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Offseason | 2024

Spagnola: Gotta find out if this guy can play


FRISCO, Texas – A few weeks ago, analyzed the multitude of roster decisions facing the Cowboys heading into the 2024 season, most generated by a free agency walkout and limited salary cap funds to spend.

You know, like what to do at left tackle, which could affect left guard? Who to play at center? What about running back? Where to play Micah Parsons? And that decision affecting what needs there will be at either defensive end or linebacker, and heck maybe even both. Then defensive tackle, and that just might have been before nose tackle Johnathan Hankins decided he'd rather follow his defensive line coach to Seattle – Aden Durde named the Seahawks defensive coordinator – instead of re-signing with the Cowboys, further putting a premium on correctly evaluating Mazi Smith's future.

And it's imperative the Cowboys must make the right roster and cap decisions.

But you know what, my bad. Forgot a very important one:

What about Trey Lance?

You know Lance, the guy serving as the Cowboys' third quarterback in 2023, acquired in an Aug. 26 trade last season by sending this year's fourth-round draft choice to San Francisco for the Niners former first-round pick, third overall, out of North Dakota State in 2021. Don't forget, even though Lance didn't play a down in 2023 nor suit up for a single game, the Cowboys still decided to fund his fourth year, $4.255 million roster bonus to retain his rights for one more season.

That means, unless picking up his fifth-year option of $22.4 million, which they won't, the Cowboys will have only this season to determine if the guy who played just eight games in two seasons with San Francisco, starting but four, two of those the first two of the 2022 season before suffering a season-ending ankle injury, can play at the NFL level.

This decision might seem a drop in the bucket with all else swirling around this team.

Or it might become epic.

Who knows? And the Cowboys sure don't. Not yet anyway.

Someone asked me if the Cowboys should draft a quarterback this year, knowing Dak Prescott and backup Cooper Rush are in the final years of their contracts and both having turned 30. Now, the Dak discussion is a deeper one, mostly depending on the two sides agreeing to a reasonable extension, either now or later, the Cowboys publicly insist. And remember, it takes two to tango, meaning much will depend on how much the QB market increases, along with what Dak's folks decide he's worth, usually a hotly contested figure.

So my point made, no need to draft a developmental quarterback. The Cowboys already have by spending this year's fourth on Lance, but still a total unknown.

Basically, Lance spent the 2023 season in Quarterback School with the Cowboys, his closest companion here at The Star being QB coach Scott Tolzien. Working with Lance, 6-4, 226, became his pet project. Drills, drills, drills before practice and especially way before official warmups began on game days.

 But when practices began, Lance did a lot of observing. A few times he would get some scout-team reps, primarily when the Cowboys needed a dual-threat quarterback to run the upcoming opponent's offense.

The Cowboys staff spent their time working on Lance's techniques. Steps. Shoulder position. Arm slots. Throwing motion. Almost as if starting from scratch.

"We don't know any more on the field, from the experience in games, we don't know any more than what we knew when we brought him on, and that is his college and his time in San Francisco," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said from the recent NFL meetings, one of the rare times anyone has even asked about Lance's progression. "What we do know, though, is what he's done in practice. We don't know about his game experience, we don't know his competitive experience, but we do know about his practice experience, and the things he's done there, it's been all plus."

From what's being said here, Lance has made great technique strides, along with better absorbing the Cowboys offense. And let's remember head coach Mike McCarthy has done a great job tutoring young quarterbacks and veterans alike. Remember, as an assistant in Kansas City from 1993-98 Mike worked with the likes of Joe Montana, Steve Bono and Elvis Grbac. Became the Green Bay QB coach in 1999 with Brett Favre. Then on to New Orleans as the offensive coordinator from 2000-04 with mainly Aaron Brooks. Then the San Francisco OC in 2005, developing rookie Alex Smith, the guy the Niners drafted instead of Aaron Rodgers.

And of course, on to Green Bay, inheriting Favre in 2006 while grooming one Rodgers, and we know the rest of that story.

But now it's now time to find out about Trey Aubrey Lance, turning only 24 in May. Get ready. From all indications, Lance will be given a boatload of snaps during OTAs and the mandatory minicamp. When training camp begins, and while making sure Dak doesn't wear down in practice, watch for Lance to get the majority of the second-team snaps. Probably some of the first.

Heck, they know all they need to know about the veteran backup Rush. They need to find out, and in a hurry, about Lance. That should mean Lance likely getting the majority preseason game snaps, too.

"The arrow's really up," Jones said. "He's exceeded expectations as a person, as a worker, as a character. He's got unique skills. He's very much what we had planned on, hoped. When we gave the pick, we knew we would be paying the bonus right now. That was a part of the same decision.

"That's been reinforced by what he's been with the team and the person he is, potentially the player."

The Cowboys only know what the potential is. Why, in 2019, his lone full season starting all 16 games at North Dakota State (COVID reducing 2020 to one game), Lance, a redshirt freshman, threw for 2,786 yards and 28 touchdowns at the FCS level and ran for 1,100 yards and 14 more touchdowns, winning the Walter Payton and Jerry Rice Awards for players at that level.

Probably should have played the 2021 season for the Bisons, too, but after COVID, and not knowing the future, declared for the 2021 NFL Draft. San Francisco nabbed him with the third pick in the first round. Started just two games as a rookie, then two more after winning the starting job in 2022 before the injury, the Niners having decided to go with their 2021 first-round pick that season over nine-year veteran Jimmy Garoppolo. This all before Brock Purdy emerged.

And after Purdy flourished the remainder of the 2022 season and then signing somewhat-veteran Sam Darnold for backup purposes in 2023, Lance became expendable. And according to some, the Niners were lucky to get even a fourth-round pick from Dallas in the trade.

So why the Cowboys keen interest in seeing what Lance has?

First, maybe as a dual-threat backup to Dak. Can run the same offense.

Second, potentially grooming for the future, seeing again that he's only 24 and no more than a year older than four of the top six QBs in this month's NFL Draft.

Third, if Lance performs well during the preseason, some team in need of a quarterback, for injury or performance reasons, might come calling on the Cowboys, who potentially could turn a fourth-round investment into a second. Sort of like sitting on land, then selling when the price is right.

And lastly, the Cowboys could acquire some quarterback term insurance. And remember previous Cowboys quarterbacks who have first started in their late 20s: Roger Staubach at 29, Danny White at 28 and Tony Romo at 26. Again, all this dependent on Lance proving in the coming months he can play at this level.

But again, who the hell knows, and the Cowboys sure don't. Must find out. Now.

Think about it, the Cowboys have been known over these 64 seasons to stockpile quarterbacks. Go ask Tom Landry. Took a flyer on Staubach with Don Meredith their QB. Used a first in 1965 on Craig Morton with Meredith in his prime. Thought they were giving the rookie Staubach a chance at making the team as the third guy behind Meredith and Morton in 1969, and of all things Meredith up and retires, leaving Morton the starter and Staubach suddenly the backup without a game of NFL experience. Spent a third on White with Staubach still in his prime.

Or ask Jimmy. After drafting Troy Aikman No. 1 in 1989, also used a 1990 first-round choice a few months later in the NFL Supplemental Draft to outbid everyone for his University of Miami quarterback Steve Walsh, a pick that would have been No. 1 in 1990 had the Cowboys not already spent it.

There is QB stockpiling precedence.

And remember in 2016 with an accomplished Tony Romo healthy and Kellen Moore the backup, the Cowboys spent their second fourth rounder on this kid from Mississippi State named Dak Prescott, hoping to develop him while the third guy for future backup purposes. Best laid plans were interrupted when Romo and Moore went down with injuries before the season began.

For sure, we know the rest of that story.

 Again, who knows how basically this Lance audition turns out. And for sure, the Cowboys don't. But time to find out. Now. This summer. Can Trey Lance, with his limited QB game experience – stretching all the way back to high school when he only threw 88 passes his senior season (97 overall) and played just 19 games in college – play quarterback at the NFL level? Why, he only has eight games and 102 pass attempts of NFL experience.

Remember, he's young. Only 23 years old. Turns 24 May 9.

Nothing wrong with the Cowboys keeping their QB options open. So add this to my exhaustingly long laundry list of upcoming decisions.

Just gotta find out about this Lance.

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