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The Case for Lamar

By Jim Johnson
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Lamar Jackson should be the first quarterback taken in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Lamar Jackson should be the first quarterback taken in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Ahead of the season, many believed this year’s class of signal callers was loaded, with the likes of Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Mason Rudolph, Jackson, Luke Falk, and, for some reason, Josh Allen.

Although, to be fair, there was a similar sentiment floating around during the 2016 preseason, but once it was time for selections to be made the overwhelming thought was that it was rather weak.

Something similar is happening this year; as we watch the various prospects perform, we subsequently, and in short order, fall out of love with each one.

Unsurprisingly, there is no unanimous top passer at this point, however most experts would indicate that Darnold and Rosen are one and two, in some order. Beyond that pair, it’s generally some combination of Allen, Jackson and Rudolph, alongside a few other names like Falk, Clayton Thorson, Ryan Finley, and Baker Mayfield.

For our purposes, today, let’s stick to the general consensus top five, as adjudicated by a quick, cursory google search… Not really, I made a composite ranking of seven different draft analysis websites in which the order finished as follows: Darnold, Rosen, Allen, Rudolph, Jackson.

I’m already annoyed.

There are things that do and do not matter when evaluating quarterbacks. There are a lot of misconceptions about what attributes fall into which category. The most commonly cited skill that people think matters, but actually does not, is arm strength.

In college football, it is, quite literally, like the tenth most important thing for a successful quarterback. Throwing the ball a long way or really fast can be useful in the pursuit of retweets, YouTube views, and little else.

Accuracy is probably the most important skill for a quarterback, across all levels. Beyond that, it’s mostly intangibles -- leadership, preparation, etc. -- mechanics, footwork, and the ability to extend plays, particularly for younger players.

There is, of course, a minimum threshold of ‘arm talent’ that a given passer must meet in order to compete at the highest level, but everyone that we are discussing does, and as long as that is met, it doesn’t matter beyond that. This is the last you will read about ‘arm talent’, the most stupid, useless, contrived evaluation point, from me, today.

As previously stated, accuracy, which varies on different types of throws, is first and foremost.

Admittedly, this is something Jackson struggled with, relatively, last season, but not to the extent that you may think. Compared to the rest of the top five, his 56.2% completion percentage was less than the rest of the top five prospects, save Allen. However, when you consider that his pass catchers dropped almost as many balls as Darnold and Rosen’s, combined, it’s clear that the raw percentage is misleading.

Adjusted for drops, spikes, and throwaways, Jackson’s completion percentage leapt up to 69.5%, which was still fourth out of the five, but just two percentage points below Rosen and Rudolph, as opposed to 4% and 6.5%, respectively. Darnold’s was still substantially higher than the rest of the group whereas Allen’s was still decidedly worse.

The point is, while it’s true that there was room for improvement when it came to Jackson’s accuracy, he was still above average in that respect, and much closer to the other top prospects than most people think.

More importantly, while he has done plenty, thus far in 2017, to assuage those concerns, his peers have improved only incrementally or even regressed in one case. Darnold’s adjusted completion percentage is down 6.2%, and he’s now fourth out of the five. Allen’s has improved .5%. He’s still last. Rosen is up just over 2%. Rudolph leads the group, currently, but Jackson has shown the greatest growth, up 3.6%, putting him third amongst the five, and a mere 1.3% shy of Rudolph.

Let’s go a little further and see how efficient they are within different depths of throws.

Bobby Petrino, obviously, utilizes a lot shallow route concepts in what is, in reality, a very “pro-style” offense. Yes, it is pro style. That doesn’t mean they get under center much, but the ideology is well aligned with the NFL. Plus, almost every NFL team goes out of shotgun now, anyway, and is more effective when they do, so I’m not even a little bit interested in whether or not any of these guys can do that.

Jackson, as such, has developed immense proficiency hitting receivers closer to the line of scrimmage, which has become, arguably, the most valuable currency in the professional ranks.

His 109.3 passer rating on shorter routes, past the line of scrimmage, is second of the five. Darnold is the only one better. His 103.5 rating on intermediate throws is third, as is his 110 rating on deep balls.

Other than Rudolph, whose numbers are inflated (that’s coming up later), Jackson is the most well-rounded passer. Darnold, as I mentioned, is good on short passes, but his intermediate throws are terrible and deep ones even worse. Allen’s intermediate throws are somehow worse than Darnold’s, and he is ranked third out of the five in each of the other two criteria, despite playing far lesser competition. Even Rosen, who is great on intermediate throws, is wildly inaccurate on short throws, and fourth in the group on deep ones.

Moreover, Jackson has alleviated concerns over another issue he had, poise under duress, while his competitors have declined.

His adjusted completion percentage under pressure, last year, of 57.1%, was well below that of the other top prospects. Now, at 60%, it’s the second best, behind Rosen. The UCLA standout is ever-so-slightly below the 2016 number, while Rudolph and Allen have shown a more notable regression, and Darnold has fallen off of a cliff.

Aside from being efficient, of course, quarterbacks need to produce. Over the course of 2016, and halfway through 2017, only Rudolph has averaged more yards per attempt. At 8.75, Lamar is second amongst the group.

He’s also second, again trailing Rudolph alone, in touchdown percentage to interception percentage ratio. Averaging a touchdown on 6.87% of throws, third in the group, and an interception on just 2.1% of attempts, second in the group, his proportional TD rate to INT rate is 3.27.

Now that we’re all up to speed, let’s do a little summation.

Josh Allen has no business being mentioned alongside any of these guys. It’s necessary to nitpick certain things when comparing the rest of the group, but Allen hardly even registers on most of things that matter. This is a quintessential case of a wildly inaccurate, inconsistent passer getting the benefit of the doubt because he’s big and strong-armed, despite no indication of actually being, well, very good. Someone tabbed this guy as a sleeper to watch, somewhere along the road, and it’s spun much too far out control since then. Lay off.

Sam Darnold deserved to be the top quarterback prospect coming into this season. Based on the information at hand, that was the correct choice, but it’s important to be adaptable now that the circumstances have changed.. Maybe this year has been a fluke, but it’s just as likely that last year was. Darnold has to improve his decision making and he, himself, has admitted that his confidence is shook. Until he reestablishes himself, he simply can not be the first quarterback taken.

If you just look at the numbers, without context, Lamar Jackson would be the second best prospect behind Mason Rudolph. However, while the former plays in a system that relies quite heavily on NFL passing concepts, the latter plays in the very antithesis. Rudolph is a superb college quarterback, but his translatable skills are few and far between.

There’s no telling how he moves through his progression -- he hardly ever has to. As a credit to both the offense, and especially his receivers, he’s able to stare down his primary option because he knows who’s going to open.

The problem with college-to-pro evaluations do not exist, across the board, simply because of spread offenses. If the quarterback in said spread still has to make reads and corresponding decisions during the run of play (see: Deshaun Watson), that translates. The problem is evaluating prospects that play in offenses where the decision upon whom to pass it to is made before the ball is snapped.

I’m not saying Mason Rudolph is a Bryce Petty-level Big12 guy without translatable skills. I’m not saying he can’t be a serviceable, even good, NFL quarterback, down the road. I’m simply saying he’s a work-in-progress, and with the NFL’s increasing unwillingness to draft and stash top quarterback selections, a project of this magnitude is not what teams are looking for from the first quarterback in the draft.

Rosen has an argument. I will at least hear him over Jackson. Of the four, he is the most mechanically and technically sound. This is where the intangibles come in. For whatever confidence Darnold is lacking, Rosen has it in spades, which is important, but that’s about where it ends. Rosen’s actions, comments, and the general buzz out of UCLA indicate that for all of his ability, the junior lacks leadership, and many have questioned his dedication to the craft, his love for the game.

At certain positions, I could care less if someone loves the game, only if they’re good at it. At quarterback, though, given the amount of preparation and dedication it takes to even have a shot at living up to the billing of being the top quarterback taken, it matters. I love Rosen’s ability, his outspokenness, his authenticity, but, frankly, the NFL historically isn’t into that.

On a pure talent basis, there’s an argument for Rosen over Jackson. If you, like I do, believe that natural ability is, maybe, half the battle for quarterbacks, that argument dissipates.

Lamar Jackson is the most well rounded passer of the group. He’s spent two years, and change, in about as close to an NFL offense as there is in college football, these days. Of the other guys that play in a professional-ish offense (so not Rudolph), Rosen throws a better intermediate ball, especially to the sidelines. That’s the next thing Jackson has to improve, because he already dominates over the middle, be it short, medium, or long. Speaking of long, he throws the best deep ball, too.

There is no questioning his leadership. His team is struggling this year. The defense is a nightmare. His receivers drop passes like Velma drops glasses. Still, he performs, week in, week out, and if not for the bar he set for himself, in 2016, he might be back in the thick of the Heisman race.

His dedication is unassailable. The results clearly display that, not only did he work harder to improve his relative weaknesses than anyone in the country, but he succeeded in doing so. Critics cawed about his accuracy, especially under pressure. He improved those adjusted percentages by 3.6% and 2.9%, respectively, the most improved amongst the five.

The fact that Lamar Jackson, who, for the first time in his career, last season, played with any sort of a grasp of a playbook, high school included, has catapulted himself into the elite ranks, even purely as a passer, of the sport is incredible.

The rate at which he is clearly able to receive, digest, and process information, and convert said information into tangible results is immeasurably enticing.

His unwavering self belief, insatiable appetite for competition, and undeniable willingness to do what it takes to be the best is everything anyone could ever hope for in a franchise quarterback.

You’ll notice I haven’t even mentioned his ability as a runner. I don’t need to. That’s the crutch people use when they don’t know what they’re talking about: “Oh, he’s just another dual-threat that can’t play quarterback in the NFL.”

Quite clearly, purely evaluating them as passers and leaders, Jackson still stands head and shoulders above the competition.

For anyone that disagrees, I know the arguments.

- He’s too slight of stature. (He’s not.)

- He doesn’t show up in big games. (He does, his team doesn’t. I didn’t even mention that he plays behind the worst pass blocking offensive line of any of the five prospects.)

- He’s going to get hurt. (Why? Because of his nonexistent history injury history? Ok.)

Don’t do that. Don’t be that guy. You’re better than that guy. Be better than that guy. That’s lazy. If you think Lamar Jackson isn’t, at least, one of the best two quarterbacks in this class, you’re not watching. It’s time to start evaluating quarterbacks smarter. There’s simply too much information and tape out there to still be relying on these old, useless platitudes.

Purely as a passer, only Rosen is in Jackson’s league, and the Louisville Cardinal is more well-rounded. As a leader, Jackson is unparalleled. Toss in the the athleticism that has made him the most exciting college football player I have ever seen and it’s no contest -- Lamar Jackson deserves to be the first quarterback taken in the 2018 NFL Draft.

P.S. If anyone out there, after reading this, still thinks that there is a better quarterback prospect than Jackson, fine. You’re wrong, but fine.

However, if you’re one of those people that thinks Lamar Jackson will have to be a wide receiver, or something, in the NFL, just know, I’ve got a 100% unadjusted completion percentage with these hands, and you can come get your drop rate.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP