Five quarterbacks were taken in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft—the first time that has happened since 1999. The last pick of those five may be the most interesting and, over time, could provide the greatest return.
The Baltimore Ravens had already traded their original first pick (No. 16 overall), dealing with the Bills to get the 22nd pick, and then they traded again with the Tennessee Titans to move down again to the 25th pick. There, they selected South Carolina tight end Hayden Hurst, filling an obvious need for an offense that underperformed in 2017.
Then, in a surprising move, Baltimore traded up from its 52nd pick in the second round to the 32nd pick owned by the Philadelphia Eagles. And with that pick, general manager Ozzie Newsome—in his final year with the team—selected Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Jackson's slide down the first round was a bit of a surprise, and you could see Jackson's distress about it in his face.
"I'm a Raven—it's on," a determined-looking Jackson told Deion Sanders of the NFL Network. "All year, every year. I'm happy to be a Raven. It don't matter. They're gonna get a Super Bowl out of me—believe that."
While there's work to be done with Jackson's consistency as a passer, the collegiate results were pretty impressive—and anyone shocked that four quarterbacks were picked before Jackson has good reason to be.
Through three seasons as Louisville's starter, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner completed 619 passes in 1,086 attempts for a 57.0 completion rate, 9,043 yards, 69 touchdowns and 27 interceptions. As a runner, he was incredibly dynamic, gaining 4,132 yards and scoring 50 touchdowns on 655 carries. The completion percentage was one of the dings on Jackson's NFL potential, but when you compare that to Josh Allen's 56.2 completion rate in his two seasons as the starter at Wyoming and consider that Allen went seventh overall to the Bills…well, Jackson's slide to the final pick of the first round seems odd.
During the NFL Network's coverage, Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman had this to say about Jackson's drop just before Baltimore moved up and made their pick:
"When I was studying him, I thought he was a Day 2 guy. I'm not surprised that he hasn't been taken off the board just yet. A couple of things hurt him—he didn't time in the 40 at the combine, and he didn't time in the 40 at his pro day. I felt that, going into your pro day, you play to your strengths. And his strength is, he can run. He runs real fast.
"The other thing is, he was going to be a guy who was going to sit back and learn, and because of his athletic ability, would he have been able to help the team…with the ball in his hands, he's a home run threat every time. Maybe teams didn't think he'd be able to do that—maybe that's what made him slide as well."
After the Ravens pick, Aikman framed his comments differently.
"He's obviously a terrific talent. He's got a lot of ability, and his passing game did improve as he moved through the last few seasons, and his passing ability did improve fairly well. If you look at him, he's been well-coached, coming from the Louisville offense and Bobby Petrino. He probably ran more pro concepts than Baker Mayfield at Oklahoma, in a more complicated offense than Sam Darnold ran at USC. So, the fact that he's able to sit back and watch and learn and become a little bit more accurate as a passer is going to serve him well."
So, it's clear that there are a lot of evaluators who don't know what to make of Lamar Jackson. And if NFL teams were put off by Jackson's refusal to run a 40-yard dash supposedly because he wanted to be thought of as a quarterback as opposed to a pure runner when there's play after play on tape that shows an athleticism reminiscent of Michael Vick in his prime, that may be more about teams being put off by a player who seemed determined to sculpt his own future.
Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian has led the charge of misunderstanding Jackson's potential, suggesting that Jackson would be better off switching to receiver in the pros.
It's not uncommon for prospects to be misdiagnosed by top evaluators, and Jackson's game resembles few quarterbacks throughout NFL history. There are elements of everyone from Randall Cunningham to Michael Vick to Robert Griffin III to Colin Kaepernick.
From a coaching and schematic perspective, Jackson has two new advocates who have done well with mobile quarterbacks.
Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg served that same role with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2010, when Vick made his remarkable comeback after spending 21 months in federal prison for his role in a dogfighting operation. Mornhinweg was the man who tailored Philly's West Coast offense concepts to Vick's mobility, and Vick responded with the best passing season of his career. Assistant head coach Greg Roman was San Francisco's offensive coordinator from 2011 through 2014, when Colin Kaepernick brought his Pistol offense from Nevada and merged it with Roman's power-blocking concepts to set every defense the 49ers faced on edge.
Now, it will be up to Jackson to take the things he does well to the NFL and improve on the things that need work.
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On the good side, Aikman's point about the complexity of Petrino's offense is correct. Under Petrino, Jackson ran a version of the Erhardt-Perkins offense that the New England Patriots have had a great deal of success with through the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era. The Erhardt-Perkins offense is filled with quick plays with little in the way of traditional verbiage, the ability to move receivers around the formation without changing the base call at the line of scrimmage and a ton of crossing and option routes. It's a fully fledged system that has worked at the highest level of football for years, and to assume that Jackson is just a runaround guy drawing plays in the dirt is to completely underestimate what he's capable of as a quarterback.
As a passer, perhaps Jackson's most interesting ability—this he also has in common with Vick in his prime—is the ability to flick the ball with great velocity. At times, with just a little wrist movement, you'll see him zoom the ball 40 yards or more on a line.
And though he's obviously amazing as a runner, Jackson is disciplined enough to stay in the pocket even when he's getting pressured. He is capable of moving to different areas of the pocket to evade the rush, resetting his body, re-reading the defense and making the throw under additional pressure.
According to Pro Football Focus' charting, Jackson gained 73.2 percent of his career rushing yards on designed runs as opposed to improvisational scrambles. PFF also had him with a high percentage of throws in which he was going to his second and third reads, which matches up with the tape.
On the downside, the common complaint about Jackson is that he throws from a narrow base, which is to say that he keeps his feet close together. Because of this, he doesn't generate velocity and accuracy from his lower body up. He struggles with short and intermediate accuracy at times because of this, and his NFL coaches will have to teach him to align his lower and upper body for optimal results.
In this way, Jackson's ability to make any throw with only his upper body is a bit of a disadvantage in that he hasn't had to make the technical adjustments less talented quarterbacks have to over time. That Jackson can often overcome his technical liabilities with pure athleticism is something a player can get away with at the college level, but against more advanced and talented NFL defenses—and throwing into much tighter windows—he'll have to refine his palate.
What makes Jackson such an exciting NFL prospect is the development on the types of throws every quarterback has to make in the NFL. He can make deep throws over cornerbacks into the arms of receivers on the run. He's improved his touch, timing and arc on posts and fades, and he's learning to throw with anticipation.
Imagining Jackson's fit in Baltimore's offense isn't simple because his style is so different than Joe Flacco's. Flacco is a stationary quarterback who throws from boot action rarely (and not very well). But with Mornhinweg and Roman on staff, the Ravens have coaches who understand how to move a mobile quarterback into the passing game.
The Ravens acquired possession receivers Michael Crabtree and Willie Snead and speedster John Brown in free agency, and Hurst has the speed to get upfield and threaten linebackers and slot defenders on seam and post routes. Flacco's game has declined over the last few seasons, and with the addition of Griffin as a backup, it's clear that the team wants effective mobility at the position—and Jackson already has more on the ball as a passer than Griffin did at his peak.
Lamar Jackson may not be a first-year starter in the NFL, and that's OK. What the Ravens did with this pick was take their mindset regarding the quarterback position and throw it on its head. Taking Jackson with the last pick in the first round indicates that they believe he can be a credible starter and potentially an incredible talent, no matter the level of competition.
If that happens, Newsome and the Ravens got the steal of the 2018 draft.