As the first round of the wore on, one prospect left sitting in the VIP section at the 2018 NFL Draft drew more and more camera shots. Donning a green blazer and a growing sense of unease, 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson was forced to sit and watch as a lineup of needy teams passed on him time and time again.
First it was the New Orleans Saints. Then it was the Pittsburgh Steelers. Twice it was the New England Patriots.
But Jackson finally found his home once the Baltimore Ravens traded up for the 32nd pick, sparing him the ignominy of a second day of the waiting game. On Thursday, the Louisville quarterback suffered a little. In 2020, he could make the teams who passed on him suffer a lot.
The second half of the first round was dotted with playoff teams whose success hinges on a veteran quarterback. The Saints, Steelers, and Patriots all have future Hall of Famers behind center who’ve been in the league since at least 2004. What those teams don’t have, however, is a clear plan of succession for when those monster careers come to an end in the coming years.
And that’s where Jackson could have been an asset. Let’s take a closer look at the win-now teams who chose now to gamble on the All-American quarterback in the first round.
New England Patriots
The Patriots had been connected to Jackson throughout the pre-draft process. He was the only first-round quarterback to head to Foxborough for a visit, and he also had a private workout with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels in South Florida. All signs pointed to the Louisville playmaker as Tom Brady’s heir apparent ... and then New England rolled with a pair of Georgia Bulldogs.
Bill Belichick snapped up All-SEC tackle Isaiah Wynn with the 23rd pick, then landed one of the tailbacks he cleared space for by picking Sony Michel at 31. Both were somewhat surprising selections. While Wynn can fill a need at left tackle after losing Nate Solder in free agency, he’s five inches shorter than the man he’s replacing and was projected as a guard or center in the NFL. Michel is a powerful runner who averaged nearly eight yards per carry as a senior, but he’s also the first running back the team’s selected in the first round since Laurence Maroney in 2006.
That doesn’t mean the pair won’t be successful — doubting Belichick’s picks is a fool’s errand — but they’ll have to prove they provide more value than Jackson would have. Brian Hoyer’s presence means the Patriots don’t need a win-now backup even if Brady gets hurt in 2018, but they do need a player who will be ready to take the reins sometime between 2019 and 2022. There are plenty of quarterbacks available who could fit that bill — Richmond’s Kyle Lauletta, Washington State’s Luke Falk, Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph — but none have the college credentials and dual-threat capability Jackson would have brought to the lineup.
The Steelers have two developing quarterbacks on their roster in Landry Jones and Joshua Dobbs, but there’s still clear room for an upgrade. Jones has been unimpressive when filling in for an injured Ben Roethlisberger — his only wins as a starter have come against the Browns. Dobbs is still very raw, and his future as an NFL starter remains in question.
Drafting Jackson would have likely meant jettisoning Jones and creating a competition for Roethlisberger’s backup spot — a position that typically means at least one start per year thanks to injuries. While the veteran quarterback is still relatively young at 36 years old, the toll of 14 years of absorbing damage in the pocket has made retirement talk an annual part of his offseason.
This year looked like a prime opportunity to invest in the team’s post-Roethlisberger future. Jackson was ready and waiting at the No. 28 pick. Instead, Pittsburgh went with a defensive player in the first round for the sixth straight season. Virginia Tech safety Tremaine Edmunds is an ultra-productive tackling machine who will be a solid addition to the Steelers surging defense. He won’t be able to take over for Roethlisberger should the two-time Super Bowl winner get hurt or decide to retire, however, and that means Pittsburgh could be looking for a mid-round QB for the second straight year.
New Orleans Saints
Jackson looked like the Saints’ man after the club traded up from No. 27 to No. 13 Thursday. Four quarterbacks had already come off the board in the first 10 picks, and New Orleans’ big deal made it seem like there would be a fifth shortly thereafter. Instead, the team pivoted to Texas-San Antonio legend Marcus Davenport to beef up their resurrected defense, leaving Jackson waiting.
It’s a big gamble. Davenport has a tremendous combination of size and athleticism that could make him a terror off the edge. Pairing him with Cameron Jordan could turn a good defense into a great one if both can play up to their potential in 2018.
It’s also a move in-between the win-now philosophy suggested by the aggressive trade up the board and the idea the Saints need to build for the post-Drew Brees future. New Orleans sent the Packers two first-round picks to land Davenport, a player whose rise from two-star recruit and Conference-USA background could mean a year or two of development before he can make a consistent NFL impact.
Jackson also would likely need seasoning, but at a greater position of need. Brees will turn 40 during this year’s playoffs, and while the Saints’ new run-heavy offense has taken some pressure off his massive shoulder, the club could use an insurance policy behind him. New Orleans’ current backup is Tom Savage, who was unimpressive at best with the Texans. Taysom Hill is an interesting third-stringer, but his biggest contributions as a pro have come on special teams.
Jackson would be an upgrade over both in 2018 and in terms of potential growth. Instead, the Saints took a home run swing on a pass rusher instead.
The Bengals don’t have a pressing need for a quarterback with 30-year-old Andy Dalton under contract through 2020, but the Ravens were in a similar spot — 33-year-old Joe Flacco is inked through 2021 — and still traded up for Jackson. Dalton’s performance has declined in each of the past two seasons as a depleted Cincinnati roster has fallen apart,
But Dalton hasn’t fallen to the depths Flacco scraped in 2017, and he’s younger and more capable of a rebound. The Bengals had several more pressing issues than figuring out Dalton’s successor, and instead invested in protecting their veteran passer by drafting Ohio State center Billy Price. If Jackson shines and Dalton returns to form, Cincinnati probably won’t have any draft day regrets — but the club was still an outlier in the Louisville quarterback’s sweepstakes Thursday night.