Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee turned up at the NFL combine with 10 1/2-inch hands, according to reports. Point of reference: Josh Allen’s hands checked in at 10.13 inches; Sam Darnold’s mitts measured 9.38.
Extrapolate what you will.
“Because that position is important, you can be a scout and have a seventh-round pick all of a sudden become Gus Frerotte,” Pro Football Focus analyst Josh Liskiewitz laughs. “And your general manager says, ‘Why the [expletive] were we not looking at this guy?’
“Any other position is fine. But quarterback is so essential, if he has any discernable next-level traits.”
Which is another way of saying you can’t teach tall. Lee’s 6-foot-4. The average height of the projected third-team quarterbacks this spring in the AFC, the professional clipboard holders, is roughly 6-3 and change.
So he’s got that going for him. Which is nice.
“I could see him getting drafted at the end,” Liskiewitz said of Lee, the Cornhuskers junior who’s aiming this weekend to become the first Nebraska signal caller in 26 years drafted into the NFL for the purpose of actually playing quarterback.
“One of the lessons [former NFL scout] Russ [Lande] taught me with quarterbacks is, if a guy at that position has any translatable next-level traits — if it’s accuracy, arm strength, size, athleticism — you can’t give him an ‘undraftable’ grade.”
When NFL front offices love a formula, love a type, they don’t pass it up. Big defenders and wideouts who can run, really run, find work. So do tall guys who can sling it in the pocket — even if they don’t look as if they always know where the devil it’s going.
“He’s tall with a big arm,” Liskiewitz said of Lee, who in one season as the Nebraska starter threw for 3,143 yards (promising) 23 touchdowns (ditto) and 16 interceptions — and the latter tends to be the image, fair or otherwise, that sticks. “So there’s some validity to that [idea].”
Copycat league, copycat molds. The irony is that Lee could do more for Nebraska as a pro than he ever did for the Cornhuskers as an undergrad, assuming he finds the right coach, the right system, the right fit at the next level.
‘If a guy at that position has any translatable next-level traits — if it’s accuracy, arm strength, size, athleticism — you can’t give him an “undraftable” grade.’
— Pro Football Focus analyst Josh Liskiewitz on Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee
To cite one recent Big Ten peer, Trevor Siemian spent a healthy chunk of his time at Northwestern either on his back, running for his life, or throwing into coverage, an experience not unlike No. 13 in Lincoln last fall. But the Denver Broncos saw something in Siemian, in part because he was — all together now — tall with a big arm, making him a seventh-round pick in 2015.
“Since I’ve been going to the Senior Bowl in 2008 and 2009, I’ve been to the last 10 or 11 and there’s only one [quarterback] that went to the Senior Bowl that hasn’t been drafted,” Liskiewitz said of Lee. “There have been some [very] small-school guys with extremely weak arms. Otherwise, those guys get drafted.”
So while, yes, Lee struggled at times with accuracy at Senior Bowl practices …
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) January 24, 2018
.@WVUfootball's Kyzir White doesn't get fooled by play action here and is all over CMU TE Tyler Conklin. Nebraska QB Tanner Lee either threw this away or was way off target.#SeniorBowl pic.twitter.com/nbUVr0cdoV
— Chase Goodbread (@ChaseGoodbread) January 25, 2018
… and with ball security during the game itself …
Ole Miss DE Marquis Haynes forces a fumble from Nebraska QB Tanner Lee, UTSA DE Marcus Davenport with the scoop and score pic.twitter.com/olwKHGEayy
— NCAAF Nation (@NCAAFNation247) January 27, 2018
— Jacques Doucet (@JacquesDoucet) January 27, 2018
… and yet you couldn’t deny the pocket presence.
Or the touch:
— Orlando Alzugaray (@BigOShow) January 24, 2018
Catching up on some Senior Bowl tape. This was a hell of a throw and catch from Tanner Lee to Miami WR Braxton Berrios.
Shame that accuracy didn't stay long. INT then miss high followed it. pic.twitter.com/KtpmT5bRHZ
— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) January 25, 2018
— Orlando Alzugaray (@BigOShow) January 25, 2018
That stint in Mobile probably did him less harm than good, even though the harm garnered most of the headlines. Lee was a last-minute replacement for injured Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph, and completed just 8 of 19 throws for 86 yards while committing 2 turnovers in the Senior Bowl game. The contest rather neatly summed up his brief Nebraska tenure: pro frame, pro release, pro potential — and Pop Warner brain cramps at critical moments.
But tall with a big arm plays anywhere, if a front office is willing to give him time — and tutoring — to smooth out the rough edges. Frerotte was snapped up by Washington as a seventh-round pick in 1994 from Tulsa. By his third season in D.C., the cat was a Pro Bowl pick and managed to stick it out for 14 seasons and 147 NFL appearances. Ya never know.
“As much as [fans] love the draft, Day 3 is such a complete crapshoot,” Liskiewitz says. “And fans get worked up when those picks get traded away. Those guys are just a fart in the wind. Those picks mean nothing … if I were a GM, I would trade all those picks for an actual starter.
“That being said, if someone throws a flyer at Tanner Lee late, it wouldn’t surprise me.”
It only takes one. Scouts know Lee visited Atlanta earlier this month. They also know the hand that passes on the next Gus Frerotte could be the one holding a pink slip in six months.