“[He’s] short, a little bit slight, and clearly not the thrower that the other guys are. His accuracy isn’t there, so I would say, don’t wait to make that change, don’t be like the kid from Ohio State [Terrelle Pryor] and be 29 when you make the change.”
The quote that will come to define Lamar Jackson’s NFL career wasn’t even spoken by him. Should he be successful, former Bills and Colts personnel czar Bill Polian’s claim arguably the most electrifying quarterback in college football history should move to wide receiver will become the NFL’s Alan Hansen moment.
There is so much to unpick from Polian’s claim, but let’s begin with height. Jackson is nearly 6ft 3ins, three inches bigger than Johnny Manziel. Ahead of the 2014 draft, Polian said: “Johnny Manziel has magic. If you’re in the Browns draft room, you owe it to the fans to consider taking him at four.”
Then there is the accuracy; Jackson’s career 57% completions isn’t amazing, but he improved year on year (54.7 – 56.2 – 59.1). His mark is still better than that managed by Wyoming’s Josh Allen (56.2), who showed no improvement over his career against a poorer standard of competition, and that put up by Matt Stafford and Matt Ryan in their senior years.
As for moving to wide receiver, that should be taken with the same grain of salt used to digest Polian’s previous claim that the quarterbacks Indianapolis rated as “solid, first-round, can-lead-you-to-a-championship [guys]” during his tenure were Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers. Polian, of course, passed on Brady five times.
But for all that his comments have been rightly ridiculed, some teams reportedly asked Jackson to work out at wide receiver during the Scouting Combine – and they do hit on the reality that he is the most divisive prospect in the class.
“There were times when we were scouting games the last two seasons and we’d stop what we were watching because they’d be showing one of his highlights,” an NFC front-office member tells Gridiron.
While the draft looks set to take place without anything approaching agreement over which quarterback prospect is best, there is little doubt who most people would rather watch. Jackson, simply put, was the best player in college football over the last two seasons, an athletic phenom boasting incredible speed and continuous growth as a passer. He became the youngest Heisman winner on the back ofHe performances put forth in Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino’s offensive system that mixed pro-style concepts and spread elements, and was considerably more difficult to grasp than those utilised by Jackson’s draft rivals.
Not bad for a kid who described the Cardinals’ playbook as ‘looking like foreign letters’ when retrospectively remembering his early days on campus. Yet the mere fact that he was learning the complexities was due, in no small part, to his desire to play quarterback; a superstar at Florida’s Boynton Beach High, he had no shortage of offers having helped rack up 50 points per game as a senior, but chose Louisville for Petrino’s record of developing passers.
That job is a two-way street and Jackson, known for his 6am film sessions and virtual reality training on campus, was a model student. Perhaps, then, it is understandable that he scoffed at the idea of working out at wide receiver during the combine.
“I don’t even know where it comes from, I’m strictly a quarterback.” Jackson told NFL Network’s Good Morning Football. “I thought I did a good job at quarterback [at Louisville].”
From the moment he began his Louisville career with an interception against Auburn, a game in which he subsequently almost brought the Cardinals back from a 17-0 deficit, Jackson electrified audiences every Saturday. The question is whether he can repeat the feat on Sundays.
“From NFL perspective, how does he translate?” the NFC personnel man adds. “As a passer, he finds receivers better from the pocket than RGIII did. But RGIII had a mighty accurate deep ball and Jackson’s throws get adventurous when throwing at distance. He’s gonna have to retrain with some of the technique issues around his delivery.”
In many ways, he faces a similar challenge to Allen. The difference is Allen fits the old-school profile of what many veteran evaluators have been taught to look for: tall, big arm and, uncomfortably, being white. For all there may be no malicious intent, it’s difficult to imagine Polian or any other analyst declaring Allen should try out at wide receiver if he, too, boasted 4.3 speed.
The latter should be factored into the evaluation, too. Jackson’s pace is an asset, in the same way his experience taking snaps under centre is. This is a league where Cam Newton has been MVP and Deshaun Watson briefly lit up the stage last season. Times have changed, but Watson’s case illustrates one of the troubling issues facing evaluators, given his magnificent seven-game run was ended by a torn ACL: quarterbacks with mobility, even stud dropback passers like Aaron Rodgers, put themselves in harm’s way more. “Size concerns me given how slight [Jackson] is and how his game breaks down in terms of him taking off,” admits the NFC scout. “And I don’t think his Combine weight was close to his playing weight.”
Although the profile of a NFL quarterback is seemingly changing, scouts still favour the traditional. “What are you looking for at the position in the modern game?” adds an AFC front-office member. “Is the classic dropback passer a thing of the past? I don’t think so. What about the mobile quarterback? There hasn’t been a noticeable change in what we’re looking for at that position and that will be half of his battle, especially given some of his issues with his size and his mechanics.”
So where does he end up? “There are people in the building who think he’s an average prospect based solely on mechanics,” adds the AFC scout. “But there are others who think he’d be very interesting in the second round. And I know scouts who consider him an empty canvas that can turn into a masterpiece. He’s a big discussion.”
The key, as with any player in the draft, is fit. “I think first round and maybe this is the year [Bill] Belichick says, ‘Screw it, I’m taking Jackson’,” adds the NFC executive. “I’m gonna train him up like I did with Jimmy [Garoppolo] and who cares if Tommy [Brady] feels threatened?”
Lamar Jackson: Tom Brady’s heir apparent, or Julian Edelman’s?
This article originally appeared in Issue XXXVIII of Gridiron magazine – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE