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Lamar Jackson the wild-card in 2018 NFL Draft quarterback class

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Could the draft’s most unique quarterback be the future of the Giants?

This offseason the New York Giants are faced with a potentially franchise-defining decision.

As has been well established, they hold the second-overall selection in the 2018 NFL Draft, and this year features a quarterback class that is being compared to the 2012 class, and even the historic 2004 and 1983 classes.

With Eli Manning nearing the end of his career, this might be the Giants’ best chance to establish their plan of succession for the quarterback position. Assuming they don’t decide that 2017 third-rounder Davis Webb [Deep Dive] is that guy, 2018 prospects Mason Rudolph [Deep Dive], Josh Allen [Deep Dive], Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield, Josh Rosen, and Sam Darnold could all be in consideration by the Giants.

This week we will take a close look at the most unique, and potentially polarizing, quarterback in the draft, Lamar Jackson of Louisville.

Jackson would represent a departure from the Giants’ conservative roots, but his rare athleticism also presents enormous opportunity. Does the potential reward outweigh the risks with Jackson?

Let’s see just who he is as a quarterback.

Measurables

Athleticism

Our picture of Jackson’s athleticism is unquantified compared to the other quarterbacks the Giants could be considering for the future of their franchise. He made the decision not to perform measurable events (such as the 40-yard dash or jumps) at both the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine and Louisville’s Pro Day.

The decision turned out to be controversial, but is understandable as he struggles to be evaluated as a quarterback, and only a quarterback.

And while evaluators may bristle at not having his Combine metrics, they aren’t really needed to see that Lamar Jackson is a rare athlete — especially at the quarterback position.

He brings a blend of speed, explosiveness, balance, and twitchy agility rarely seen outside of the truly elite skill position players. And while this blend of traits has encouraged some to consider a transition to a new position, such as wide receiver, Jackson has become adept at using that athleticism to his advantage as a passer. With it, he is able to make would-be pass rushers miss, scramble, and buy time to find his receivers down field.

While Jackson usually keeps his eyes downfield when scrambling, his athleticism does make him a threat for defenses on the ground, either through run-pass option plays (RPOs), zone-read plays, or designed quarterback runs.

His ability to make tacklers miss and outrun defenders helped make him the first player in FBS history to throw for more than 3,000 yards and run for more than 1,000 yards in consecutive years.

Arm talent

Arm strength

While some evaluators might have questions about Jackson as a quarterback, there can be no questions about his ability to throw the football. He boasts an incredibly tight, compact release and the ability effortlessly generate velocity. Jackson is able to threaten all levels of the field, fit passes into tight windows, throw off-platform, and do so, seemingly, with a flick of the wrist.

Jackson’s arm talent, when combined with his rare athletic ability, can make him almost undefendable at times.

Here Louisville is in an empty set, with two receivers to the top, three to the bottom. The N.C. State defense backs into a 3-4 look just before the snap, and rushes three, dropping eight in coverage. They are in a Tampa-2 coverage shell (the middle linebacker drops into a deep zone)

Louisville is running a “Tosser” concept, or a pair of slant routes, one nestled inside of the other, at the top of the screen. By dropping an edge rusher back into coverage, N.C. State has a numbers advantage on both sides of the field, complicating Jackson’s read. He initially looks to throw to the inside slant route, which would have been the correct decision, except for the official getting in the way and clogging his throwing window.

So, while his pocket collapses, Jackson quickly reloads and throws to the outside slant. Though the middle linebacker is coming down and closing that throwing window, Jackson is still able to generate enough velocity to get the ball to his receiver with enough time to make the catch and secure the first down.

Plays like this don’t get the attention of his flashier highlights, but it does illustrate how his athletic ability adds to his ability as a passer, rather than distracting from it.

Mechanics

Jackson’s mechanics are probably the area in which he needs the most improvement. He has improved as a pocket passer every year at Louisville, but he still has some issues that will need to be ironed out with coaching. The biggest is a tendency for him to throw with his feet too close together, creating a narrow (and less stable) base, which can lead to off-target throws.

Jackson also occasionally fails to fully transfer his weight, depending solely on his arm strength to drive the ball. As Giants’ fans have seen with Eli Manning, throwing off his back foot can lead to sailing passes.

This wasn’t a terribly common issue for Jackson in 2017, and for the most part, when he didn’t complete his motion it was because his pocket had collapsed and he didn’t have room to step in to his throw. However, it did happen occasionally and is something on which coaches will have to continue to work.

There is some concern with Jackson’s accuracy, particularly on passes down-field and outside of the hash marks. From 11-19 yards downfield, his completion percentage on catchable passes dropped from 74 percent over the middle to 53 percent to the left and 65 percent to the right. On passes beyond 20 yards, his completion percentages on catchable balls dropped to 52 percent over the middle and 29 percent to either side.

Despite completing an average of just 59.1 percent of his passes, Jackson has shown marked improvement and comfort as a pocket passer over his time at Louisville. The stat is also somewhat misleading, considering Jackson had to contend with the highest drop rate among top quarterback prospects. His receivers dropped 8.5 percent of his catchable passes, compared to 4.8 percent for Josh Allen, and 4.3 percent for Sam Darnold.

Intangibles

Mental processing

This is the part of Jackson’s game that is consistently overlooked when he is discussed as a prospect. Watching him, it is entirely too easy to be distracted by his obvious (and electric) athleticism and exciting highlight plays and miss how much he is doing mentally.

He is so successful as a running threat that one is tempted to mark the Louisville offensive scheme down as just another spread-option college offense.

And while the offense does feature a number of zone-read, RPO, and designed quarterback run plays — after all, Bobby Petrino is paid to win football games and he would be a fool not to use every weapon at his disposal, including Jackson’s legs — it is built on a pro-style offense.

Louisville’s offense is built on the Erhardt-Perkins System, which is used by several NFL teams, none more famously than the New England Patriots.

The EPS is built around efficiency and dynamic personnel groupings. Rather than use lengthy play calls like a West Coast system to tell each player what his job is on that particular play, it uses one or two-word codes to describe the concepts being run on that play. It is simple for offensive players and lends itself well to up-tempo offenses, but places a fair amount on the quarterback mentally.

And while that system features quick passes to get receivers the ball in space with room to run, it also features a number of full-field reads as well as plays that use post-snap options. Those route, which were made famous by Steve Smith (Giants), Victor Cruz, and Wes Welker, require the quarterback and receiver to make quick, accurate reads of the defense after the snap, and adjust the play accordingly.

[For more reading on the Erhardt-Perkins System, check out our Summer School post on the subject]

After the snap, Jackson is able to quickly and dissect the defense, and shows the ability to manipulate defenders with his eyes, making larger windows for his receivers.

In the play above, watch Jackson’s helmet, and even his body, and how long he looks to his left before quickly coming back to the right for the touchdown. He is holding the defender in the middle of the field while the receiver works open behind the linebacker who dropped in coverage.

Character

Jackson has no outstanding character concerns that I have been able to find. He did get into an on-field shoving match with a Kentucky linebacker (which escalated into an all-out brawl) when the two teams played in 2017, but that seems to be something of an isolated incident. Off the field he seems to have a very low-key personality, but has flashed a sense of humor when dealing with the media.

Jackson is reportedly very passionate about the game of football. The Courier-Journal was told that Jackson rarely did anything that wasn’t football related as far back as high school, eschewing anything that might derail his football career.

Jackson said he hardly ever went out when he was in high school, and if he left the house it was usually for something football-related. Boynton Beach principal Fred Barch said every trip Jackson ever made to his office was for a positive reason, and he called Jackson “an all-around great athlete and student.”

Boynton Beach student Rashad Reddick, a sophomore during Jackson’s senior season, said the Louisville star has always avoided the type of activities, such as drugs or violence, that could have derailed his football career.

”That man (goes) home,” Reddick said. “If he’s not at home, he’s at practice. I never saw him at a party. He was determined.”

Ask the expert

Because of the importance of Giants’ decision regarding the second overall pick and the future of their quarterback position, I wanted a second opinion on these players.

I reached out to Mark Schofield of Inside The Pylon. Schofield is a former quarterback for Wesleyan University and provides expert, and excellent, film breakdowns for ITP. He was kind enough to consent to contributing his expert opinion to this series.

Here are his thoughts on Lamar Jackson:

Lamar Jackson has the raw talent and potential to become an upper tier quarterback in the NFL, but like many quarterbacks before him he will need an ideal landing spot and a creative offensive staff to develop and refine him as a QB. Let’s start with the positives, and we will put aside his elite athleticism and game-breaking ability in space for the moment. This past season Jackson took a big step forward as a passer. The year he won the Heisman there were times that he relied on his legs and vacated clean pockets early. But he was challenged by his coaches this past season to do more as a passer and it showed. In fact, when I broke down all of his interceptions at Inside the Pylon, there was a throw against Wake Forest when he passed up a clear running lane and made a throw instead, and it was intercepted. There is a notion that Jackson was not asked to do much schematically, and I would push back on that a bit. Under Bobby Petrino he was running a variant of the Erhardt-Perkins offense, the system being run in New England right now. This tasked Jackson with making progression reads - sometimes full field - as well as reading coverages and running option/conversion routes. He was also given freedom to make checks and audibles at the line, a good sign for development. He does have flaws. People point to the completion percentage and say he is an inaccurate quarterback. I would posit that he is more of an inconsistent passer, due to the inconsistency in his throwing base. He has a very narrow passing platform, and that can lead to overstriding and poor ball placement. That he does need to fix. On his athleticism, it has become almost a negative during the draft process, as it has allowed people to float the position switch idea. But I would argue that his athleticism is he ultimate motivating factor for an offense, as he can mask protection breakdowns better that other QBs with his ability to escape, coupled with his quick release. For me, he’s a QB with great potential. He might slide in this draft for a variety of reasons, but the team he falls to will be glad he did.

Summary

Jackson is, without a doubt, the most intriguing and unique of the Giants’ quarterback options.

While Davis Webb and Josh Allen are great athletes for their quarterbacks their size, Jackson is a great athlete, period. He would bring a dimension to the Giants’ offense that that no other quarterback in this draft, and few in the league as a whole, could match.

However, he also comes with a few caveats.

First is that he does need further development as a passer, particularly in his lower-body mechanics. The coaches may well feel that he could benefit from having a more consistently wide base (that is, consistently getting his feet a bit further apart when he sets to throw), and they will certainly want to work on following through in his throws.

Secondly, while the temptation might be neigh-irresistible to use (even feature) Jackson’s legs in the offensive scheme, the coaching staff would have to resist. While Jackson ran often, routinely tried to finish his runs with his shoulder lowered, and was frequently hit — both in the open field and behind the line of scrimmage — he never missed a game due to injury. That likely wouldn’t hold true in the NFL, where he would play more games against bigger, stronger, faster defenders. Jackson answered questions about his size at the combine by measuring in at 6-foot-2, 216 pounds, but even much larger quarterbacks such as Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton, or Andrew Luck have missed games due to injury.

Contrary to a popular scouting cliche, no quarterback has “the size to stand up to NFL punishment.”

So, the temptation to use Jackson as a running threat will have to be reined in. Likewise, his tendency to escape the pocket and keep his eyes downfield in order to throw, rather than pick up yards on his own, should be fostered.

Jackson’s best chance to play early in his career (perhaps as a rookie) is in an Erhardt-Perkins System, with which is at least generally familiar from college. He is also a natural fit in a West Coast system, which would not only take full advantage of his quick release, but also his mobility with bootlegs and roll-outs.

With Eli Manning in place, the Giants would be an excellent environment for Jackson to learn and grow as a signal caller under Pat Shurmur’s tutelage. And while there is a certain amount of risk in selecting a prospect that falls outside of the league’s norms, there is also opportunity in a player for which the league at large might not have a ready counter. If the NFL is wary of him, the Giants might be able to move back in the first round to accumulate more picks and still be able to select him.