Tanner Lee had a decision to make following his junior season with Nebraska. After former coach Mike Riley was fired, would Lee stick around and try to adapt to new coach Scott Frost’s system? Or would the quarterback move forward with his career?
On Dec. 28, Lee made his decision official: he would forgo his final year with the Huskers in favor of entering the 2018 NFL Draft.
“After weeks of prayer and consideration with my family, I’ve decided to enter the NFL Draft and pursue an opportunity that I feel is best for myself and my family at this time,” Lee wrote on Twitter.
Lee is a true pro-style quarterback. He fit the system Riley and former offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf ran, but there were questions about how successful he could be with Frost and new offensive coordinator Troy Walters.
After all, Frost’s offense is not built for a pro-style quarterback. It’s a fast, high-flying offense and better suited for a dual-threat prospect. It’s a big reason Frost immediately starting recruiting 4-star dual-threat quarterback Adrian Martinez the moment he was hired by Nebraska.
Lee still could have opted to stick around. It would have been an uphill battle in many ways though, especially because Frost has no intention of altering his offense. For that reason, Matt Miller, the NFL draft lead writer for Bleacher Report and host of the Stick to Football podcast, understands exactly why Lee made the decision that he did.
“I almost think it would have been impossible [to stay at Nebraska],” Miller told Land of 10. “There would have had to be some kind of compromise. Frost would have had to say they were going to cut out certain elements of his offense and do more of this or that, which is really not a good idea. You want to be able to move forward and get the young guys into the system that you’re actually going to run.
“It would have been a bad situation for both of them, and for the entire team all-around.”
Lee will turn 23 on Feb. 14. His junior year with Nebraska was his fifth in college, after transferring from Tulane in 2016. He was granted an extra year of eligibility, which would have given him another season at Nebraska — or elsewhere if he opted to graduate transfer.
Had Lee opted to stay, it wouldn’t have necessarily been make or break on his draft stock, especially if he retained his starting role. However, it would have been a huge gamble for Lee.
“I don’t know if it would have killed his draft stock, but if he wasn’t playing in a comfortable offense, it definitely could have hurt it,” Miller said. “Would he throw fewer interceptions? If so, then it might help because Frost’s system might be more timing routes and you’re throwing to guys in space versus taking deep shots all the time.
“In some ways, staying may have helped but it would have been so dependent on how he performed and if they would be able to alter the offense to make him comfortable.”
As for the graduate transfer route? Miller thinks that might have been the worst option for Lee.
“Doing the graduate transfer thing – and maybe I’m biased – but I think you can transfer once and you’re OK,” Miller said. “Transfer twice and people start to wonder if you’re actually any good. They’ll think, ‘OK, if you couldn’t play at Nebraska and you couldn’t play at Tulane before that, what’s the deal here?’ And I know it was more complicated than that with him, but you’d still have people worrying with a guy like that and why he couldn’t hold down a starting job.”
Before the 2017 season, Miller understood the hype that surrounded Lee. He still does to a certain degree. Lee has the intangibles, like size and arm strength. Those are still very intriguing to NFL scouts.
Sure, there are now those 16 pesky interceptions on his record from the 2017 season now. However, simply looking at the interceptions lacks context with Lee.
“It sounds insulting but it’s almost too simplistic to just say, ‘He’s not any good.’ You really have to break it down,” Miller said. “The way I was taught to scout and evaluate players is that you always look at what they can do well and you try to put them in a situation to do those things. That’s the perfect world. So, when you look at him, you can then see the things he does really well. Obviously – and not to trash Nebraska – I don’t think he was put in a great situation by the coaching staff. There’s not a whole lot around him.”
What Miller means is that Lee was left high and dry in many situations by Nebraska’s offensive line. Was every interception a result of failed protection? Of course not, but it played a role in Lee’s season.
Scouts will look at that, especially as they begin to evaluate Lee. They’ll compare his situation to other quarterbacks who were in much different situations, and go from there.
“If you look at what [UCLA quarterback] Josh Rosen had or [USC quarterback] Sam Darnold had and then you look at what Tanner Lee had, it’s a completely different world,” Miller said. “That’s part of what my job is all about, figuring out what’s real here and how good can he be. What’s his ceiling as far as a prospect? Teams are going to do the same thing. They’re going to completely break him down and they’re going to interview him a million times to figure out who he is. Is he resilient? Is he tough? Is he going to be able to be a third quarterback for a while and learn?”
And for a team like the New England Patriots, Lee might be the perfect fit.
“I think your first thought is, ‘How can he fit on our team?’ If you’re the New England Patriots and you know you need a backup quarterback and you see a guy that struggled when he doesn’t have a good offensive line, you say, ‘We run a system where he plays in the pocket and we have a good offensive line. He’s going to be OK,'” Miller said. “Now, if you’re the Seattle Seahawks, it probably scares you a lot. You’d think, ‘Gosh, we’ve not had a strong offensive line and we’ve allocated so much money elsewhere that we’re probably not going to be able to buy one and we’ll have to develop it, so this isn’t a great fit for us.’ It really becomes a team-by-team thing.”
Another that may consider Lee? Buffalo, which is in the process of changing everything offensively. Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor may depart, which means Buffalo would be looking for multiple quarterbacks in the upcoming NFL draft.
And then there’s Arizona.
“They don’t even have a quarterback on the roster right now because [Blaine] Gabbert and [Drew] Stanton are both free agents and [Carson] Palmer retired,” Miller said. “Lee also kind of fits that strong-armed pocket passer that they always had with [coach] Bruce Arians. That could change depending on who the new head coach is but I’d definitely look at them as a possibility. They could say, ‘OK, this kid really fits what we’ve done and we could acclimate him right into our scheme and not have any trouble.’
“Those would be the ones that definitely stand out as potentially the best fits.”
Regardless of who ends up taking Lee, Miller believes the quarterback made the right decision. He won’t necessarily be an early round pick, but Miller expects someone to take him.
Lee could have stayed and tried to make it work with Frost. But after five years of collegiate football and two programs, it was probably time for Lee to move forward in his career.
“You might as well go, get developed, get paid and get into system where you can learn their offense and their way of doing things,” Miller said.