The vaunted “Year of the Quarterback” got off to an inauspicious start in the first week of the college football season. Anointed prospects like Sam Darnold and Josh Allen disappointed in their first action of the year, and it took a healthy heap of luck to turn Josh Rosen’s 2017 debut from embarrassing to exciting. One of the prospects who lived up to his billing was Louisville quarterback (and reigning Heisman winner) Lamar Jackson. In a 35-28 victory over a surprisingly stout Purdue team, Jackson repeatedly put the team on his back to engineer the win. Finishing the day 30-of-46 for 378 yards and two passing touchdowns, and adding 21 rushing attempts for 107 yards, he reliably moved the chains and bailed the offense out of bad situations, overcoming two lost red zone fumbles by teammates.
Most striking was Jackson’s performance in key situations. On third down, Jackson was 8-of-11 passing for 127 yards, converting six third downs. Jackson, listed at 6’3″ and 211 pounds, earned that Heisman with logic-defying big plays last season. When it comes to production outside the structure of a play, Jackson is as dangerous as anyone in the NFL today, including Cam Newton, Marcus Mariota, Colin Kaepernick, and Tyrod Taylor. Against Purdue, though, he also showed poise and maturity within that structure. That’s what separates him from a project like Allen, and it’s what will likely elevate him to the top of the 2018 NFL Draft.
Arm strength – dial it up, dial it back
Jackson has one of the strongest arms in this draft class. He can fit the ball into tight windows, even while throwing on the run. He’s even more deadly, though, because he understands how to take some heat off of the ball and deliver passes with touch. Consider this throw to his tight end up the seam:
Jackson hits his tight end in stride, between two defenders, 26 yards downfield. Watch Jackson’s throw in slow motion and pay attention to his upper body. The only real stress being generated here comes from Jackson’s right arm. He flicks the ball on target (aided by a well-structured throwing platform in his lower body) and barely has to follow through with his shoulders or left arm. Another benefit of his easy throwing motion is that he can deliver passes from an awkward or uneven throwing platform without compromising his accuracy. What makes Jackson special is his sense of how much force to apply to put the pass on target. After a scattershot freshman season, Jackson began to dial in his accuracy last year. In his third year, Jackson continues to refine this skill. A great example is this throw:
He identifies his slot receiver as the target for the play, and as he steps into his throw, the Louisville center’s anchor is broken, pushing him backwards into Jackson. Jackson isn’t able to fully step into his throw, and he fades away slightly as he follows through, but this time he swings his shoulders fully on the follow-through, and that upper body motion maintains the trajectory of the throw right into the hands of his receiver.
Both of those throws hit the receiver in stride. Both came in the fourth quarter of a one score game, and both converted third-and-long plays.
Processing speed and anticipation
The pre-draft process likely won’t be kind to Jackson. As a black quarterback with a “dual-threat” reputation, he fits the profile that anonymous scouts love to trash-talk ahead of the main event. You’ll hear that he can’t play from under center, that he doesn’t have experience in a pro-style offense, that he can’t read the field. We’ll get you ahead of the narrative now, in order to make things simple – if Marcus Mariota could successfully transition from Oregon’s spread offense to Mike Mularkey’s throwback NFL offense within two years, then Jackson (who’s playing for former NFL head coach Bobby Petrino) won’t see anything more challenging.
Believe in Jackson because he already plays with the poise of a skilled NFL veteran. He can quickly process what’s happening in front of him and respond with a positive play. As one example, watch how Jackson reads through this play. The primary read is between the boundary receiver, who’s running a hook route, and the slot receiver, who heads off screen, but is likely running a basic crossing pattern with a 10-12 yard stem based on the timing of Jackson’s footwork in the context of the play. If neither player is open, then Jackson can read to the left, seeing if his other boundary receiver is open (again, not a clear image, but possibly a skinny post). If that receiver is no good, then Jackson has an outlet to his left with the running back.
Jackson wastes no time on this play. He reaches the top of his drop, but sees no one available. Without hitching or stalling in the pocket, Jackson turns his head, looking to the left; the next receiver’s no good. With the next step Jackson starts throwing to his checkdown. The ball is a bit high, but it’s placed in front of the receiver and early enough that the nearest defender isn’t in a position to make the tackle. That’s a pocket passer’s play.
Here’s another play, which would be right at home in an NFL playbook. Jackson throwing out of an empty set is about as “radical” as this structure gets. The Cardinals run double slants on the left side of the play. Jackson correctly diagnoses that his inner receiver is in off-man coverage, and he delivers the ball on time, in stride to that receiver.
Anticipation isn’t too much to ask from Jackson, either. On this play, he knows he has a tight end running a hook route in the middle of the field. When the middle linebacker blitzes, Jackson immediately begins his throw. Easy pitch and catch.
Wow plays can’t be taught
Up until now, I’ve shown you plays that are primarily pocket passing to highlight how Jackson can fit into an NFL offense from day one. Obviously, a kid who scored 51 touchdowns (21 on the ground) in his Heisman campaign is a special talent outside the context of that structure. Jackson’s rare elusiveness and his ability to hit throws from an uneven throwing platform will further separate him from the crop of pocket passers who dominate the conversation today.
On this play, Louisville tries play action, pulling a guard across the formation. Unfortunately, it backfires, with a defensive stunt bringing an extra rusher into the gap that was just vacated.
It’s not a problem for Jackson, who dodges the pass rush, resets, identifies an open receiver, and steps into a throw for a first down.
This play was an even more impressive throw from Jackson, though it fell incomplete as the receiver was just out of range for tapping his toes inbounds. As Jackson reaches the top of his drop, three of his four linemen are already beaten. Jackson leaks out the side of the pocket and uses a pump fake to make two of the pass rushers trip and fall.
With enough speed to turn the corner on the remaining linemen, Jackson chooses to throw the ball. Considering that only fifteen seconds remained in the half, and Jackson was far behind the line of scrimmage at the opposing 35 yard line, a throw to the sideline was the right decision to make. Jackson lasers this ball to a spot where only his receiver could reach it, but the receiver’s momentum is already carrying him out of bounds.
Sometimes, Jackson will make moves in the open field that just cause you to shake your head and smile. He had a slew of them during his Heisman season, and as long as he stays healthy, he’ll keep doing them when he enters the NFL. How do you defend a player who can do this?
Possible Bills fit
At the moment, the Buffalo Bills are hoping that Tyrod Taylor, who had one of the worst preseasons of all NFL passers, or fifth-round rookie Nathan Peterman can be counted on as a franchise anchor. In other words, nothing we’ve seen from either quarterback to date would preclude the team from using one of its two first round picks in 2018 on a quarterback.
At first blush, Jackson might appear to be the type of quarterback the current coaching staff would prefer to stay away from – a dynamic playmaker who thrives outside the structure of the playbook. But as he showed against Purdue, Jackson can be more than that; he can be a leader from within the pocket, too. There are some traits Jackson needs to keep developing, most of all his footwork, which is inconsistent from pass to pass. But early in the college football season, Jackson has made the case that he should be the top QB selected in April.
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