FARGO — North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance hasn't announced whether or not he's declaring early for next spring's NFL Draft, but the Bison redshirt sophomore is receiving comparisons to a former No. 1 overall selection.
"You see some Kyler Murray in what he’s doing out there and that’s why he’s right there in the conversation to be the second quarterback drafted very high in the first round," said Dane Brugler, an NFL Draft analyst for The Athletic, a national sports website.
The Arizona Cardinals drafted Murray, who finished his college career with the Oklahoma Sooners, at the top of the 2019 draft.
If Lance decides to enter the upcoming draft, the Oct. 3 home game against Central Arkansas would likely be his final game with the Bison. NDSU is scheduled to play one game this fall because of the coronavirus pandemic, with all the Missouri Valley Football Conference games postponed until spring.
With the 2021 NFL Draft scheduled for April 29-May 1 in Cleveland, Ohio, Lance would most likely not play in the spring should he decide turn pro.. Central Arkansas could be the only game film pro scouts have of Lance as a sophomore. He made 16 starts as a redshirt freshman helping lead the Bison to a third consecutive Division I FCS national championship.
“The opponent matters, too, obviously,” Brugler said. “If this one game was against Oregon, then that matters quite a bit. Nothing against Central Arkansas, but if Trey Lance goes out there and puts up gaudy numbers, that’s what he was supposed to do. And if he doesn’t, then all of a sudden we’re poking new holes in him.”
The Bison were scheduled to start their season at Oregon, a highly regarded FBS opponent in the Pac-12 Conference, but that was canceled due to COVID-19. That would have been Lance’s first career game against an FBS opponent, which would have been pivotal for his draft stock.
“It would have been huge because Trey Lance has never faced an FBS opponent,” Brugler said. “He does not have any tape out there, any sample size, versus an FBS opponent; that matters.”
Lance isn’t the only Bison player who’s receiving NFL Draft buzz. NDSU senior offensive tackle Dillon Radunz has already announced Central Arkansas is going to be his final college game before he prepares for the draft. Brugler said what happens after the one game is more important for both Radunz and Lance, if Lance chooses to enter the draft.
“I think they have a lot more to gain from the pre-draft process than one game in the middle of October against an average FCS opponent,” Brugler said.
Brugler added, however, there could be some leeway for Lance and Radunz since the Oct. 3 date is the first game of the season.
“You expect a little bit of rust. You expect not everything to be perfect," Brugler said. “You don’t put too much on what happens in that first game, but this is much different because this is the only game. ... I think there is a margin for error there, but at the same time it’s the only time we’re going to be able to see these guys so you want to see them do well.”
Lance is in the conversation to be one of the top three QBs selected in the draft, Brugler said, with Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence the current front runner. The 6-foot-4, 226-pound Lance is right there with Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields as the second-best QB prospect.
“If the draft were tomorrow, Trevor Lawrence would be the first quarterback drafted and Trey Lance and Justin Fields are duking it out for that No. 2 spot,” Brugler said. “I don’t think there will be a consensus, at least there isn’t right now. … I think you talk to different evaluators around the league and you get different answers.”
Lance completed 192 of 287 passes for 2,786 yards and 28 touchdowns with no interceptions last season. He also rushed for 1,100 yards and 14 TDs as the Bison posted a 16-0 record in his first season as the starter.
“How could you not be excited watching him last year?” Brugler said. “I think that offense protected him quite a bit. It was a run-first offense. He was not asked to put the offense on his shoulders. … But at the same time, you can’t help but feel really optimistic for that skill set."
Lance had a historical redshirt freshman season last fall. He won the Walter Payton Award, which is given to the top offensive player in the FCS. Lance was the first freshman to win the award in its 33 years. He also won the Jerry Rice Award, which is give to the top freshman player in FCS.
“He needs to go to the league when he feels ready. If he feels ready right now, by all means go, you will be a high pick," Brugler said. "Being considered a high pick already, it would be awfully hard to go back because there is so much on the line, so much to lose.”
If Lance declares, he would not be eligible for the Senior Bowl, considered the premier college all-star game for top NFL Draft prospects. That game is designed for players who have completed their college eligibility. The 2021 Senior Bowl is scheduled for Jan. 30 in Mobile, Ala.
“If he does go pro after this season, he’s not going to be eligible for the Senior Bowl so it’s not like we’ll get a chance to see him versus better competition during the all-star circuit,” Brugler said. “There’s just a lot of missing pieces there in his evaluation. It’s really unfortunate.”
Radunz is likely to receive an invite to the Senior Bowl, giving him a chance to showcase his skills against high-level NFL prospects.
Brugler has Radunz currently projected in the fourth or fifth round for the upcoming draft with the potential to play himself into a top-100 prospect. Jim Nagy, the Senior Bowl’s executive director, tweeted out last spring that Radunz is a “legit” top 100 prospect.
“He plays a position that teams are always looking for,” Brugler said. “There are not enough tackles in the league. He’s got a chance to go in and compete for a job. The nasty streak that he plays with, that competitive toughness, the way he stays physical through the whistle. Those are things that will translate and coaches in the NFL will fall in love with a guy like that.”
Brugler said Lance is in a unique situation due to the pandemic, which has disrupted his sophomore season. If he turns pro, Lance would most likely enter the NFL Draft with 17 college starts and not be able to play in any postseason college all-star games, unless one were created for prospects like Lance due to the pandemic.
“Maybe this year with things being so different, maybe we’ll have something for underclassmen," Brugler said. "There is still a lot we don’t know about how the process is going to look like.
"We don’t see a lot of redshirt sophomores make that jump at the quarterback position and go high in the draft. It’s only happened a handful of times. Trey Lance is as unique of a prospect as we’ve seen all things considered. Just the one year and how good of a year it was. There’s a good chance he finishes his college career with no interceptions. I’ve never said that before as an evaluator doing this.”
Matt Miller, an NFL Draft scout and insider for Bleacher Report, had Lance projected to be selected No. 2 overall in his most recent 2021 mock draft with Lawrence going No. 1 overall and Fields selected at No. 4.
Brugler said the fact that NDSU has recently developed quarterbacks like Carson Wentz, drafted No. 2 overall, and Easton Stick, a fifth-round selection, could also help Lance. Wentz is the starter for the Philadelphia Eagles, while Stick is a backup for the Los Angeles Chargers.
“The program as a whole, I think the NFL has a lot of respect for because they know how to develop talent,” Brugler said. “There seems to be something different about that program and the NFL recognizes that, not just at quarterback but at other positions.”
Brugler has also evaluated Bison senior offensive tackle Cordell Volson and senior cornerback Josh Hayes. He said Volson likely projects to be an undrafted free agent, while Hayes is "on the radar" and should get some looks as an undrafted free agent.