Each day leading up to the 2018 NFL draft, I’ll break down one of my top 50 prospects. In some cases, we had to make tough omissions because of injuries, poor pre-draft workouts or incomplete information. For more complete scouting reports on all the prospects, check out the Pro Football Weekly 2018 Draft Guide, which is available for order now.
17. Louisville QB Lamar Jackson
6-foot-3, 200 pounds
Key stats: Set ACC records for most rushing yards (1,571) and rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (21) in his Heisman Trophy-winning sophomore season while also passing for 3,543 yards and 30 TDs.
The skinny: Jackson’s father, also named Lamar Jackson, died at the age of 31 when his son was 8 — right about the time the Florida native started playing football. Raised by his mother, Felicia Jones, he soon showed a love for the sport and developed into a terrific dual-threat quarterback and a four-star prospect coming out of Boynton Beach, Fla.
Committed to Louisville and head coach Bobby Petrino, who promised Jackson’s mother that her son would be a quarterback only — something other schools would not definitively do. Jackson played in 12 games as a true freshman, starting eight at QB and one at running back (vs. Auburn). He finished second in the ACC Rookie of the Year voting in that 2015 season and set a Music City Bowl record by rushing for 226 yards and two TDs versus Texas A&M, earning game MVP honors.
Put up banner numbers in Heisman-winning 2016 season (the youngest player ever to win the award) as a sophomore, also winning the Davey O'Brien and Maxwell Awards, as well as the ACC Player of the Year (and Offensive Player of the Year). Threw for 30 TDs and ran for 21 more.
Won ACC Player of the Year (and Offensive Player of the Year) again in 2017, was a Heisman Trophy finalist (finishing third) and was named second-team AP All-America and first-team all-conference. Four of his 10 INTs as a junior came in the bowl game loss to Mississippi State and dropped his season completion percentage below the 60 mark.
Jackson, who turned 21 in January, declared for the 2018 NFL draft. Opted not to run or perform any athletic testing drills at the NFL scouting combine or at Louisville’s pro day.
Upside: Blinding play speed — can outrun corners and safeties in the open field. Creative runner, too, who can suck in linebackers and blow right past them with a hip fake, shoulder dip or the slightest of hesitations. Makes defenders look silly routinely.
Rarely appeared to be fazed by pressure last season, which might have been one of his biggest areas of development from 2016. Appears to have excellent-to-exceptional peripheral vision to feel rushers on either side of him. Calm, quiet feet in the pocket while going through his reads — can reset, keep a nice throwing base and change direction with his throws. Stays on his toes well. Subtle pocket movement while scanning field — not frenetic at all when pressure is bearing down.
Of all the games I watched of his, if I had to pick one play last season that best demonstrates Jackson’s ability to work through a progression, see nothing is there and then make something happen with his legs, it would be this one in the third quarter against Florida State. How do you stop this? Jackson goes through at least his first and second reads, emits calm as the pressure closes in, and when he starts to scramble he knows he has only one man to beat. He dusts that poor dude by pressing and cutting back inside with a move Saquon Barkley could be jealous of … and then Jackson unleashes even more of his rare running prowess:
Quick delivery — throwing motion is not overly elongated, yet he still generates good velocity on the ball. Can pump fake and reset quickly and easily. Flicks it with ease. Willing to take a hit in the pocket to give his receiver a shot to make a play. Nice throwing motion — opens hips, steps into throws, keeps elbow nice and high, keeps his feet in sync and follows through well. Clear growth from one year to the next as a passer after emerging from crude high-school passing game.
As former NFL QB Matt Hasselbeck said of this next throw against North Carolina State, “Not a lot of college quarterbacks can make that throw — a great throw.” It might not look all that special to the naked eye, but watch here as Jackson stands in against pressure, needing to make a play down two touchdowns in the final 90 seconds. Jackson patiently waits with some subtle footwork (as the receiver runs a slower-developing deep out), knows he’s going to get hit on the release and deftly delivers the off-balance throw where it needs to go in that situation:
Calculated risk taker — when he makes off-balanced or under-duress throws, they’re often in spots where only his receiver can make a play. Has a short memory — doesn’t get down after turnovers and has mentality to atone for mistakes. Victim of a lot of dropped passes. Operated in a version of Erhardt-Perkins offense, whose passing concepts can be found in dozens of NFL playbooks.
Confident leader by example — elevates the play of teammates with a jump-on-my-back approach. Highly competitive and likeable. Teammates gravitated toward him.
Downside: Lean frame — high-cut with skinny ankles. Some scouts worry if he’ll be susceptible to injuries as the hits keep piling up. Hasn’t shown willingness to slide or avoid hits as a runner. Patience is almost too good at times in the pocket and will need to speed things up a tick or risk taking more hits in the NFL. Feet sometimes stay too narrow in the pocket — will need to operate with a wider base more consistently. Will stay flat-footed on some throws. Has a lower release point that could lead to more batted passes.
Got away with some throws last year — only 10 INTs but could have had higher total. Against North Carolina, he’s just too careless on this 3rd-and-goal throw with nothing there. Watch as Jackson is completely in the defender's grasp and being spun down, but he tries to make a play and foolishly throws it into a sea of four blue shirts (where he’s lucky it isn’t picked). That’s one where he needs to chuck it into Section J and live to fight another day:
Completion percentage in three bowl games was 41.7 as opponents had more time to break down his passing shortcomings. Touch still needs work. Will rush and float throws too often. Has the arm to make all the throws, but his accuracy and placement take a noticeable dip on downfield throws. Sometimes places the ball in spots that limit receivers’ yards-after-catch ability. Throw-to-throw accuracy not nearly as precise as some of the other top QB prospects in this class.
Diagnostic skills still need fine-tuning. Fails to ID blitzes at times and won’t leave himself enough outs on plays. Will sometimes fail to pick up underneath defenders lurking and waiting to pounce on his throws. Double-clutches at times if he doesn’t trust what he sees.
Here’s a throw against Purdue that shows just that. Jackson has a quick set, and his first read clearly is the boundary receiver (at the bottom of the screen) running the slant route and he beats his man, whose shoulders are parallel to the line of scrimmage when he makes his break. But Jackson appears to panic just a bit when he sees the flat defender, but that man has his eyes glued in man coverage with the back flaring out. Jackson pumps, resets quickly and throws inaccurately off his back foot for an incompletion in the red zone on third down:
Operated in shotgun- and pistol-heavy system. Fumbled the ball 25 times in 38 games and must show better ball-handling skills from under center (see Purdue game). Faced a lot of zone coverages and loaded boxes because of his running ability. Will need to show he can beat tight man coverage and two-deep looks more consistently. Smart, favorable scheme allowed for some wide-open receivers to throw to. The majority of his rushing damage came on designed runs. Will an NFL coordinator draw up an offense that can take advantage of this?
Jackson has resisted any position switch (even on gadget plays to take advantage of his rare athleticism). He has no agent — his mother is advising him during the draft process — and reportedly has been difficult to reach by some clubs for meetings, workouts and team visits.
Best-suited destination: This might be one of the more crucial elements to Jackson’s success. If he’s wedged into a traditional NFL offense that doesn’t play up his unique skill set, Jackson will always feel choked by the system and won't truly be allowed to shine. However, if he’s placed with creative offensive minds who can design a vertical, play-action based passing game, with some RPOs (run-pass options) and zone-read runs mixed in, Jackson could be a transformational talent. There’s work to be done, and playing too early could hurt his long-term development and risk his health.
Among the teams that make the most sense for Jackson include the New Orleans Saints, Pittsburgh Steelers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Baltimore Ravens, New England Patriots, Los Angeles Chargers, Buffalo Bills, Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals, Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos and Miami Dolphins.
Quotable: “He is a special athlete, he really is. I understand why people say [he should switch to wide receiver] because they’ve seen guys convert that are special athletes. I still think he’s going to get a chance to prove that he can play quarterback. I think he’s earned that right. He won the Heisman doing that. I think he’s going to get every chance to prove that before he ever looks at a position change.” — Buffalo Bills GM Brandon Beane, at the scouting combine
Player comp: Michael Vick — as one coach told me, “good luck with your comp on this guy,” and he’s right, as Jackson enters the NFL a more advanced passer. I forgot where I heard it, but someone said Jackson was somewhere in the middle between Marcus Mariota and Robert Griffin III, and that’s not too shabby a comp.
Expected draft range: Top 25
50. Oregon RB Royce Freeman
49. South Dakota State TE Dallas Goedert
48. LSU DE-LB Arden Key
47. Ohio State C Billy Price
46. Alabama S Ronnie Harrison
45. Oklahoma State QB Mason Rudolph
44. Texas A&M S Armani Watts
43. South Carolina TE Hayden Hurst
42. UCF CB Mike Hughes
41. USC RB Ronald Jones II
40. Maryland WR D.J. Moore
39. UTEP OG Will Hernandez
38. Stanford DT Harrison Phillips
37. Ohio State DE Sam Hubbard
36. Stanford S Justin Reid
35. Oregon OT Tyrell Crosby
34. SMU WR Courtland Sutton
33. Penn State TE Mike Gesicki
32. Colorado CB Isaiah Oliver
31. Georgia OL Isaiah Wynn
30. Texas A and M WR Christian Kirk
29. Alabama LB Rashaan Evans
28. Alabama WR Calvin Ridley
27. Michigan DT Maurice Hurst
26. Texas OT Connor Williams
25. Georgia RB Sony Michel
24. LSU RB Derrius Guice
23. Boise State LB Leighton Vander Esch
22. Florida DT Taven Bryan
21. Wyoming QB Josh Allen
20. Notre Dame OT Mike McGlinchey
19. Iowa C-OG James Daniels
18. Alabama DL Da’Ron Payne