Lamar Jackson has been one of the most electrifying players in college football over the past 2 seasons. “Lamar Jackson is 5x better than I was at V-Tech… Enough said!” This tweet was sent out by Michael Vick about the Louisville quarterback in September of 2016. Vick, who was a phenom coming out of Virginia Tech, faced the similar skepticism that Jackson does. They have similar play styles, as both relied heavily on their athletic ability during their college careers, and both were criticized for their unique play.
They stand out when playing quarterback as unpredictable, and some scouts do not feel as though this scramble-type quarterback play will translate well to the NFL. This is true in many cases, however there are some players who can adapt to play in NFL systems, and some who can still rely on this athletic play-making ability in the league. Players like Vick and Cam Newton have proven that the mobile quarterback can play effectively in the NFL. However, Jackson still has a lot to learn about playing quarterback at the NFL level.
Jackson has lead Louisville to two big years in the 2016 and 2017 seasons, accounting for 51 touchdowns in his 13-game, Heisman-winning, 2016 campaign, and 45 touchdowns in his 13-game Junior season. Although Jackson’s scoring numbers fell in his final season, his consistency has steadily improved over his three years starting at Louisville. In 2015, his completion percentage was 54.7%, and his average yards per carry (YPC) was 5.9. These numbers increased from this season to the next, in which his completion percentage was 56.2%, and his YPC was 6.0. He won the Heisman that season and lead Louisville to the Citrus Bowl against LSU. Last season however, people seemed to forget about what he had done in 2016, giving more attention to Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma and Sam Darnold of USC. However, Jackson quietly had the most effective season in his college career, compiling career highs in passing yards (3,660), completion percentage (59.1%), rushing yards (1,601), and YPC (6.9). These numbers prove nothing more than the fact that Lamar Jackson is getting better with experience. His consistency and play-making decisions were smarter and more effective in 2017 than in years past, but he is not what many would call a natural quarterback. He is hybrid-type player that has a lot to learn about throwing the ball, reading coverages, and NFL schemes. He may have won the Heisman in 2016, but his 2017 campaign was better for his draft stock because it showed scouts that he is maturing, and any unproductive part of his game can be molded by NFL teams, which is why he was drafted in the first round by the Ravens.
While Jackson has been improving each year, he still has questionable decision making at times, as he threw 10 interceptions last season. It is natural that young quarterbacks make these decisions, and Jackson has to learn to protect the ball better before he can become a starter in the NFL. So, one question still looms: What should the Ravens do with their young star Lamar Jackson? He has unbelievable athleticism and can make amazing things happen with the ball in his hands, however he needs to learn to protect the ball better, and he needs to have time to adapt to the NFL style of play. The Ravens should have Jackson learn from Joe Flacco, their veteran quarterback, as I’m sure they will have him do. I believe that his rookie season should be spent shadowing Flacco, learning how he prepares for new teams and challenges, how the Ravens’ offense works, and how he makes decisions under pressure with the ball in his hands. Jackson could learn a lot from Flacco because of all his experience against tough, physical defenses like the Steelers and Bengals. That being said, if Flacco continues to decline during the season, I would not hesitate to make the switch. Often what a struggling team needs to get back to a good, winning mindset is a change of leadership and an explosive play, and Jackson can produce plenty. Flacco has not been the same quarterback that he was when he was in his prime, and if the Ravens have a shot at the playoffs and Flacco is underperforming, Jackson is the move to make for the Ravens. He needs to trust his athletic ability, and not suppress it as many quarterbacks do when they get to the NFL. Jackson should remain on the bench for now so he can learn to take care of the football, but he should not be ruled out as a mid-season starter because Flacco is not the same passer as he was, and the fans want to see this guy in action, because he is a once-in-a-generation athlete.
The Jackson to Vick comparison is obvious because of their athleticism, build, style of play, and success in college. Although I think an understated comparison is that of Jackson to Cam Newton. Newton also dominated college football at Auburn, winning the national title and Heisman award in his senior year. They have extremely different bodies, as Newton is around 6’5, 245 pounds, and Jackson is 6’3, 215 pounds. They both run the ball effectively, Newton is a downhill runner with his surprising speed, but also with the ability to run over defenders. While Jackson on the other hand uses his immaculate speed and elusiveness to slip tackles and run around defenders. They both have a scramble-when-in-trouble mindset, and they both learned to throw the ball. They were not natural quarterbacks, but they were fast guys that learned to throw, and Jackson still has a lot to adapt to. Newton has learned to be somewhat of a pocket-passer, doing designed runs and only scrambling when he has no other option. Jackson could learn a lot from Newton’s adaptation to NFL football in regard to reading coverages and throwing in the pocket. These two quarterbacks have very different measures, but are similar in their abilities coming out of college. Jackson is not experienced enough to make the jump to starter while the Ravens still have a decent Joe Flacco, however I truly believe that he will get an opportunity to prove his growth soon.