Tim Tebow, Robert Griffin III, Johnny Manziel, each of these quarterbacks were some of the most must-see, electrifying players in all of college football, at their peak. As quarterbacks who presented both run and pass threats on any given play, college defenses were often overwhelmed and helpless to defend them. But, when it came to the NFL, things were different. Each of those three quarterbacks were first round picks because at least one team wanted to gamble on their unique skillset, but for varying reasons, each has fizzled out of the talent that once was.
That’s why, when the time came, there was no more polarizing prospect to evaluate in the 2018 NFL Draft than Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson. Jackson won a Heisman trophy just like the three quarterbacks previously mentioned. He was truly one-of-a-kind at the college ranks during his time there, and his stats and success reflected that. But the question still remained how his skillset could succeed at the next level when there were so many cases like his that failed.
Was Jackson truly different from them all?
It was thought that we might not see Jackson at all his rookie season, as he was drafted to a team with a well-establish Super Bowl quarterback in Joe Flacco. But, when Flacco went down with an injury, Jackson got the call and made his first NFL start this weekend in a divisional win at home over the Bengals, where he threw for 150 yards and ran for 117, becoming the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to record at least 100 rushing yards in his first career start.
Let’s look back at some of Jackson’s highs and lows from that game and see what the film can tell us.
On Jackson’s first play of the game, we already got a glimpse of how life in Baltimore is going to be different with him as the signal caller.
This play was an easy run play set up where the Bengals did not have their linebackers in position to contain Jackson and he was able to scoot for a first down. Ideally the Bengals probably went into the game thinking “we’re going to make Jackson beat us with his arm” but early on that didn’t happen.
The play above was just a few plays later in that same drive. In it, the Bengals defensive line was spaced out too far and they were manipulated by a nice blocking scheme in order to open up the middle of the field with a lead blocker for Jackson to run right up the gut.
The way this was made possible was because the Ravens were in a 5-wide set with five receiving options on the play. That forced the Bengals to sub out one of their linebacker, and knowing there was less of a spy on Jackson, they were able to manipulate any sort of contain. This can be something the Ravens constantly go to as Jackson progresses as a thrower. The more of a threat he can be to get that ball to four or five different option on a single play, the less players the defense can dedicate to spying on Jackson’s ability to take off and run.
A great play designed specifically for Jackson’s skillset.
But here was an example of where there will still be a transition with Jackson and his running ability.
In college, Jackson likely would’ve been able to outrun that edge defender coming from the other side, even if it was a defensive back. But instead, in the NFL, everyone is much faster. That’s why you won’t see Jackson as imposing with his legs — though they are still a weapon to be used.
Later in the game, Jackson showed again why he’s going to bring a different type of quarterbacking to the Raven’s offense.
Jackson seemed totally wrapped up in the play above, and yet his instinct to escape and keep the play alive gave him the chance to see daylight and make a throw.
Now, the throw certainly needs work. We’ll get to this a little more, but Jackson definitely seemed timid when throwing the ball in his first start. He was pedal to the metal with his runs, but when it came to throwing the ball, he was reserved and second guessing. That almost got him an interception in the play above.
As is often the case, there are layers to break down with Jackson’s plays.
First of all, Jackson made the right call keeping this ball. The defensive end was crashing, even if not fully, and Jackson knew he had the upper hand if he tucked it and got outside the tackles. He did, and even when the defensive end caught up to him, he put a little stutter-step move on him that nearly broke the guy’s ankles. That move is why Jackson is so dangerous in open space.
But then there was the throw.
Just like Jackson is still acclimating to the speed of defenders who can catch him on foot, he is also adjusting to how quickly players can recover in coverage. Jackson simply underestimated how quickly that defender could get back over into the path of the ball. Jackson also could’ve put more zip on it, which brings us to our next point.
Jackson definitely looked timid throwing the ball on Sunday. That is totally expected in a player’s first start, but it is an element of why certain throws were behind receivers or a split second late on the release on Sunday.
I have seen Jackson cannon throws into tight window and deep down the field, so I have no doubt that he has the arm talent to put zip on passes, but on Sunday you could tell he was trying to push the ball rather than flick it naturally.
Little growing pains.
Finally, I wanted to end on my favorite play from Jackson this past weekend.
There is a lot to like from this play. First of all, Jackson continued to stay poised in the pocket after his first read was not an option. He then scanned the entire field to get to his next read, and when that wasn’t there either, the clock in the back of his head correctly said that it was time to move, and he did. But he didn’t just move and give up on the passing element of the play. He escaped the pocket into space, brought the ball back up and found an open player in the middle of the field — he knew where to look, too.
That is the kind of poise and instincts that should give you hope for Jackson more than those other three quarterbacks we mentioned to open this article. Jackson not only has the talent, but he seems to have the mentality to improve and progress to his talent’s ceiling.
The first game was a win, which is always good for the psyche. As long as Jackson can build on the confidence in his arm more and more, we’ll get the best of his NFL-self soon enough.