Who or what is the next big thing on the gridiron? In Around The NFL's "Making the Leap" series, Gregg Rosenthal spotlights emerging units or players to keep an eye on during the 2019 NFL season.
Jackson overachieved during his rookie year by any reasonable measure. He was the key ingredient to the Baltimore Ravens reeling off one of the most dominant rushing stretches in NFL history. He took over as the team's starter in Week 11 and was seventh among all NFL players in rushing from Week 11 to Week 17. His total in that span put him on pace for 1,200 yards over a full season. He threw for 7.1 yards per attempt as a 21-year-old, higher in 2018 than trusty veterans like Andy Dalton and Matthew Stafford. The Ravens won six of Jackson's eight starts, the last of which was the team's desultory wild-card loss to the Chargers.
It's as if the precipitous end to Baltimore's season is all that a segment of the football populace remembers. The analysts who believed the Ravens' offense was a form of gimmickry were validated; those who never bought Jackson as a pro prospect caught a bad case of the Itoldyousos. Conventional wisdom calcified with stale takes that Jackson would never be a good enough passer.
Even though I'm a supporter, it's way too early to render a verdict on Jackson's future one way or another. He profiled as the best running quarterback to enter the league since Michael Vick, and his rookie season only supported that. In a copycat league, it was refreshing to see an organization so fully committed to a run-based approach antithetical to league trends.
Lamar inspires reactions. The existence of this very column comes from my personal investment in Jackson as a fan of football that is fun to watch. Do you like fun football? It is scientifically proven that exciting, fun players make for a more exciting, fun league.
Perhaps you are another Lamar Jackson believer surrounded by the faithless. This article is intended to bolster your arguments in trying times and make the case to the non-believers to keep an open mind.
The brand is strong
On the first third down of Lamar Demeatrice Jackson Jr.'s first NFL start against the Bengals in Week 11, he scampered 21 yards on a QB draw. The Ravens ran the ball six times against the Bengals that day before a passing attempt in what would turn into an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. The template was set. Baltimore turned back the clock with an offense that leaned primarily on advantages Jackson provides in the running game.
The concept of an NFL team's "identity" can be overrated, but the presence of Jackson transformed John Harbaugh's team. The tilted field Jackson ran down was covered in basic math. With an extra weapon available on every running down, the Ravens usually had more blockers than the defense had potential tacklers. The easiest play in the NFL last year was Jackson beating the defense to the sideline for a 7-yard gain.
Jackson is hardly the first running quarterback to provide an edge, but he may be the best yet at executing an option-based game plan. No matter how much defenses prepared for the moment Jackson handed the ball off or took it himself, they reacted slowly. Watching every snap on Game Pass' Coaches Film, it was remarkable to see how often linebackers and defensive ends stood frozen in turf, waiting a full second too long to see where the ball went. Even worse were the aggressive defenses that declared their intent too early, only to be caught in the backfield while Jackson or Ravens running back Gus Edwards gashed them.
Jackson's record-setting rushing pace was impressive, but the impact he made on his teammates was more profound. Edwards, an undrafted free agent, was fourth among NFL rushers after Jackson took over as the starter, ahead of Ezekiel Elliott and Christian McCaffrey. The burly Ravens offensive line, so mediocre in pass protection, thrived while mowing down enemy forces.
Conventional wisdom says the approach can't last, as if Baltimore won't evolve. Jackson indeed took too many hits throughout the season, as the Ravens weren't afraid to run him inside on key downs. But the conventional wisdom also fails to account for how much better a runner Jackson is compared to the competition.
His burst with the ball is superior to that of most running backs. He has the patience and vision of a player who sees the field holistically. While he may not be able to run this much his whole career, the Ravens aren't crazy to believe he could thrive rushing over 200 times with 400 throws in the first few seasons of his career as he grows his passing skills.
A two-play sequence early in Baltimore's playoff-spot-clinching win over the Browns spells out Jackson's potential. On fourth-and-1, the Ravens used misdirection, eight men on the line of scrimmage and Jackson's instincts to pick up a first down rushing the ball. On the very next snap, Jackson throws a dime from the pocket 28 yards down the field to tight end Mark Andrews, into space created because Browns linebackers were cheating near the line of scrimmage to stop the run. Check out the video here:
Defenses aren't built to stop both plays, much less one. Jackson's rushing ability will continue to make his life as a passer easier.
Positives through the air
Jackson made enough high-quality throws as a rookie to make you believe better days are ahead. He's not Vince Young or Blake Bortles, two highly drafted physical specimens who rarely showed the feel for the quarterback position that Jackson has flashed, albeit inconsistently.
Jackson's sneaky-good pocket movement was a pleasant surprise on tape. He has a natural feel for moving away from pressure while staying inside the pocket. This is a skill separate from his ability to take off and run, one that some veteran quarterbacks never learn.
Jackson's two biggest problems were ball security and delivering accurate passes once he buys time. He sometimes sails out-routes by 5 yards, a flaw going back to college that isn't often seen from successful NFL quarterbacks. (Cam Newton is a notable exception.) Jackson often bought time, made the right read, then failed to deliver an on-time pass. His ability to limit those misses may ultimately decide whether he's just a solid starter or a game-changer. The tools are there.
Anyone who questions Jackson's arm strength isn't paying attention. He made some spectacular throws across his body, including one flat-footed attempt to Chris Moore that went over 50 yards down the field against the Chiefs in Week 14. He's able to throw with touch and power on the run, proving to be more accurate overall last season when he was on the move. Like most young quarterbacks, he held the ball too long at times and threw better between the hash marks than deep or to the outside.
The proof he can succeed from the pocket is hard to ignore. In the following collection of plays from the Chiefs game, he shows the ability to throw to the opposite hash mark, to step up in the pocket and to hit receivers in tight windows:
The idea that defenses, notably the Chargers in the postseason, "figured out" Jackson fails to reckon with how much the Ravens offense should evolve. Viewing a 21-year-old quarterback's struggles as a final judgment is a mistake that dunderheaded evaluators have made since the beginning of takedom. The Ravens have committed as an organization to building around Jackson and they are just getting started.
The next Ravens offense
It's hard to imagine a better coach for Lamar Jackson than Greg Roman. Elevated to offensive coordinator in January after influencing the Ravens' running game as an assistant in 2018, Roman has the chops to get weird. He helped Colin Kaepernick be a supernova for a few seasons in San Francisco and worked with Tyrod Taylor in Buffalo. After building the Lamar offense on the fly at midseason last year, Roman now has an entire offseason to do his worst.
If the past is any indication, there will be a lot of play-action passes and shots downfield over the top of the defense. The running game will include zone reads, power running and possibly more option football than the NFL has seen in a long time. Being different has value because the Ravens should be an exceedingly difficult team to prepare for. It's no coincidence that Jackson's worst game came against a talented Chargers defense that he saw twice in three weeks. Baltimore's ball-control tactics worked on schedule in a Week 16 victory in Los Angeles, but Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley was better prepared in the playoff matchup.
Jackson's shaky performance in the first three quarters fit right in with his teammates' efforts. Guards Marshal Yanda and James Hurst were overwhelmed. Receivers weren't open, and the running game fell apart. Jackson's misfires and fumbles were costly, but the two long touchdown drives he led in the fourth quarter count. They were highlighted by some beautiful, pinpoint throws. He got the ball back for his team with a chance to win with under a minute left. He competed.
That type of fight wins over teammates, which is a strength of his going back to Louisville. A lot of quarterbacks are popular with their teammates, but the devotion Jackson inspires is rare and genuine. The mostly-young team around Jackson looks ready to grow with him.
Four of the five returning offensive linemen are on their rookie contracts. Breakout candidates Mark Andrews and 2018 first-round pick Hayden Hurst form the best young tight end duo in the AFC. Willie Snead, Jackson's most reliable wideout last season, is back to man the slot. They will be joined by a raft of playmakers acquired during new general manager Eric DeCosta's first offseason truly building a team in Jackson's image.
Rookie wideouts Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin and running back Justice Hill are all athletic marvels, able to turn any play into a long score. Free-agent running back Mark Ingram will take the load off Edwards as an upgrade in talent and pass-catching chops. This is a team that can win a track meet or a brawl.
The entire fight about Jackson's potential feels premature after such a small rookie sample size. It's too early to know whether Jackson will become a transcendent star starting now or whether he'll test DeCosta's patience with struggles typical of a 22-year-old. It's not too early to know, however, that Jackson plays the game with a joy that is infectious, even through a television screen.
An early vote against Jackson's potential is a vote against change. Where's the fun in that? The NFL is at its best when its teams and schemes have variety, and Lamar represents a change from the norm. Patrick Mahomes, Baker Mayfield, Deshaun Watson and Sam Darnold all provide new flavors popping up on Sunday menus. In a league slowly beginning to resemble the football played on Saturdays, surely there's room for a singular talent like Lamar.