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A Scout’s Take: Why Trey Lance and Zach Wilson Have Busted

Greg Gabriel takes a look at a couple of quarterbacks from the 2021 NFL Draft class.

Denver Broncos v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

The other day in this column, I wrote about how the Chicago Bears' undrafted free agent Tyson Bagent has met with some success early in his NFL football career. Just a few days later, it was reported that San Francisco third-year quarterback Tret Lance is not only a backup, but he is third on the quarterback depth chart. Trey Lance was supposed to be the San Francisco 49ers quarterback of the future, but instead, three years after he was drafted, he is considered an all-time bust.

The media says that the 49ers will try to trade him. I can’t see that happening. As the third pick in the Draft, he has a guaranteed contract with about $20M left on it. What team in their right mind will pick up a guy who can’t play and pay him $20M?

EDITOR: Jerry Jones and the Cowboys may not have been in their right minds when they sent a fourth-round pick to San Fran for Lance. It’s not the early day two pick the ‘Niners were hoping for, but it’s not bad considering an outright release was speculated.

To trade up to be in a position to select Lance, the 49ers swapped first-round picks in the 2021 NFL Draft, plus they paid an additional two first-round picks, their 2022 and 2023 first-rounders, as well as a 2022 third-round pick. When a club pays that much of a ransom for a player, he is supposed to become great. It’s been the opposite in this case as Lance has done virtually nothing as an NFL player.

Why did this happen? I can answer the question in a few words, but I will elaborate. It’s all about Lance’s lack of college playing experience. Lance was only a one-year starter in college. He started and led North Dakota State to the FCS championship in 2019. He was then expected to lead the Bison to another championship in 2020, but the COVID pandemic interrupted FCS-level college sports, and he ended up playing just one game.

In 2019, Lance played in and started 16 games but only threw the ball 287 times. That’s just 18 throws per game! The Bison offense was a run-dominated scheme, not a passing scheme. They also did not play at the Division I level but rather the FCS level, which is a long way away from the level of comp we see in Power-5 football. For his entire college career, Lance threw a total of 318 passes. The Bears Tyson Bagent, on the other hand, attempted 2040 passes in his career. That’s not a tiny difference; it’s enormous!

We can go back to the old-school way of evaluating quarterbacks, and we can see why Lance busted. Remember, the way we used to evaluate quarterbacks was the player needed to be a starter for two to three seasons and throw a minimum of 900 passes. Lance was basically one-third of that. In short, he was a bust waiting to happen because of his total lack of playing experience. The odds against Lance having success were huge.

I remember a conversation I had with the NFL Network’s Daniel Jerimiah about Lance that we had about six weeks before the 2021 Draft. I have known Jerimiah for a long time, going back to his days as a road scout with both Baltimore and Philly. I said to Daniel, I just don’t get it. I can’t understand the love teams are giving Lance. He hasn’t played much, his numbers are average, and even worse, he only played one game in his final year of college. I added that it was the exact opposite of how I was brought up to evaluate quarterbacks.

Jerimiah’s answer to me was, ”It’s about what they feel he can be.”

I get that he’s big, strong, athletic, and has a very strong arm, but he has played very little. I said back then that it was my opinion that it was a huge risk to draft Lance that high because of his lack of experience. Sure enough, three years later, Lance is a huge disappointment. It was bound to happen.

That same Draft, another quarterback got pushed way up draft boards, and that was BYU’s Zach Wilson to the New York Jets. Like Lance, Wilson was a one-year wonder in college, and that was the 2020 COVID season. Because they weren’t in a conference, BYU put together a 12-game schedule, but it was against mostly weak Division-I opponents.

Before the 2020 season, Wilson was a below-average college quarterback. In the pre-season rankings put out by the two NFL scouting services, he was rated as a late pick. But in 2020, playing against poor competition, Wilson put up some very good numbers. The reality is NFL evaluators weren’t seeing a true picture of what Wilson really was. Add to that the fact that he has poor football character, and like Lance, he was a bust waiting to happen.

Will the failure of Lance and Wilson change the way NFL clubs evaluate college quarterbacks? It should, but it probably won’t. Clubs are still looking at the upside and not what a player has done in the past. Some clubs will get lucky and hit on one of these inexperienced players, but the majority will disappoint.

Needless to say, the Old School way of evaluating quarterbacks should be the new school.