Getting Deshaun Watson this offseason would be the ultimate prize for the Carolina Panthers if they could somehow convince the Houston Texans to trade for him.
But if they can’t, there are a couple of realistic quarterback options who could be available with the No. 8 pick in the 2021 NFL draft, draft experts say.
The Observer contacted two draft experts in separate calls — Jordan Reid of The Draft Network and Eric Edholm of Yahoo Sports — to get their perspectives on North Dakota State’s Trey Lance and Alabama’s Mac Jones. These experts agreed on nearly everything.
Both believe Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, BYU’s Zach Wilson and Ohio State’s Justin Fields will be off the board by the time the Panthers pick at No. 8.
Reid, a former starting quarterback at North Carolina Central, said Lance is a player worthy of a top-15 pick, and he doesn’t think the Panthers should pass up on him if he’s available.
He said with the exception of the one game in 2020, what Lance showed in his 17 games at NDSU was “phenomenal.”
Lance gained a lot of attention in 2019 after he threw for 2,786 yards and 28 touchdowns without throwing an interception. He also ran for 1,100 yards and 14 touchdowns, and helped lead the Bison to a 16-0 record. He played in only one game in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. He struggled in that game, completing 15-of-30 passes for 149 yards, two touchdowns and his first career interception.
“He had an incredible year during his redshirt freshman year,” Reid said of Lance’s 2019 season. “This year, I don’t think it really moved the needle in either direction, as far as that one showcase game. He was a bit average for the most part, but it’s just the sample size that is the biggest worry with him. He just hasn’t played a lot of college football with only 17 games.”
Lance doesn’t lack size. He’s 6-foot-4 and 223 pounds, and he used that to his advantage in 2019.
“Lance, physically speaking, is really impressive,” Edholm said. “He’s got that Dak Prescott-type of frame and athletic traits. If you watch his film, it’s fascinating. I don’t think he’ll be able to get away with it on the NFL level like he did at North Dakota State, but I mean, he ran over some people.”
As far as his arm, both Reid and Edholm said Lance made some throws that few quarterbacks can make.
But they also agree he has a few weaknesses that may make some teams worry.
“As far as weakness, I think he needs to get a little bit better as far as getting through his progressions a little cleaner,” Reid said. “And his accuracy from time to time can get a little bit spotty.”
Said Edholm, “I question how much diagnosing he was doing and how much developing he needs. ... If you look down the stretch of the 2019 season, he was being asked to run it a lot more than he was being asked to throw it. It was a very conservative (game plan).
Jones is another option at No. 8, but both and Reid and Edholm wonder if selecting him there would be a reach.
Jones had a big year in his first full season as Alabama’s quarterback and helped lead the Crimson Tide to a national championship earlier this month. Jones threw for 3,739 yard yards, 32 touchdowns and four interceptions and was a Heisman Trophy finalist. In the national championship game, he completed 36-of-45 passes for 464 yards and five touchdowns.
Jones, who is 6-foot-3 and 213 pounds, first got his chance when Tua Tagovailoa suffered an injury in his final season at Alabama.
Reid said Jones is “very accurate” with short to intermediate throws, makes smart decisions, but he said his arm strength isn’t great. He also said he lacks mobility.
“He can win and manipulate things outside the pocket, but he’s not going to be a guy that consistently creates off-script,” Reid said. “So you’re going to have to have a really good offensive line in front of him and you have to have some weapons on the perimeter for him, just because he’s not going to be a guy who is going to be able to uplift and overcome having below average type of surroundings.”
Edholm agrees with Reid on Jones’ weaknesses.
“He’s just not a plus athlete,” Edholm said. “He’s going to be limited in that capacity. His arm strength is average to below average, but his downfield touch and his precision were really good.
“And as you watched as the season went on he made more plays outside of structure than he ever did last year.”
One of the biggest knocks against Jones is whether he benefited from the weapons around him. He lost the Heisman to his teammate, wide receiver DeVonta Smith. Alabama running back Najee Harris led the country in rushing touchdowns (26) and was third in rushing yards (1,466).
“The question is,” Edholm said, “is he just going to be a system guy, who always has a glass ceiling over him, or is he going to be a difference-maker?”
Who they would take
Both draft experts say they would take Lance before taking Jones.
But Jones isn’t a bad option, they say.
Reid and Edholm say Lance has more upside, even though there is a bit of the unknown.
Jones will play for the Panthers’ staff in the Reese’s Senior Bowl, which will give the Panthers the opportunity to get to know him and evaluate him directly, especially with how he fits in their offense.
Reid and Edholm said Lance could benefit from sitting at least year behind Teddy Bridgewater, who is entering the second year of a three-year, $63 million contract with the Panthers.
“He has a lot of warts in his game right now that I think he’s going to need to figure out,” Reid said of Lance. “And sitting behind Teddy, who is a pro’s pro, is definitely going to help him.”