I’ve obsessed over Lamar Jackson since before he won the Heisman Trophy in 2016, and I want nothing more than for him to have a long, illustrious NFL career. That all depends, however, on how he first gets introduced to the league, and if the Baltimore Ravens, who traded up to select him, are willing to alter their entire offense to compliment his unique skill set.
It would be pointless to bombard you with Lamar Jackson’s college stats and speculate whether they will translate to the NFL. Robert Griffin III lit the league on fire in 2012, rushing for over 800 yards (before destroying his knee). Michael Vick, considered by many to be one of the most dynamic quarterbacks, if not players of all time, is remembered for his rushing ability. Vince Young ran for over 3,000 yards during his three years in college and went on to have a successful NFL career.
You may recall that Jackson completed only 57% of his passes in college and was asked to work out as a receiver. You may also remember how he nearly won the Heisman in consecutive seasons because his play is just that impressive and how he managed to run for more yards last season than all but four running backs in the NCAA, doing so while finishing 15th in passing yards. The only question is whether or not the Ravens will allow Jackson to utilize his legs to open up a new dimension in the Baltimore offense.
Is the Offense a Fit
Joe Flacco, Baltimore’s current starting QB, ran for 54 yards in 2017. Total. Jackson averaged more than double that per game last year at Louisville (123.2 YPG). To say Flacco is a pocket passer is an understatement. Flacco has rushed just 326 times throughout his 10-year career. Tom Brady averages a higher number of rushing attempts per year (34.8) than Flacco. The Ravens have grown accustomed to Flacco’s sedentary style, and may not be disposed to adapt to Jackson’s dynamic flair.
According to ESPN, Lamar Jackson ran 714 play-action plays last year, tops in the FBS by a wide margin (Tyler Rogers from NMSU was second, with 684). Jackson also had the highest expected points added (EPA) from rushing by a comfortable margin, beating out his closest competitor, Army’s Ahmad Bradshaw by 5.7 points. Conversely, Flacco was the worst play-action passer in the NFL last year, with a rating of 78.9 on 329 plays, per PFF. His rushing EPA was -0.2. Jackson and Flacco could not be more polar opposites when it comes to running and play action. Will Baltimore take the leap and adapt to Jackson’s style? They seem to be all-in on Jackson after trading up for him, but saying they are ready for a revolution in their offense is different from starting one.
The Ravens indicated they were all-in on Flacco two years ago when they gave him a three-year, $66.4 million contract extension with $44 million guaranteed. According to spotrac, the first potential out of the multimillion-dollar commitment is in 2020, when cutting him will result in just $8 million of dead cap. His cap hits of over $24.5 million for the next two season will make it hard for Baltimore to justify benching him in favor of Jackson, keeping the latter on the bench when he needs in-game experience to acclimate to the intricacies of the NFL. Jackson is not some raw talent who hasn’t proved himself capable of running an offense and thus requiring time on the bench to sit and learn. Bobby Petrino ran a pro-style offense in Louisville, molded to fit Jackson’s skill set.
Mistakes of the Past
Theoretically, Jackson should be well-equipped to step in and run an NFL offense his rookie year. It doesn’t look like the Ravens are prepared to let him do that. The Vikings were in a similar situation four years ago when they traded into the 32nd pick to select Teddy Bridgewater. The rookie third-stringer only saw the field in 2014 due to injuries of the two quarterbacks ahead of him, in an offense not suited to his capabilities. Bridgewater is now on the Jets and may be facing unemployment if he can’t outperform Josh McCown.
Baltimore has walked this tightrope before. In 2016, the team drafted Keenan Reynolds, a college quarterback who passed for over 4,000 yards and rushed for nearly 4,600 in college. While Reynolds was not nearly as polished as Jackson is, he finished 5th in Heisman voting in 2015 and was regarded as a dynamic difference maker. The Ravens immediately converted him to a wide receiver even though he had caught just one pass throughout his entire college career. He was cut before the 2017 season began and has yet to record a statistic in an NFL game. Granted, Reynolds was a late selection compared to Jackson’s first-round pedigree, but the same dangers still exist.
There were rumors that NFL teams wanted Lamar Jackson to transition to a wide receiver, but he insists that he is a quarterback (and I believe him). If Baltimore tries to force Jackson into a position he’s uncomfortable in, such as a pocket passer or a receiver, he could easily fizzle out.
Perhaps the Ravens’ offseason signing of Robert Griffin III was a sign that the team is ready and willing to transition to an offense more populated with RPOs and quarterback runs. As I already mentioned, Griffin looked like a generational talent, winning rookie of the year in 2012 thanks to his ability as a dual-threat offensive weapon. While Griffin was undoubtedly the superior passing talent coming out of college (Jackson’s passer rating is 16 points lower than Griffin’s was and RG3 threw 10 fewer interceptions), Jackson rushed for nearly 2,000 more yards and 17 more touchdowns while throwing for just 1,000 yards less in three season’s compared to Griffin’s four.
Injuries betrayed Griffin, and he is now a third-string quarterback, sitting behind a player who looks to be a better version of himself. Griffin also maintains that the Redskins didn’t want him, were unsold on his skills and were unwilling to give him free reign of the offense. This hampered his abilities and led to his ultimate benching and bust label.
The Big If
If the Ravens can avoid those same mistakes, they have a chance to unlock Jackson’s immense talent and build an offense around him capable of terrorizing defenses for years to come, but avoiding the same traps that the Redskins fell into is imperative. Baltimore could just as easily be looking at a failed experiment rather than a franchise cornerstone, with Jackson following in the steps of Griffin and Bridgewater before him.
Lamar Jackson revealed in a recent interview that Joe Flacco has yet to talk to him. If Flacco feels Jackson is a threat to dethrone him, he is correct. Whether the Ravens allow Jackson to surpass him is another story. I’m not sure Baltimore is the right place for Jackson to display his talents, based on their track record and current quarterback situation. Lamar Jackson has all the tools to become a fantastic starting quarterback in the NFL. Jackson just needs the right offense and a chance.