“Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in.”
I thought I had left this world behind. The previous life, dominated by billable hours, angry clients and angrier partners, the constant fear of a case going south, and the worry that I just was not able to do the job. Those fears and the inner turmoil they caused me are what drove me from the practice of law, into a completely new field where I would write and talk about the game I grew up playing, and the game that I love.
But that lawyer is still inside of me. That lawyer comes out from time to time, whether it is crafting an argument in a piece, working through a discussion on the radio, or in limited cases, relying upon the hours spent in motions practice refining an argument in response to a number of points raised about a player.
In 2016 I was one of those atop Wentz Hill. I had first written about the North Dakota State quarterback back in December of 2014, and saw him move from “intriguing late round quarterback prospect” to “potential first-overall selection” in the blink of an eye. But as is often the cycle of quarterback evaluation, once a player is built up, it is time to tear them down. We’ve seen that most recently with Deshaun Watson and Sam Darnold. Two quarterbacks who entered their draft season’s with high expectations, only to stumble a bit and see other players boost their stock around them.
So when the flaws in Wentz’s game were to be the focal point of discussion prior to the 2016 draft, I turned to my roots, and crafted this piece: Defendant’s Reply Brief: Draft Evaluators versus Carson Wentz. I took the arguments being laid against him, and revisited them.
It is time to do that once again, this time on a different scale.
Heading into the Scouting Combine there is a discussion surrounding Lamar Jackson as a prospect. Some very well-known names, titans of the football world, are promoting the idea of Jackson, not as a quarterback in the NFL, but as a wide receiver. Now some of the names promoting this idea, Bill Polian and Mel Kiper Jr., have accomplished more in and around the game of football than I ever will. They are enshrined in Canton, and in our minds as legends. Their work has blazed the trail for people like me to sit on couches and fire off takes.
But in a prior life I went up against much better lawyers than I will ever be, so here we go.
From reading and listening, from asking around, I’ve pulled together the main selling points for Jackson making the position switch. I want to address those first, before diving into the ultimate question: Is Lamar Jackson a quarterback in the NFL?
His Athletic Ability in Space
One of the main aspects to this line of thinking relies upon Jackson’s ability with the football in his hands. Anytime you watch Jackson play, you come away with the belief that he has game-changing ability with the football in his hands, whether moving inside the pocket, taking off with the football, or on designed running plays. Jackson’s ability to change direction, make defenders miss, and accelerate away from danger is elite.
So the thought process is, get him in space as much as possible, with the football in his hands.
It’s an interesting thought. When I tried to wrap my own mind around it, I jotted this down:
- Remove Ball from Lamar’s Hands on Every Play
Setting aside for a moment the idea that the best way to get Jackson the football in space is by removing it from him on each play and relying on some other quarterback – perhaps not even as talented a quarterback as Jackson – to get it to him on each play, it seems Jackson’s ability with the football in space and his ability to make defenders miss, is somehow viewed as a negative regarding the quarterback position and translated as a positive as a wide receiver.
We need to change that script.
That was the focus of this video I put together in the First Sound Series. Jackson’s athletic ability and raw talent should be viewed as the weapon in the passing game it is, and not as a means of moving him to a new position. His athletic ability can mask mistakes and breakdowns up front. His quickness and change of direction can be the ultimate equalizer on a given play. His quick release allows him an extra split second to read a defense, and can be the difference between a tipped pass and a touchdown.
Now to the bigger point. What in Jackson’s tape illustrates that the position switch would even work out? His tape is filled with quarterback plays, but other than the occasional trick play/throwback, I did not see a lot of Jackson running routes. Plus, it goes without saying that as a receiver Jackson will be dependent upon another player getting him the football “in space.” That could work if we’re talking about Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, one of the elite quarterbacks in the league. But if the idea is to take Joe Flacco and rely on him getting Jackson the ball in space, well, I’d probably just let Jackson start the play with the football in his hands. Because this whole argument is built upon the concept of Jackson getting “into space” with the football. It skips perhaps the most critical step in the process: The quarterback’s God-given ability to get there to begin with. Trust in what he can do:
He is a Run-First Quarterback
One of the other arguments surrounding Jackson potentially moving to wide receiver is built upon the idea that Jackson is too reliant upon his legs, and will look to run before exhausting his opportunities in the passing game.
To start with, two pieces of information are important for this part of the debate. One, there was a time when Jackson taking off and running was part of the progression structure for him. Two, there was also a time when Jackson would be more reliant upon his legs to bail him out of trouble.
The first point goes to an understanding of offenses, and how many systems incorporate the quarterback’s ability to scramble into the read progression structure of a play. If the options downfield are not there, you are the next read. The second point gets us to an unheralded part of Jackson (#8) as a prospect – the development he showed this past season as a passer:
This is one of those narrative busters of a play. The Cardinals run a play-action passing concept out of the pistol formation, and Jackson is pressured quickly on the play. He is able to evade the initial defender and begins to climb the pocket. Now, he has a big crease to potentially run with the football, but he doesn’t. He resets himself and takes a deep shot downfield for a touchdown. You might expect a run-first quarterback, especially one with the running ability of Jackson, to take off here. But he doesn’t.
I came across this play while putting together the Jackson video for the Interception Series. On this play, a short-yardage, red zone play against Wake Forest, Jackson has a clear path to the sideline and the first down marker if he uses his legs. But he doesn’t, and forces a late throw into coverage that is intercepted. It’s easy to look at this play and come away with a negative perception of Jackson, but let’s consider the overall context. He’s viewed as a “run-first” quarterback, but here we see him giving up an easy running play to try and make a throw. Interceptions, even bad ones, tell us a story. Here, we see a player fighting against the conventional wisdom.
Now, I don’t want to read too much into one example, one play, But it’s almost as if you can see Jackson trying to fight the narrative on him here. Almost.
His Size and Frame
There are two lines of thinking that accompany this line of thinking. First, is the argument that Jackson is too short to play the position. Well, if the court may allow Defendant’s Exhibit A:
Baker Mayfield measured in at just over six feet at the Senior Bowl. Jackson is listed at 6’3”, and if I were to guess at his height, he comes in just under, or even at, 6’2” at the Scouting Combine. So I think we can move on from this aspect of the argument. As an aside, there’s a great Fletch reference in there, in case someone wants to make that…
The second line of the argument carries a bit more weight, perhaps. Pun intended. But the argument is that Jackson’s playing style, his willingness to run the football and his aggression while doing so, might expose him to hits that other quarterbacks will not have to absorb in the NFL. People might point to injuries suffered by RG3, or more recently Deshaun Watson, as support for this position. However, RG3’s injuries might have more to do with a faulty surface at FedEx field, and Watson’s was suffered in practice on a non-contact drill, although it may have been originally injured on a play the week prior against the Seattle Seahawks.
But the larger point is this: Football is a violent game. It is a collision sport. There comes risk with all rookie quarterbacks. Because for most of their playing careers, they have been the biggest, the strongest, the fastest players on the field. Now that field will be leveled in the NFL. They might not always get to the edge. They might not always avoid that defender. They need to learn how to slide. How to avoid contact. How to stay upright. We can joke about avocado ice cream, but Tom Brady’s pocket movement and ability to avoid contact is the biggest reason he’s playing as well as he is into his forties. I mean believe me, I’m six months older than he is, and the avocado ice cream isn’t preventing me from waking up and whimpering like a baby the morning after leg day. But I digress…
The Philadelphia Eagles lost Carson Wentz for the season when he hurt his knee trying to run with the football. Now, Wentz did not face concerns about his size and frame coming out of North Dakota State. However, there were some who raised concerns about his running style, and made the point that he would need to slide and take care of himself, but again, that isn’t a size or frame issue, it’s a playing style issue that all quarterbacks face. (That is a link to where Matt Waldman and I broke down Wentz way back in the day, and a link to our discussion about how Wentz would need to get down and protect himself in the NFL).
Final point on this. The argument seems to be that you can take Jackson and minimize the risk of injury by moving him to wide receiver. Now, you’re moving him to a new position, asking him to play in places on the field that are unfamiliar to him, asking him to cross the middle against linebackers and safeties, and asking him to play a position where there is literally a section of the rulebook carved out to protect “defenseless players.”
How is his size and frame not a concern there?
His Deficiencies As A Passer
This next line of reasoning posits that because Jackson struggled at times with accuracy, ball placement, mechanics and posted a sub-60 completion percentage, it makes sense to move him to a different position and capitalize on his athletic ability. Now, it would be easy to simply point at the completion percentage of other passers in this class, engage in some “whataboutism” and move on, but let’s go deeper than that.
Is accuracy a concern with Jackson? Yes, and as we will see in the next part of this piece, there are some mechanical inconsistencies that need work and development. But I would submit that Jackson is “inconsistent,” and not “inaccurate.”
For example, let’s look at two throws, both post routes, from this past season. First, this play against North Carolina:
Now, this play against N.C. State:
Both post routes, one put right on the receiver, the other high and off target. Generally speaking, all things are equal on the two plays. It’s just that one throw is better than the other.
This gets us to what I believe are the core components of this issue. First, it’s inconsistency, rather than inaccuracy, that is the main problem. It isn’t that Jackson is inaccurate as a passer, he’s just inconsistent. He needs to make these type of throws on a more consistent basis to dispel some of the concerns. Second, this might get to a scheme issue, even a scheme limitation, with him. Perhaps he is best suited for a West Coast-based offense that relies on shorter, quicker throws as a basis for the offensive structure. Perhaps a more downfield attack, where we see some of these inconsistencies, would not be the best starting point for Jackson.
Which brings us to the fact that these issues are more one of coaching and development than they are complete bars to playing the position. After all, won’t it be the job of his future coaches to refine these issues, and then fit an offense around him that plays to his strengths and minimizes his weaknesses? That’s their job. If some of the arguments advanced for other quarterbacks in this class rely on their development and their future coaches bringing out the best in them, Jackson must be afforded the same arguments.
Throwing Motion and Mechanics
Two issues have been identified with Lamar Jackson’s throwing motion: His narrow base and his release point/”wrist flick.” I’ll deal with the former first, which is an issue and I believe contributes to his inaccuracy…ahem…his inconsistency.
Jackson throws from a very narrow throwing base. There are times when his feet are so close together as he begins his throwing motion, that they are almost touching:
This I believe is an issue for him that he needs to correct. Because that narrow base leads to some inconsistency in his lead step and delivery. That, in turn, causes some potential over-striding issues, throwing off the timing and release of the football and impacting the overall accuracy on the throw. So, an issue to concede here.
But to the other point, that his release point is a flaw. That is one I won’t concede. Because as I argue in this video, that quick release, that wrist flick, is a bonus as a passer:
That quick release can be an equalizer for him. Whether he is slow to diagnose a defense or coverage, whether he is facing pressure off the edge, whether he has an unblocked defender bearing down on him, that quick release allows Jackson the ability to get the ball out quickly. Much quicker, in fact, than some other quarterbacks in this class given their throwing motions. So, I believe this works in his favor, and is not a detriment to him playing the position. As my friend Jeff Risdon pointed out to me recently, Warren Moon had a similar release point, and he turned out fairly well.
The Deficiencies In His Offense
This is the most recent line of criticism levied against Jackson, perhaps most recently by Greg Gabriel in this well-crafted piece addressing Jackson. Gabriel makes the case that Jackson’s NFL team will need to tailor an offense to his skill-set, and not force him into a system he might not be suited to running. That’s a position that I generally agree with, and not just with respect to Jackson. Coaches should tailor an offense to their quarterback.
But there is a train of thought that Jackson’s collegiate offense will hold him back. The line of reasoning is that Bobby Petrino’s offense at Louisville is a very simplified, quarterback-friendly offense that means Jackson faces a rude awakening when he arrives in the NFL.
We can address this line of thinking in two ways. First, let’s look at Petrino from a coaching scheme perspective. Petrino’s offense is rooted in the Erhardt-Perkins offensive system, which if it sounds familiar to you, it should. This offense has its roots in the New England Patriots of the 1970s, and is an offensive structure based around play-action passing, rhythm and timing in the passing game, and attacking the intermediate areas of the field. It is also known for its simplified naming structure, which uses one or a few words to identify a play concept. For example “Tosser” is a route combination consisting of two slant routes.
That’s the basis for Petrino’s playbook. Now, all offenses evolve over time, and Petrino’s Louisville offense does do what it can to simplify the read structure for the quarterback. But as I pointed out in this video on Jackson’s interceptions, the read progressions are in there, the route conversions are in there, and he’s tasked with doing things that NFL quarterbacks are asked to do on any given Sunday.
If you don’t believe me, I’ll defer to another smart football writer and former lawyer:
Petrino literally runs an NFL offense/passing game. (And this writer should know better.) Jackson is not above criticism by any stretch, but some of these are just odd. https://t.co/KbStgkGVlH
— Chris B. Brown (@smartfootball) February 22, 2018
The second way to address this line of thinking is by again, pointing to coaching and development. The paradigm shift in offensive football, in my opinion, is at hand. Not only do we have more and more quarterbacks coming into the league with experience running spread-based systems, or Air Raid-based systems, or have experience running RPOs, but we also have more coaches working their way into the league that are familiar with these concepts and believe in them. As such, there’s a chance that Jackson’s future coaches will believe in an offensive system that is tailored to his skill-set. Strip away everything you think about NFL offenses and remember this point: Pro-style offenses are whatever you want them to be. The Philadelphia Eagles were not docked style points in Super Bowl LII for the plays that they called.
Jackson the Quarterback
Having addressed some of the arguments against Jackson the quarterback, I want to finish with making some argument for Jackson the quarterback. At the outset, I want to defer to the work of others in this area and point readers to this thread, a collection of work from other writers and evaluators pointing at the growth in Jackson as a quarterback. I may be standing on the Jackson Is A Quarterback Hill but I do not stand alone.
This first play comes from Jackson’s game against N.C. State. The Cardinals face a 1st and 10 buried deep in their own territory, and Jackson aligns in the pistol formation. The Wolfpack blitzes on this play, and the Cardinals run a dual-curl route play to the right side. Watch the placement on this throw as Jackson checks and confirms the coverage, sees the leverage in the secondary, and leads his receiver toward safety:
This is a well-placed throw that shows perfect understanding of the coverage and the situation. By putting the throw where he does, Jackson leads his receiver away from the safety who has outside leverage, and gives him a head-start on getting yardage after the catch.
Here’s an example of that wrist flick in action against North Carolina:
The Cardinals run another play-action passing concept out of the pistol formation, with Jackson using a three-step drop after the fake before hitching and throwing a boundary route to the right sideline. The throw comes from the left hashmark, and Jackson releases the throw at the 23-yard line. The ball is caught near the right sideline at about the 45-yard line. Again, you can see the narrow base at the start, but my friends, this is a Sunday throw.
This next play shows Jackson’s ability to work through reads, manipulate defenders, and make a big play in the passing game:
This comes on a 3rd and 8 play in the fourth quarter, with Louisville leading by five. Jackson sees presnap a Cover 2 look down in the red zone, and at the snap he opens to his left to freeze the defense before coming back to the right and throwing a skinny post up the middle of the field for a touchdown. As he opens to his left, he gets the weakside safety to squat on that side of the field, all while his intended receiver gets inside of the strongside safety. Yes, the placement is off a tiny bit, but this is a very good play from Jackson.
On this snap from Jackson, we can see how he remains calm and poised in the pocket, creates space with his feet like a prizefighter, and delivers a strong and accurate throw into a narrow throwing window, once again with that flick of the wrist:
One more example. This reminds me of the closing argument I made back in 2015 when I argued that Marcus Mariota was QB1, it’s the final play in this piece. Now, we can turn to Jackson, again against North Carolina (if you can’t tell by now, you might want to watch this game):
This is an anticipation throw into a smaller throwing window over the middle, at the intermediate level. Again, a Sunday throw. Jackson shows the ability to click and climb the pocket off of his drop and drill in an intermediate throw between defenders, anticipating the receiver breaking open in the throwing lane.
In my mind, these are the plays I will point to when I’m asked to defend the idea of Jackson as a quarterback. He has an entire body of work, but to distill it to a few plays, here’s my evidence.
Now, none of this is intended to convince you that Jackson is the top quarterback in this class. He isn’t mine. But it is designed to hopefully convince you that he is a quarterback in the NFL. Hopefully the NFL agrees with me, and with the majority of evaluators out there, that he is. But the fact that the opposite idea is out there means that pieces like this are needed. In the end, however, my words or the words of others do not matter. What matters is just one team out there believing in Jackson the quarterback. That NFL team does exist, and they will be glad they believed along with the rest of us.
Related content you may like:
- Lamar Jackson and the Thought Process, by Mark Schofield
- Lamar Jackson, the Most Outstanding and Most Valuable Player, by Jeff Feyerer
- The Louisville Cardinals Double Wing Formation, by Sean Cottrell