Matt Waldman’s RSP Pre-Draft NFL Scouting Report on Lamar Jackson (Baltimore)

Rookie Scouting Portfolio founder Matt Waldman shares his pre-draft scouting report of Baltimore Ravens QB Lamar Jackson.

2. Lamar Jackson, Louisville (6-2, 219)

Depth of Talent Score: 82.79 = Rotational Starter: Executes at a starter level in a role, playing to his strength. The scheme will at least temporarily need more customization for the player.

Let’s revisit Michael Vick’s playing career in Atlanta. He was a superstar runner who could throw the ball well. However, he wasn’t the quarterback he could have been. Atlanta tried to help him get there. They even brought Steve Young in as a consultant.

Young was a runner first, passer second early in his career.

It wasn’t until he spent several years on the bench behind Joe Montana in San Francisco that he realized quarterbacking was tied to footwork. Once that clicked for Young, he became one of the best passers of all-time. Young didn’t get through to Vick in those days. This was the Ron Mexico, pre-prison, toast of Atlanta, Michael Vick. It wasn’t until he arrived in Philadelphia after his prison stint that he had his best year as a passer.

If Vick could have learned how to manage the pocket and tie his feet to his routes earlier in his career, he might have attained the potential that is far more realistic for Lamar Jackson within the next 2-3 years. Like Vick, Jackson has blinding speed and acceleration when he breaks the pocket and a rocket arm that can spin the ball with the flick of the wrist 85 yards downfield with accuracy. But Jackson is nothing like Vick from the pocket.

Jackson might be the best pocket passer in this draft. Isn’t that an ironic statement considering that he’s also the best runner at the position? Jackson is a rare player with a rare combination of skills. If he gets the opportunity he deserves, he has the talent to become an NFL superstar.

Jackson developed in a pro-style offense at Louisville and it shows. He takes snaps from center and shotgun. His accuracy was at its best on drops from center where he could execute 2-, 3, and 5-step drop patterns.

In these situations, Jackson’s arm and hips are in sync when delivering the ball and the midline of Jackson’s back foot is often aligned with the target. The result is an accurate target with power.

His accuracy suffers more often from the shotgun when he doesn’t have a structured drop of multiple steps. His feet set up too close together and it leads to a host of mechanical issues. Primarily, Jackson’s hips, legs, and shoulders aren’t in sync and it leads to him leaning too much into his release because he’s depending too much on his arm to derive power. Other times, his accuracy falters because he’ll rotate his lower body before he begins his release.

When he begins the play in rhythm, he finishes in rhythm. When he doesn’t, his process becomes less predictable, he finishes his release leaning to the left, and the ball is often a little too far from the receiver’s break.

On the other end of the spectrum, Jackson’s passes can sail when he rushes his footwork to get the ball out before pressure arrives. His stance gets too wide in these situations. When he throws on the move, he has to get his feet, hips, and pads aligned to the target.

These are three of the biggest factors that have prevented him from achieving consistent pinpoint accuracy during his college career. They’re all factors he can control with additional development.

What Jackson couldn’t control was the 12.04 percent drop rate by his receivers last year in a pro-style offense that lacked a strong offensive line. Check out the Underrated Section of this chapter and you’ll get more details.

An underlying positive about Jackson’s accuracy woes is that they are more mechanical than conceptual. Jackson often cycles through 1-2 reads to find open receivers.

He’ll read deep-to-short and has a decent internal clock for pressure. When he’s accurate, he places the ball where the receiver can work away from the defender and earn yards after the catch.

He’ll manipulate the defense, looking off one side of the field during the drop and setup and then pivot quickly to the opposite side and fire the ball in rhythm. He displays a variety of ball fakes in the play-action game that should only improve with work.

He’s a wise decision-maker with the ball. He’s consistently better at pre-snap reads of underneath zones than his peers at the top of this class. He notes the leverage of these defenders and doesn’t make a lot of quick mistakes based on misreading the coverage.

If pressure forces his hand, Jackson is far more likely to hold onto the ball than force it into a bad spot. If he has a chance to deliver the ball on a broken play, he’s consistently placing the target in an area where only the receiver has a chance to make the catch. And Jackson will place the ball where the receiver must turn away from the defender to make the catch and have the fringe benefit of not being led into punishment.

Jackson already displays excellent range as a passer. He can deliver to the opposite hash with pinpoint accuracy on vertical throws at a distance of 46 yards against tight coverage. I saw deep throws to the opposite hash in clutch situations at the end of games and key third-down situations. In the games I watched, Jackson’s range of accuracy topped out at 54 yards with strong velocity but it wasn’t a consistent display that would have elevated his grade.

He’s not just a power thrower. Jackson consistently delivered perfect or near-perfect fade routes from onestep drops—even from as far away as 45 yards to the opposite side of the field. He doesn’t always know when to deliver with power or touch and winds up lofting the
ball too much on vertical plays where driving it on a line would have done the trick.

But when he knows that he needs to flash that power, Jackson can make high-velocity throws 20-25 yards downfield from an off-balanced position and different arm slots on a consistent basis. He even fits the ball over shallow or intermediate coverage. This is a valuable asset for a quarterback with his mobility. He displayed this behavior with far greater consistency than the likes of Terrelle Pryor or Jake Locker, who had similar weighted accuracy scores in college (see Underrated Section).

Jackson authors pump fakes with a variety of motions and violence. He also has the ability to bring the ball down midway through his release motion when he doesn’t like what he sees at the last moment. These are great tools that help him manipulate the defense from the pocket and on the move.

When he’s on the move, he excels at pressing defenders in space, forcing them to decide whether to defend a scramble or a pass. His acceleration is sudden and he makes sharp dips and tight spins through wraps.

Jackson’s strength and balance are underrated. He pulls through contact to his lower legs and routinely works through reaches and wraps from defensive linemen and edge defenders while in the pocket.

If he wants to take the corner with his acceleration, few defenders will stop him from doing so. He carries the ball under the appropriate arm away from the nearest pursuing defender.

As great of a runner Jackson is, he might be as good in the pocket. If he isn’t yet, he has the potential to do so. Great pocket quarterbacks have what’s called quiet feet.

This is the ability to react to pressure with controlled steps that avoid the oncoming defenders but keep the passer in an efficient throwing position. Another fringe benefit of quiet feet is that the quarterback doesn’t eat up space in the pocket when he’s executing at this level. Vick had some of the loudest feet in the pocket of any productive quarterback in the history of the game.

When quarterbacks feel pressure, there are two possible responses: fight or flight. The fight response is most often the best answer, slide from the oncoming punch and stay in position to counter with an accurate throw.

The flight response is to take sprinter’s steps—large strides to accelerate from the action. Even if those steps are to spin or dip from the opponent, the priority is fleeing rather than throwing because it will take more a lot more movement to regain the balance necessary to
throw the ball.

At the first flash of pressure, Vick’s first reaction in Atlanta was most often the flight response. It worked often enough to make him a star but not often enough to make him a great quarterback. That single great year as a passer in Philadelphia was the first time Vick was as likely to fight as he as to flee.

As devastating a runner as Jackson is, what makes him a special prospect—and potentially a special NFL quarterback—is his willingness to fight first and flee much later. No quarterback in this draft owns the pocket as well as Jackson.

He has an excellent feel for the stride width he needs to take to avoid a defender but not eat the space his lineman earned for him. Rarely does his movement invite pressure. He can climb, retreat, flush, and roll from pressure. He knows when to let the defender get close and when to take action earlier on. When he can reset and fire with good feet, he’s accurate at every range of the field.

Combined with his patience to cycle through two, three, and even four reads—and often back to his first or second if he has time—Jackson’s pocket presence and running ability often presents a no-win situation for defenses. When defenses blitz, Jackson can throw it over their heads to an open receiver. When they play zone, he’s patient enough to find the open spot.

If they play man-to-man and the pressure doesn’t get to Jackson fast, he’ll patiently wait for a route to open or a receiver to work free on an adjustment. If nothing comes open, the receivers are far enough downfield that Jackson can break the pocket with 15-20 yards between himself and the first back-end defender.

These are problems that Jackson could eventually pose to NFL defenses once he proves that he can deliver with pinpoint accuracy on a consistent basis against man coverage, while also able to sniff out the varieties of man-zone hybrid coverage and well-disguised pre-snap
looks that trip up young pro quarterbacks.

When he makes mistakes, Jackson often rebounds with composed play and avoids compounding his errors. At the same time, there are habits he’ll have to break in order to mature as a decision-maker.

The two-minute drill or when he’s cornered with no other choice tend to be the only times he’ll throw the ball away. Because he’s a gifted playmaker with his arms and legs, he’s naturally prone to push the limits of a play and forgo easier check-downs for positive yards that are there for him to take sooner.

He’ll also display reckless tendencies in the red zone, trying to do too much under pressure and creating extreme risk-reward outcomes. He’ll carry the ball too loose from his frame when he breaks the pocket. Even when his carriage is high to the chest, the elbow is too loose and prone to chops, punches, and rips.

While I appreciate that he’s deceptively strong, Jackson needs to limit the times he drops his pads and takes on defenders in the open field.
As Lakeside sings while it delivers the funk on Fantastic Voyage: Slide slide slippity-slide!

Jackson is the ultimate boom-bust option of this draft. Although the accuracy concerns have legitimacy, much of the criticism hurled his way originates from old-school thinking about what a safe first-round pick looks like.

Most of his issues are correctable if he’s willing to put in the work and knows how to find the right resources to work smart. This last point is the iffiest of them all because even a good, smart, and a motivated young man like Jackson is still prone to making the wrong choices and limiting his development.

The fact that he has to search out this kind of aid outside the NFL facility also speaks volumes about the league’s lack of development for the position it deems the most difficult in sport and the most important.

The negative aspect of this for Jackson’s draft status is that he’s most likely to drop to the second round. The saving grace is that no team that is close-minded in any possible way about Jackson will likely take him.

If he drops to the late first or early second, don’t be surprised if one of the more enlightened organizations in the league trade up and let him develop behind an aging star. Because Jackson’s college training came in Bobby Petrino’s pro-style offense, there are aspects of quarterback play that he’s absorbed that more heralded prospects have not been exposed to, such as shifts and reading the field while dropping from center—an underrated area of difficulty for spread-only passers transiting to a pro-style offense.

I’d prefer to see Jackson continue his path as a pro-style quarterback. Ideally, I’d like to see him join a team that runs an Erhardt-Perkins scheme. The offense has much simpler play call verbiage and route combinations that make it an easier one to learn than the West Coast Offense.

A patient team could use him in a WCO. But as with any quarterback, the adjustment time may take a little longer and he’ll have moments where he’ll feel overwhelmed and lost for a longer period of time.

A staff that wants to exploit his running ability to its maximum potential could run a lot of spread and incorporate pre-snap motion and use jet sweeps and quarterback keepers off those jet packages. This would be exciting but, if not intelligently managed, the punishment Jackson could earn might burn him out quickly.

Jaguars executive Tom Coughlin once said Petrino was the best play-caller he had ever been around. Although play-calling is no longer a quarterback’s job, the fact that Jackson has learned the game through the lens of a Petrino offense is also another positive layer in his portfolio. It’s why I think some sharp team will take Jackson and let him sit and learn.

Give Jackson a year on the bench to get acclimated to the league, find a position consultant, and learn the offense. He could have the career that the most optimistic hoped Vick might attain. If he lands in New England, he could be the Erhardt-Perkins offense’s Steve Young to Tom Brady’s Joe Montana.

His potential is that strong.

RSP Film Room: Lamar Jackson in the Pocket

RSP Boiler Room: Reading the Field and Pressure

RSP Boiler Room: Drops and Accuracy

Pre-NFL Draft Fantasy Advice: My most optimistic view is that a team trades up to take Jackson somewhere in the top half of the first round. At this time last year, few people thought that Patrick Mahomes would go as high as he did and definitely not to a playoff team with a veteran starter that traded up to land the rookie.

My most pessimistic thought is that the NFL conflates a bunch of minor concerns into some inflammatory perspective and Jackson drops beyond the second round. I doubt it, but the NFL’s oddball reactions should not surprise anyone.

My most realistic thought is that a team selects Jackson between picks 20 and 45 and he’ll sit behind an aging starter. If this happens, I’d treat Jackson like Patrick Mahomes—an absolute bargain of a luxury pick that will likely be available in the mid-second to the early-third round of fantasy drafts.

It makes him a great stash even if it’s a little expensive for many fantasy owners. The better the team, coach, and quarterback ahead of Jackson on the depth chart, the stronger the buy.

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