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2018 QB spotlight: Lamar Jackson’s upside is well worth the risk

The New York Giants have the second overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. More likely than not, that pick will be used on a quarterback to find the eventual successor to Eli Manning. There’s a solid group of quarterbacks in this draft class, but no obvious top prospect. Because of that, we’ll take a look into a few aspects of the quarterbacks and how they might fit with the Giants.

[Previously: Baker Mayfield, Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold]

We’re moving on to one of the most polarizing quarterback prospects, 2016 Heisman Trophy winner, Lamar Jackson.

What if I told you that you could come out of the NFL Draft with Sam Darnold and Saquon Barkley? What if I told you that you wouldn’t even have to give up any additional picks to do it? Would that be something you’d be interested in?

If so, you’re going to want to take Lamar Jackson seriously. Maybe that comp is a bit hyperbolic, but probably by less than you’d think.

Jackson is most definitely a quarterback in the NFL and not only that, he might just be the best one of the bunch. He has the traits and the playmaking ability to be special at the next level with arguably the highest upside of any quarterback who is going to be selected in April. This probably goes counter to just about everything you’ve heard about Jackson to this point in the draft process. Forget about everything you think you know about Jackson.

Let’s first just start with Jackson as a passer. At Louisville in 2017, Jackson threw for 8.5 yards per attempt, a figure above Josh Rosen (8.2) and just below Sam Darnold (8.6). His adjusted yards per attempt (8.7), which factors in touchdowns and interceptions thrown, was higher than both Rosen (8.4) and Darnold (8.5). He threw 27 touchdowns on 430 attempts for a touchdown rate of 6.3 percent, again above both Rosen (5.8 percent) and Darnold (5.4 percent).

The offense at Louisville was one that used a number of pro concepts. “Pro style” has been used so much it has lost its meaning, but Jackson was asked to perform many pro elements in the passing game that allowed him to play in rhythm, read the field, and win from the pocket. Even the “college” concepts run were ones now widely adapted to the NFL.

Against Mississippi State, Louisville faced a third-and 9-from midfield. The Cardinals ran a mesh concept — opposing shallow crossing routes — with the outside right receiver and running back with a deep in from the outside left receiver and the left slot receiver opening the top of the defense with a deep post.

Jackson started his read to his right, then froze the deep safety by looking to the deep slot route, before firing the ball into a hole in the zone on the deep in (his reads are better defined in the goal line view).

“Mesh” started as an Air Raid concept used to stretch the field horizontally with the mesh itself and vertically with the routes built off it. It has since been adapted to the NFL and was common in the Minnesota Vikings playbook in 2017 under Pat Shurmur, who developed the concept during his time under Chip Kelly as the Philadelphia Eagles’ offensive coordinator.

Jackson also had control of the offense for pre-snap reads. While there were plenty of times Jackson looked to the sideline for plays like many college quarterbacks, once he got there, he was able to adjust at the line of scrimmage.

On the below second-and-5 play against Florida State, Jackson starts by setting the protection against the Seminoles defense. Florida State had a three-man line with six other defenders within the first down marker. Jackson slid the protection so the left guard took on the defensive end and the left tackle could account for pressure coming off the left side, which did in the form of a slot corner blitz.

At the snap, the Seminoles dropped into a single-high safety look as No. 20 bailed to the middle of the field. That created a gap for the tight end running a post up the seam and Jackson froze the safety for a second, then hit his tight end in stride for an easy first down.

Another thing that stands out about Jackson and the Louisville offense is how rarely an easy checkdown or screen pass was created. Just 12.4 percent of Jackson’s passes came at or behind the line of scrimmage. Many times Jackson was asked to make plays down the field with his arm or his legs, and often he did just that.

Jackson possesses effortless arm strength that allows him to get the ball down the field. At his best, he has throws from the pocket that will stack up against any quarterback in this class.

Against North Carolina State, he had a beautiful touchdown pass to his right from the pocket just inside the 25.

He duplicated that throw against Florida State, this time to his left and from the 26.

Jackson had two other would-be go-ahead touchdown passes against the Seminoles that were dropped. One came with five and a half minutes left in the game:

The other with under a minute remaining from midfield:

There were more times watching Jackson where he was let down by his supporting cast than times he was lifted up by them.

This isn’t to suggest Jackson is a perfect passer by any means — there certainly are flaws. Perhaps the biggest is when he has the tendency to miss passes high both over the middle and to the outside.

Occasionally those misses come from pushing the ball when his footwork gets narrowed and rushed. On the opening play against Mississippi State, Jackson never got to a full stride and missed his receiver — and luckily the defender — high over the middle.

Those high missed can get dangerous, though, especially with a deep defender lurking. That was the case later in the Mississippi State game when Jackson missed high again, this time into the waiting arms of a deep safety.

“Accuracy” isn’t always fixable, but keeping balls from sailing high is one part that can be changed. We saw this with Carson Wentz, who even at the start of 2017 still had a problem of missing receivers high. But even with those high throws which can be dangerous, Jackson only threw an interception on 2.3 percent of his passes in 2017. That even accounts for the bowl game against Mississippi State game where Jackson threw four picks. His interception rate during the regular season was just 1.5 percent, the same as Baker Mayfield’s.

Let’s talk about the running

Too often, Jackson’s propensity to make plays with his feet is positioned as a detriment to his ability to play quarterback. He’s also often billed as a quarterback who is looking to run instead of pass. Neither of those statements are based in reality. Jackson’s athleticism is an asset to how he plays quarterback and he consistently keeps his eyes downfield looking for the open pass when he’s on the move.

Jackson is clearly dangerous when he’s a runner, but there’s also no more dangerous passer when he’s on the run. He not only has the ability to make defenders miss, but he can make some special plays after he decides to take off.

Below is a play early in the game against Clemson. Defenders broke through off the left edge and the interior, which forced Jackson to leave the pocket. He rolled to his right and floated a perfect pass to the end zone up where only he receiver could come down with the ball. Touchdown.

Later in the game, a free rusher again broke through the line. Jackson moved to his left, kept his eyes downfield, reset his feet, and found an open touchdown.

There’s maybe a handful — probably less — of quarterbacks who could turn this from a sure sack to a touchdown:

With the added dimension of throwing on the move, even more simple elements like play-action get opened up more. Against Mississippi State, the Cardinals ran a routine play-action bootleg. The sell of the run caused the linebacker (No. 10) to bite, which created separation between him and the receiver. Jackson made an excellent throw on the move to create a big gain.

When Jackson does take off — damn. By official NCAA count, Jackson had 1,601 rushing yards in 2017 but that includes losses from sacks. Without sacks factored in, Jackson rushed for 1,759 yards and added 18 touchdowns on the ground. That’s like having a No. 1 running back along with a quarterback. Jackson’s 5,261 total yards made up 74.2 percent of the Louisville offense in 2017. Russell Wilson was getting NFL MVP consideration this past season for production rates like that.

This type of production on the ground helps in all areas on the field, but can be a dagger on third downs. Jackson’s ability to run like he does makes almost every third down potentially convertable. In 2017, Louisville had the fifth-best third down offense in college football per S&P+. They were also fourth in “passing down” S&P+, which is described as second-and-8 or more, third-and-5 or more, and fourth-and-5 or more — when passing is most likely.

An efficient run game can dominate when the defense is expecting the pass. But Jackson also adds the dynamic of killing teams with the run when they’re expecting it, like this third-and-4 against Florida State. The Seminoles had the run sniffed out, but Jackson still broke free through the middle and gained an easy 23 yards to set up a first down just outside the red zone.

While Jackson does run often, he rarely puts himself in a position to take a big hit — think the opposite of Robert Griffin III. Much of this comes from Jackson’s ability to make defenders miss, even in confined quarters like the red zone.

On this rush from the 4-yard line against NC State, Jackson dropped back, saw no one open in the end zone and broke the pocket to his left. He turned the corner past a big defensive tackle (97) and as he turned upfield, four defenders looked like they were about to converge on the quarterback. None got a hand on him before he crossed the goal line.

At any time, Jackson has the ability to flip the field in an instant. Against Florida State, he had a long run that started at his own 40 and ended inside the 10 with multiple forced missed tackles along the way.

These types of runs can add points in situations when points are unlikely. With less than a minute remaining in the first half against Mississippi State, the Cardinals had a second-and-8 from their own 14. In one play Jackson took Louisville down to the opposing 6-yard line and the Cardinals eventually scored a touchdown to take a 21-17 lead into halftime instead of a 17-14 deficit.

The Mississippi State game is an important one in the evaluation of Jackson as a player. While he didn’t have a good day throwing the ball — 13/31 for 171 yards, two touchdowns, and four interceptions — Louisville was never out of the game. Jackson kept the offense moving with his feet, which helped the plays he did make through the air. That does set a higher floor for games where Jackson might struggle throwing the ball. There’s not many quarterbacks in this class or even in the NFL who could keep their team in a game after throwing four interceptions. Sine four-pick games are far from the norm for Jackson, that’s a good thing to have.

Jackson averaged 8.7 yards per carry on the ground — the same value as his adjusted yards per attempt through the air. He won’t run nearly as much in the NFL, but Jackson could be half as efficient on the ground and still be a giant asset to an offense with his legs.

How he fits with the Giants

With the Giants, Jackson would get the development time to improve on things like footwork that would also help his release. He has already run concepts similar to what Pat Shurmur has used in his previous stops as an offensive coordinator and Jackson would fit in perfectly with a blend of pro and spread schemes.

With Shurmur and Mike Shula, the Giants have two coaches who have worked closely with mobile quarterbacks. Shurmur spent the early part of his NFL coaching career as the quarterbacks coach for the Philadelphia Eagles with Donovan McNabb. Shula worked with Cam Newton in Carolina and while the Panthers always appeared to be asking Newton to run less — quite publicly in 2017 — the quarterback run was still a big part of the offense.

It’s also possible the Giants could get Jackson on the field as early as 2018 with a package of plays centered around his playmaking ability, like how the San Francisco 49ers used Colin Kaepernick in 2011 and 2012 before he took over as the starting quarterback. Jackson could immediately improve a red zone offense that finished 27th in points per red zone trip and 26th in touchdowns per red zone trip in 2017.

There’s going to be a bit of development needed in Jackson’s game, but the upside he brings if that development is successful might be greater than any quarterback in this class. His playmaking ability could make him a star even if there’s no other progression made in the passing game. He might not be the best quarterback right now, but there’s a chance he is at the end of it all. That is the type of risk a team should be willing to make.