clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Everyone chill and let Lamar Jackson be an NFL quarterback. He’s never let us down before.

Jackson made it through the NFL Draft process by staying true to himself. Thank goodness he can just be a quarterback — and not a receiver — again soon.

Getty Images

There are two plays that explain Lamar Jackson’s career.

The first took place in a spring game during his junior year of high school. A blitzer came free unimpeded to the slender quarterback in purple wearing No. 7, and immediately, Jackson’s plan A became B.

He beat one defender to the edge, and then pointed at another who didn’t realize he was about to get embarrassed. Jackson stopped right at the goal line, bringing all of his fluid body motions to an immediate halt, and the defender careened past him without making contact. Jackson literally walked into the end zone.

Then there was the first play of Jackson’s college football career. He ironically lined up at running back before his teammate motioned out from in front of him and made Jackson the shotgun quarterback. His line let through a rusher once again and, this time, his improvisation ended in an up-for-grabs interception.

This is the duplicity of Lamar Jackson. When everything goes right — as it does, more often than not — Jackson is a brilliant example of what the quarterback of the future might look like. When things go wrong, critics exaggerate his failings and suggest he shouldn’t play quarterback at all.

That dichotomy has made Jackson an important figure in this year’s NFL Draft, and for football itself. He may be the dual-threat prototype for an NFL that is finally evolving its offensive principles, or he may simply be a slot receiver who hasn’t come to grips that his style of quarterbacking won’t work at the highest level.

Yet despite the importance we give the debate, Jackson has remained above the fray. He has never changed throughout his career, insisting all along that he should be behind center, then playing and succeeding at the position in a way only he can.


Jackson’s play on Friday nights earned him a three-star grade entering college. As a sub-50 percent passer in high school, his scouting reports advocated he change positions even then. His ESPN recruiting profile said “he looks and moves like a wide receiver which could be an option for him down the road,” and that he “has enough of the skill set and foot speed to be a legitimate candidate to switch positions at the next level.”

All he did was set the game on fire as a sophomore, with 30 touchdowns passing and 21 rushing. He emphatically deserved the Heisman Trophy, but he couldn’t do it all himself. Behind an offensive line that led the nation in sack yardage, Louisville clunked towards the end of the season. Houston mauled Jackson, sacking him 11 times. His receivers dropped almost a quarter of his passes in the regular season, and his fumble against rival Kentucky cost his team the regular-season finale. In the Citrus Bowl, LSU held him without a touchdown for the only time in his final two seasons.

Jackson came back to school as a junior and was as prolific as he was the year before on a team that was worse. Prior to that, the Heisman winner’s NFL prospects were dismissed out of hand in offseason scouting reports.

ESPN’s Todd McShay ranks Jackson as the sixth best QB in this year’s draft class. He’s behind draftnik darling Josh Allen of Wyoming and has almost the same grade as Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald.

Fox’s Joel Klatt doesn’t have Jackson in his top five either, and a big Yahoo! story on “the year of the QB” mentioned Jackson only in the context of whether he’d change positions.

Our own mock draft had Jackson fifth among QBs, back in April.

That commentary foreshadowed these past four months. Instead of entertaining the idea of how Jackson could move the game forward, the pre-draft process illustrated how the minds of the NFL evaluators are still stuck in the mud.

Scouting reports tended to harp on Jackson micro-inefficiencies without ever considering the fact that he may be a bridge between the NFL’s past and its future. After all, the Philadelphia Eagles just won a Super Bowl by upsetting the long-accepted calculus of offensive football with run-pass options, and they did it with two quarterbacks who are slower and less athletically gifted than Jackson.

When an anonymous ACC coach says that “Jackson has no shot at playing quarterback in the NFL,” saying he can’t read coverages, the rebuttal should be the Los Angeles Rams and coach Sean McVay, who built an offense that is among the NFL’s best around the same hole in his quarterback’s game. Jared Goff piloted an attack that shredded defenses using play-action and reads that are “almost always” on one side of the field.

There are fair ways to criticize Jackson. ESPN’s Bill Polian questioned Jackson’s accuracy and called him short and slight, and that’s not wrong. Jackson isn’t huge at 6’2, 216 pounds, and accuracy concerns have followed him throughout his career. His issues are tied closely to his footwork.

Still, Jackson improved his accuracy every year he was in college. He was a 47 percent passer in high school, then became a 57 percent by his junior season at Louisville.

That percentage is the same as his peer, Josh Allen. Yet Allen’s accuracy didn’t matter to Mel Kiper Jr. when he was asked about it, while Jackson’s did. When confronted with that disconnect, Kiper said that Jackson leaned on more high percentage “layup” throws. But numbers show that Jackson had fewer throws to targets standing behind the line of scrimmage, and was more accurate on deep throws than Allen. He also was affected more by drops.

We see this every year: Major NFL Draft prospects having stories imposed on them outside of their control. Allen is being called perhaps the best quarterback prospect in the draft despite evidence he may never be better than Ryan Mallett. Baker Mayfield is apparently too brash. Josh Rosen is too smart.

Jackson’s narrative is particularly charged because he is black. From Cam Newton, to Geno Smith, to Teddy Bridgewater, to Jameis Winston, being a black quarterback invites a special sort of scrutiny during draft season that carries over to the pros. For example, black quarterbacks are twice as likely as their white counterparts to be benched.

And in debating Jackson’s position, evaluators twist his skillset to shift the conversation around him. They make an age-old argument that a black quarterback should switch to a peripheral position. It’s an argument that players usually hear beginning in high school, made with coded language that perpetuates racial stacking. So for as long as Jackson has been discussed as a prospect, the color of his skin and the parts of his game that make him special — his speed, his playmaking — have been justifications for a position change.

As the idea that Jackson, career quarterback, should be something else wormed its way into pre-draft prep, Jackson did his best to shut it down in his own way. Most notably, he elected not to run the 40-yard dash at the combine or at Louisville’s pro day because he had been approached by some teams to work out as a wide receiver.

Jackson’s sensibility has always been to keep his life close to the vest. He’s a soft-spoken person by nature, inclined to showing what he’s about instead of telling. It has worked perfectly well for him so far, and yet the league, media, and fans thirst for more. He has been reportedly hard to pin down for pre-draft interviews, and he’s negotiating his own contract. His mother is his business manager, a fiercely private woman who doesn’t do interviews either, and together they’ve hired a marketing team around him.

Jackson has attempted to take back control of his story by refusing to hand his detractors any ammunition. That works against him at times. Being difficult to reach is certainly an inconvenience to potential employers. But if he’s wary about who he meets and how he is perceived, it’s easy to understand why. Right through draft week, his career was a flamethrower topic.

When it comes to the field, no one can say that Jackson hasn’t done his best to prove he should be a quarterback up to this point. He is no longer that skinny kid in purple, or that freshman at Louisville. Jackson has been dodging the same questions for a long, long time now, and he knows how to navigate these narratives as well as anyone can.

Jackson is going into the NFL insisting he is a quarterback after a college career that was as good as could be hoped. Depending on who you ask, he could be a paradigm-expanding NFL player, or something much more innocuous. How you choose to see him is up to you, though whichever way you choose probably says more about you than it does about him.

Lamar Jackson knows what he is.