Lee’s decision to jump to NFL predictable; his future more of an unknown
His decision was predictable.
Whether the decision pays off is much more of an unknown.
Tanner Lee will not return for his final season at Nebraska, as the junior quarterback announced Thursday on Twitter his decision to declare for the 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.
His announcement came as little surprise because new Nebraska football coach Scott Frost, who was formally introduced Dec. 3, is bringing in a spread offense tailored to fit a dual-threat quarterback -- a much different system than the pro-style one installed by previous Husker head coach Mike Riley.
Lee’s skills should fit well in the NFL, according to longtime ESPN analyst Chris Mortensen, who helped steer the quarterback to Nebraska after watching him at the Manning Passing Academy in Thibodaux, Louisiana.
“To me, Tanner is going to be one of those guys that when he goes through the pre-draft process, he’s going to be one of those guys who’s not on radars and all of a sudden appears higher on radars,” Mortensen told the Journal Star. “Ideally, it would have been nice for him to play another year in college with him having to sit out (in 2016). But he has a lot of tools that are impressive.”
Impressive enough that Lee could be drafted as high as the second round, in Mortensen’s opinion, even though the 2018 quarterback draft class is considered to be a relatively strong one, headed by the likes of Josh Rosen of UCLA, Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma, Josh Allen of Wyoming and Luke Falk of Washington State.
“He has size and a great arm,” Mortensen said of the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Lee. “He’s going to throw better than the majority of quarterbacks who are going to be available. He’s not on the radar right now because Nebraska wasn’t on the radar.”
Ex-Nebraska great Ralph Brown, who studies the quarterback position closely, is skeptical of Lee succeeding at a high level in the NFL.
“Tanner will only be successful in the NFL if he goes to a great system. Outside of that, he won’t make it,” said Brown, the Nebraska Hall of Fame cornerback who played 10 years in the NFL (2000-09).
From 2007-09, as a member of the Arizona Cardinals, Brown enjoyed long talks with then-Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner. Brown wanted to understand why quarterbacks attacked him in certain ways, and why they attacked the Cardinal defense in certain ways.
“I think (Lee) probably could make it as a backup, but somebody has to like him because in the NFL, it’s all about coaches liking you,” said Brown, an analyst for Fox Sports West.
Nebraska landed Lee, a Tulane transfer, before the 2016 season. Mortensen actually called Riley to tout Lee’s skills, thinking the QB was a fit for Riley’s offense. Lee proved himself immediately, earning scout-team offensive MVP during his sit-out season.
Lee was highly respected by his teammates, an example of that coming prior to the start of the 2017 season when the Destrehan, Louisiana, native was named a team captain before ever taking a snap in a Husker uniform.
He threw for 3,143 yards and 23 touchdowns in his only season with the Huskers. He completed 57.5 percent of his throws and had 16 interceptions as Nebraska finished 4-8. Riley was fired a day following the Huskers’ Black Friday loss to Iowa.
Lee becomes the first quarterback in Nebraska history to declare early for the NFL Draft.
“I know pro scouts who came through Lincoln — they saw the way the ball jumps out of Tanner’s hand,” Mortensen said. “Would they prefer a little more mobility? Yeah, probably. Also, lower-body strength is something people are probably going to want to see improve.”
Lee’s decision-making might be scrutinized by NFL teams in the wake of his high interception numbers at both Tulane and Nebraska.
However, “Decision-making is not as big a deal as people make it out to be,” said Mortensen, noting Matt Ryan threw 19 interceptions in his final year at Boston College while Deshaun Watson threw 17 in his final year at Clemson.
“Nobody knows what the reads were for those guys, or where the receivers’ marks were.”
In his Twitter announcement, Lee called playing for Nebraska “the opportunity of a lifetime.”
“I cannot thank Husker Nation enough for making it so special,” he continued. “I will be a Husker for life. I want to wish Coach Frost and his staff the best of luck, Nebraska is in great hands.”
Lee had until Jan. 15, the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NFL Draft, to make a decision.
“Tanner Lee has what it takes to be something special at the next level ... and (I’m) rooting for him all the way,” Nebraska standout slot receiver JD Spielman tweeted.
“Remember what we talked about bro, now go be great and stunt on every doubter out there,” tweeted cornerback Chris Jones, a Husker senior last season.
One thing Lee may have considered in his decision-making process was the dearth of talented backups in the NFL.
“That’s definitely the case, but I look at Lee as a guy who has potential to be a starter in the league,” Mortensen said. “There’s not a question whether he can be a No. 2 guy in the league; the question is whether he’ll grow into a starter in the league, I think.”
“Pay no attention to mock drafts,” Mortensen added. “Pay very little attention to what you see in terms of speculation. A lot of it is myth.”
Lee’s 3,143 passing yards for a season ranks third in school history behind Joe Ganz (3,568 in 2008) and Zac Taylor (3,197 in 2006).
But now, with Lee out of the picture, Nebraska currently has two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster in sophomore-to-be Patrick O’Brien and redshirt-freshman-to-be Tristan Gebbia.
True freshman Adrian Martinez, a four-star quarterback out of California, will arrive on campus in January.
Only O’Brien has taken any game snaps. He completed 18-of-30 passes for 192 yards in a backup role this past season, the majority of his action coming in the second half at Minnesota.