Why Trey Lance to Detroit Lions at No. 7 makes sense, even after Jared Goff’s arrival

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett | Detroit Free Press

The only way to consistently win big in the NFL is to have a quarterback.

Not an above-average one like Jared Goff, or even a good one like Matthew Stafford.

To really win in the NFL, to be a perennial Super Bowl contender, you need a true difference-maker at the most important position on the field.

A Tom Brady, a Patrick Mahomes, an Aaron Rodgers.

That’s not all you need. Even the best quarterbacks need talent around them.

But to be the team everyone dreams of building or rooting for or being a part of, you have to nail the quarterback position.

It’s with that premise in mind that I gave North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance to the Detroit Lions with the No. 7 pick in my first mock draft.

I don’t know if Lance will be that guy, the unicorn that leads whatever team drafts him to sustained success. Truthfully, I don’t think anyone does right now.

He made 17 starts and attempted 318 passes in his college career, about a quarter of the throws that presumptive No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence made in his three seasons at Clemson, and against competition that was nowhere near at Lawrence’s level.

But outside of Lawrence, Lance has the most special skill set of any quarterback in this year’s draft, and thus the best chance of anyone not named Lawrence to develop into that type of player.

Zach Wilson is a more polished prospect and will go ahead of Lance. Justin Fields likely will, too.

But when it comes to ceiling, when it comes to being the type of player you draft and look back at 15 years later and think how lucky you were, Lance is second only to Lawrence in his dreamy potential.

NFL decision-makers, especially those with long runways like new Lions general manager Brad Holmes, are notoriously conservative when it comes to making high picks in the draft. Most prefer the blue-chip player with the higher floor to the raw talent with the unlimited ceiling, for good reason.

Their jobs are on the line, and betting on bonds is a better way to pay the bills than playing scratch-off tickets.

But the NFL is changing, both in the premium teams place on the quarterback position and in their willingness to move on from quarterback mistakes.

Goff is one example. The No. 1 overall pick in 2016, he led the Los Angeles Rams to the Super Bowl in his third season and after his fifth is on the verge of donning a new uniform in Detroit. Why? The simple answer is he fell out of favor with Rams coach Sean McVay. The deeper dive is that the Rams saw enough of Goff to believe he cannot consistently take them to the promised land.

Goff is not the only high-draft-pick quarterback in that boat, either.

More: How Brad Holmes and Detroit Lions became early winners in NFL’s chaotic quarterback market

Carson Wentz, the No. 2 pick in the 2016 draft, is on the verge of being traded. Mitchell Trubisky, the first quarterback taken in 2017, is a running joke in Chicago. Sam Darnold, the No. 3 pick in 2018, may be on the trade block. Josh Rosen, a top-10 pick in the same draft, is already on his fourth team. Dwayne Haskins, the 15th pick in 2019, was cut last season by Washington. And who knows how the Miami Dolphins truly feel about Tua Tagovailoa?

That is scary stuff on one level. The bust rate of recent top quarterback picks is eye-opening.

But it’s reassuring on another level: Teams are more willing than ever to acknowledge their mistakes and move on when they either deem something better has come along or determine the quarterback they have can only take them so far.

That’s where Lance comes in.

Goff, Holmes has to know, is a placeholder. He is better than a lot of quarterbacks in the NFL, but not a true difference-maker at the position. He can win, but probably never will win enough to stop Holmes from looking for the next big thing.

Lance could be the next big thing, a strong-armed, mobile quarterback who has a chance to be special with the right organization and the right plan to develop him.

In 2019, his only season as a starter at North Dakota State — the Bison played one game last fall as the bulk of their schedule was moved to the spring because of the coronavirus pandemic — Lance threw for 2,786 yards and 28 touchdowns without an interception and ran for another 1,100 yards and 14 scores.

Those are eye-popping numbers, even if they came against FCS competition. And Lance’s dual-threat ability fits what new Lions coach Dan Campbell is on record as saying he wants at the quarterback position, a mobile quarterback with a strong arm and impeccable leadership qualities.

The biggest knock on Lance right now, and it’s a valid one, is his lack of seasoning. He does not turn 21 until after the draft and. whatever his age, he has not had a lot of playing experience. Historically, quarterbacks that raw — Trubisky, who made only 13 college starts at North Carolina, comes to mind — have not fared well in the NFL.

The Lions, though, are in the perfect draft-and-develop situation. They do not need Lance to play this fall with Goff ticketed for starting duties. They have a mentor on staff in new quarterbacks coach Mark Brunell, a longtime former NFL player. They already have made clear their window of opportunity is a year or three down the road. And the return they got for Stafford should help them build a proper supporting cast or provide cover if they make a quarterback mistake.

Goff’s presence means the Lions do not have to force a quarterback at No. 7 if they don’t deem one worthy of the choice. It’s possible Lance is too green for their liking, or maybe even more likely that none of the draft’s top four quarterbacks are on the board.

If they like Lance, or one of the other signal callers for that matter, the Lions would be best served taking him in the draft. There is no telling what the next couple quarterback classes will look like, where the Lions will be picking in those drafts, or how valuable the extra first-round picks they get from the Rams will be.

Quarterback is the most important position in football, and the Lions will be looking for one until they find a star.

Lance has the qualities to be that, which is why he makes sense with the No. 7 pick.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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