Here’s a similar far-hash throw with a pre-snap indicator by the motion that Lance reads perfectly. This time, the motion tips off man coverage to the quarterback, and Lance throws with anticipation off leverage to the slot receiver. Once again, the slot receiver runs a deep out, and Lance releases the ball before his intended target comes out of his break.
Next, we get a combination of arm talent and mobility. Due to his athleticism, Lance can extend plays with his legs and throw rockets on the move. Above, the Bison ran three vertical routes downfield, and nobody was open initially. Lance breaks the pocket as he feels the edge pressure getting home and throws a dart into the end zone for six.
The last element of Lance’s “uncoachable traits” is his fantastic abilities as a ball carrier. Lance ran for 1,100 yards and 14 touchdowns and is an aggressive runner with good build-up speed.
Like the Pats offense with Cam Newton, North Dakota State had several quarterback option schemes, and designed quarterback runs to feature Lance as a ball carrier.
In this play, the Bison ran their version of a pin-pull sweep. The center pulls against the even front (four down DLs), and Lance has the numbers on the keeper. He makes one defender miss in the hole, runs through another tackle attempt, and scampers to a first down.
The Patriots could play 11-on-11 in the run game with Lance as they do with Newton, especially in the red zone, and New England would continue keeping up with the league-wide trend of having a dynamic quarterback.
Now that we’ve established that Lance has plenty of uncoachable talent, let’s get into some of the quarterback position’s nuances that make him intriguing as well.
As we know, the Pats love to compliment their rushing attack by speeding the quarterback’s process up in a quick-game package, and Lance was great at it for North Dakota State.
In this play, the Bison ran a snag concept out of a “nub” formation with two tight ends on the field (hello, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith). Lance quickly dissects the coverage by recognizing that the play-side linebacker is dropping with the corner route while the flat defender takes the running back and releases the ball to the “snag” route at the top of his drop.
Here’s another quick throw by Lance after a pre-snap coverage indicator tells him it’s man coverage when the receiver is followed in motion. Lance knows that the tight end’s “snag” route will set a natural pick on the linebacker responsible for the running back out of the backfield. He quickly gets the ball in his running back’s hands so that he can turn the corner and get upfield. We see iterations of this play by the Patriots to James White constantly.
Lance does a great job of getting his feet set in his drop to transition into the throw quickly here. He has a vertical route clearing out the sideline for the speed out from #2 inside, and the linebacker is late to his flat responsibility, so Lance gets it out there quickly for a first down completion.
The Patriots were a quick-game machine for years with Tom Brady under center, but that element of their offense struggled in Newton’s first year as the starter for several reasons.
Lance looks comfortable with processing coverage and getting the ball out quickly when the offense spreads the field to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands ASAP.
Along with his sharp processing skills in the quick game, Lance was tasked with full-field progressions and got through his reads with impressive precision.
One of the staple passing concepts in North Dakota State’s offense was Y Cross, a progression read that Lance mastered the timing and footwork.
In Y Cross, the quarterback’s first option is typically pre-snap read to the outside receiver’s go route. If it’s man coverage and the quarterback likes the matchup, he can work the sideline. If not, the iteration of the play here gives Lance a flat pattern by his tight end that is his “hot” route against a blitz or pressure. If there’s no blitz, Lance’s “rhythm” throw is the crosser. Above, Lance’s outside receiver is facing off-coverage and is well covered, and the linebacker level gets sucked up by the play-action, so he works to the crosser and leads him into some YAC.
Here’s another example of Lance quickly getting to the backside of his progression. This time, he opens to his right trying to throw the slot out, but it’s covered, so he transitions at the top of his drop to the backside dig and throws a laser for a completion.
Lance’s most impressive quality as a passer was how well he diagnosed and prepared for pressure. He did this better than any QB in the class.
Lance prepares for pressure pre-snap in this audio breakdown and then reacts to a disguised blitz after the snap. The defense gives Lance a blitz tell over the left slot by capping the slot defender with the safety. Instead, the defense blitzes the backside safety, and Lance recognizes it and throws to the open receiver in the area vacated by the blitzer.
Although it might sound like hyperbole, Lance’s quarterbacking on the safety blitz above is the best recognition of pressure and how to beat it from the 2021 quarterback class.
Lance was routinely setting protections, getting the offense out of bad plays, and attacking blitzes and pressure properly; I cannot understate how impressive that is, especially at age 19.
UNDER CENTER (PLAY-ACTION)
The final and very vital piece to the puzzle in terms of Lance’s fit with the Patriots is that 42 percent of his drop-backs were from under center, and most of those included play-action.
Lance is well-versed at turning his back to the defense on a play fake and then getting back around to make throws downfield, which isn’t the case for most college QBs nowadays.
Here’s Lance running an all-go (FB seam) concept from under-center power play-action. You’ll recognize the pulling guard from the Pats’ playbook, which gives the linebacker level a run key and sucks them up into the line of scrimmage. Lance then has two threats working up the left hash and throws to the open tight end after the slot defender drops with the fullback.
In this play, North Dakota State runs play-action from under-center once again with a seven-man protection. Lance recognizes that the linebacker to his left takes the running back, leaving the crosser open in the second window.
We’ve now seen Lance throw a seam route off power play-action and an over route (crosser) off standard play-action, two staple routes he’d throw from under center in New England’s offense.
Lastly, Lance also made good decisions off play-action when his downfield receivers were covered. Above, the Bison ran post-crosser downfield, and the defense covered it well. The deep safety helps on the post while the linebacker level falls underneath the crosser, so Lance takes what’s there on the check down to the running back.
Most of the narratives surrounding Trey Lance are that he’s physically as talented as any quarterback prospect in the class, but his inexperience and FCS competition are concerning.
Others, such as ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky, have also pointed to issues with Lance’s throwing mechanics that will need to improve to make him a more accurate passer.
All of those concerns are valid. Still, Lance is far from a project. He’s a thoughtful passer that understands protections, coverages, and progressions, as well as any quarterback in the draft.
As is the case with all quarterback prospects, there are areas of Lance’s game that need to improve, especially his downfield accuracy, for him to hit his ceiling in the NFL.
But he has All-Pro potential, and as we outlined above, there are so many elements to his game and what he was asked to do at North Dakota State that translate perfectly to the Pats offense.
After re-signing Cam Newton and their free-agency frenzy, New England has the luxury of being patient with Lance and a ready-made roster that gives him a supporting cast to succeed.
Every draft pick comes with risk, and Lance is no different, but if the Patriots want to go with the path that has the highest upside, pairing Lance with Newton is an absolute no-brainer.