The NFL Draft Combine is afoot, kicking my least favorite season on the football calendar into high gear.
Yes, dear friends of The Open Man: It’s Slander Season.
This year’s primary target for the annual gauntlet of criticism and, at times, misinformation? Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Now, anyone who followed Jackson’s exploits in college saw one of the most electric playmakers to every take the field on Saturdays. That doesn’t always translate to success on Sundays, however. The sometimes ill-applied label of “bust” exists to denote college stars who never quite make the transition to the pro game.
Maybe Lamar Jackson will be an NFL standout. Perhaps he will fizzle out. He might even be a completely serviceable professional quarterback who enjoys a lengthy career without achieving superstardom. No one can say for sure, and only those NFL front offices tasked with evaluating prospects face any real consequences if they’re wrong about his future.
However, with the Combine underway and another two months until Draft Weekend, rhetoric that ranges from suspect to out-and-out false will follow Lamar Jackson. Here’s a quick primer on the shakier criticisms of the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner, jumping off from Bill Polian’s recent radio interview in which he, to his credit, attached his name to barbs typically reserved for “anonymous scouts.”
Of the many questionable comments Polian made about Lamar Jackson, the former Colts executive most inaccurate was that “he’s short.” Louisville sports information material listed Jackson at 6-foot-3, and while media guides are prone to some kayfabing of player measurements, anything more than an inch is highly unlikely.
Still, certain segments of the football population ran with that idea. Any lingering doubt about Jackson’s size should be put to rest, as he measured just shy of 6-foot-3 at the Combine.
A similarly repeated mantra deems Lamar Jackson too slight of frame to play quarterback in the NFL; he weighed in Thursday at 215 pounds, just six pounds less than Sam Darnold. I have never been next to Jackson, but I have stood alongside Darnold on many occasions and can report definitively that he is not slight.
What’s more, Jackson already demonstrated the ability to add muscle in the weight room without losing anything from his explosive game, last year packing on 10 pounds.
He should play wide receiver
Enough collegiate quarterbacks transitioned to wide receiver in the pros that it’s a not-outlandish suggestion. Of the quarterback prospects in this draft class, however, applying the notion to Lamar Jackson seems somewhat dubious based on the complete lack of evidence . Peers Josh Allen caught two passes in his time at Wyoming. Baker Mayfield caught one pass, a touchdown in January’s Rose Bowl. Those three catches total are three more than Jackson made at Louisville.
Meanwhile, some of the more noteworthy college QBs to become NFL receivers include Antwaan Randle-El, who caught seven passes in this time at Indiana; four in his senior year, as he began prepping for the move in the pros. Hines Ward played receiver throughout his Georgia tenure, despite quarterbacking the Bulldogs for one season.
Julian Edelman and Josh Cribbs, both of whom played at Kent State, caught passes for the Golden Flashes. Cribbs in particular showed off the open-field explosiveness that made him a dynamic return specialist, with a collegiate average of 23.3 yards per reception. Edelman and Cribbs were also dual-threat quarterbacks in the most literal sense, rushing as often as they passed during their time at Kent State. That experience on the ground translated to catching passes out of the slot, especially in Edelman’s case.
And that’s where the suggestions Jackson should play receiver emanate. The one-time Heisman winner and two-time finalist 4,132 yards with 50 touchdowns in his three years at Louisville, numbers atypical for an NFL quarterback prospect. However, Jackson’s ability on the ground have given birth to another
Louisville runs a spread and/or option offense
Among the positives repeated around this time seven times in reference to Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett was that he had experience operating a pro-style offense. Mallett transferred to Arkansas from Michigan in 2008 following the hire of Rich Rodriguez, specifically seeking a program that ran a system more tailored to honing his NFL prospects.
With Arkansas having just hired Bobby Petrino, it was a perfect fit. The Hogs lured Petrino away from the Atlanta Falcons of the National Football League, no less. His system was pro-set not only in name, but in honest-to-goodness practice.
Somehow, the scheme Petrino oversaw at Arkansas, which landed him the Falcons job after a successful first run at Louisville, is now deemed spread or option. Jackson’s gaudy rushing numbers would suggest as much on the surface, but the Cardinals operated with two-tight end sets in a variety of situations, with running back in off-set I formation. Louisville’s scheme bares striking similarity to that which USC ran with Darnold.
Jackson took the majority of snaps out of shotgun or pistol. Then again, so does Tom Brady.
As for the rushing numbers…
Surrounding talent has been a repeated topic for pundits and analysts breaking down Josh Allen; less so with regard to Lamar Jackson. Wyoming’s 2017 lineup in particular took a step back from the division-winning 2016 squad, which featured Brian Hill at running back, and Allen’s numbers took a dip.
Jackson’s output both as a rusher and passer increased from 2016 to 2017, despite clear deficiencies in the Louisville lineup both campaigns. While the running numbers are peculiarly a demerit against Jackson’s NFL worthiness, he ran frequently under duress as a result of porous offensive line play. It was so maddening, I railed rather vehemently against it during the season.
Fellow Heisman winner Tim Tebow was asked to move to tight end
The above talking point comes less from the scouting world, and rather fans dismissive of Jackson’s shaky evaluations. Indeed, 2007 Heisman winner Tim Tebow — one of the best college quarterbacks of all-time — was asked to move to tight end. This occurred in 2013, after he was a first-round draft pick; had supplanted a more proven NFL commodity in Kyle Orton; and went three seasons completing 47.9 percent of his pass attempts with a 6.7-yard per attempt average.
Scouts had their doubts about Tebow coming out of Florida, which were proven correct. But he was given the opportunity to play quarterback in the NFL; too many seem insistent on not even giving Lamar Jackson that, which is the issue with this copious amount of slander.