INDIANAPOLIS — Lamar Jackson had already answered the big question in virtually every version Friday.
Has any team asked you to work out at receiver?
“No team has asked me to play wide receiver,” the former Louisville quarterback said. "I don’t even know where it comes from. I’m strictly quarterback. Yes, sir.”
What has your reaction been to people who suggest you should change positions?
“I’m not going to their team—if anything,” the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner said. “Whoever likes me at quarterback, that’s where I’m going. That’s strictly my position.”
Just to be clear, has anyone asked you to play receiver at the Combine?
“I’m not going to be a wide receiver—at all—tomorrow.”
Do you see a racial component in the media asking about whether you move to receiver? Josh Allen doesn’t get asked about working out at tight end.
“I’m a quarterback. I don’t know anything about racial slurs.”
After he’d made that abundantly clear, Jackson’s Combine press conference moved on to the usual business of what teams he’d met with (Bills, Bears, Steelers, Dolphins, Giants, Eagles) and what he brings to the table as a quarterback. But then one more person tried to slip the position switch question past him.
If you were in a position where there was an established guy starting at quarterback, would you be open to playing a slash role?
Would this be the moment Jackson cracked? No, but it was the moment he cracked up.
“That’s basically another position,” he said, laughing. “You’re just trying to re-word the question.” Then Jackson, who grew up in Pompano Beach, Fla., showed off his knowledge of his local football history. “No Wildcat,” he said. “This is not the Dolphins with Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams.”
This really should go without saying, but apparently it must be repeated ad nauseam because the issue keeps popping up. So let’s all say it together very slowly.
Lamar. Jackson. Is. A. Quarterback.
Like Patrick Mahomes last year, Jackson could have the highest upside of any quarterback in this draft. USC’s Sam Darnold and UCLA’s Josh Rosen feel like the safest picks. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield doesn’t have the measurables or the experience in a pro-style offense, but he does have the tape. Jackson and Wyoming’s Allen are the ones with the ridiculous physical capabilities and the lower-than-preferable completion percentages. In other words, Jackson and Allen have the highest ceilings and the lowest floors of any of the quarterbacks under consideration for first-round selections. Yet Jackson is the one former Colts, Panthers and Bills general manager Bill Polian thinks should move to receiver. Jackson is the one who, according to NFL Network’s Peter Schrager, was being asked to perform receiver drills in addition to quarterback drills at the Combine. Jackson denied getting that request from any team, but he has felt the vibe. But instead of getting mad about it, he just kept making fun of it. “That’s crazy. I thought I did a good job at quarterback,” Jackson said with mock shock. “I thought I did. You know? But, hey, they say what they want to say. They’re going to fill the story. I’m here now. I’m happy to be at the Combine. Now I just have to show my ability.”
Before we go any further, let’s play the blind résumé game.
-Yards per attempt in final season in college: 6.7
-Completion percentage in final season in college: 56.3
-Touchdown passes in final season in college: 16
-Interceptions in final season in college: 6
-Played in a West Coast offensive system.
-Yards per attempt in final season in college: 8.6
-Completion percentage in final season in college: 63.1
-Touchdown passes in final season in college: 26
-Interceptions in final season in college: 13
-Played in a hybrid offense that blended pro-style and spread principles.
-Yards per attempt in final season in college: 11.5
-Completion percentage in final season in college: 70.5
-Touchdown passes in final season in college: 43
-Interceptions in final season in college: 6
-Played in an Air Raid offensive system.
-Yards per attempt in final season in college: 8.5
-Completion percentage in final season in college: 59.1
-Touchdown passes in final season in college: 27
-Interceptions in final season in college: 10
-Played in an Erhardt-Perkins offensive system.
-Yards per attempt in final season in college: 7.9
-Completion percentage in final season in college: 62.5
-Touchdown passes in final season in college: 17
-Interceptions in final season in college: 4
-Played in a West Coast offensive system.
*Played only eight games because of injury
So which one is Jackson? He and Allen should be fairly easy to separate from the rest of the group. They’re the ones with completion percentages below 60. Of those two, Quarterback 4 averaged 1.8 more yards per attempt. In a 35-throw game, that’s another 63 yards. That was Jackson.
Mayfield (Quarterback 3) posted numbers that blow away all the others on this list, but NFL teams must decide how much credit to give to the offense—which tends to produce high-percentage passers with a lot of touchdowns—and how much to give to Mayfield. (Spoiler alert: Mayfield deserves a lot more credit than the average Air Raid quarterback. He made the Sooners nearly unstoppable.)
Things get really interesting when we compare Jackson to Quarterback 2. Quarterback 2 averaged one-tenth of a yard more per attempt and threw one fewer touchdown and three more interceptions. This seems pretty equal. The comparison didn’t include rushing numbers because they would have made Jackson too easy to spot. But since the passing numbers are so close, let’s try to break the virtual tie with rushing stats. Jackson ran for 1,601 yards, averaged 6.9 yards a carry and scored 18 rushing touchdowns. Quarterback 2 ran for 82 yards, averaged 1.1 yards a carry and scored five rushing touchdowns. Who is he? Sam Darnold.
If you don’t recall exactly how many games Rosen missed this past season, you’re probably assuming Quarterback 5 is him. It isn’t. I wanted to throw in a player who, had he been in this draft class, would have easily been the first quarterback off the board. It’s Carson Wentz, who in 2015 averaged fewer yards per attempt than the quarterback Polian thinks should move to receiver.
This doesn’t mean Jackson is guaranteed to succeed. No quarterback in this draft looks like a lock. Everyone has flaws. Jackson, by the way, is keenly aware of one of his. “I had a narrow stance in college,” he said. “I do look at film.”
Based on what we’ve seen, Jackson has as good a chance of succeeding as an NFL starter as any of the others. There should be no question what position he should be drafted at. The beauty of Jackson is that if he bombs at quarterback, he—unlike most of the other players on this list—is athletic enough to play in the NFL at a different position. (Allen actually might have the size, speed and athleticism to be an NFL tight end if quarterback doesn’t work out for him.) That’s a nice fallback, but it’s not something he should consider now. His answer above about only going to a team that wants him to play quarterback is not a threat. It’s simply an acknowledgement that a team that wanted him as a quarterback would inevitably select him before a team that wants him as a receiver.
When Jackson was a freshman at Louisville, coaches had him field kicks during a preseason practice. “That night, we got a call from his mom,” Louisville assistant Nick Petrino told me in a 2016 interview. “He was done with that.” Jackson’s mother, Felicia Jones, is serving as his manager during this process. She has steadfastly reminded him that he is a quarterback and a quarterback only. Jackson has no agent. “I have a lawyer,” he said.
Jackson’s reasoning for not hiring an agent? He believes the current collective bargaining agreement makes one unnecessary. “As a rookie, agents don’t really negotiate anything,” he said. “You’re going to get the salary you’re going to get. I decided I don’t need him. He’s going to be taking a big cut of my paycheck anyway, and I feel like I deserve it right now.”
Jackson also examined his strengths and weaknesses and decided that at the Combine, he’ll focus exclusively on the area where he feels he needs to prove himself. He didn’t bench press Friday. He’s not running the 40-yard dash Saturday. He might at Louisville’s pro day. He won’t participate in agility drills Saturday. “The film speaks for itself with that—showing off my speed and showing I can make people miss,” Jackson said. He’ll only throw. If NFL coaches and general managers have questions about his throwing Jackson intends to answer them. “I’ve just got to show off my arm,” Jackson said, “because that’s where people are doubting me.”
A solid throwing session against air wouldn’t answer every question, but it might finally silence the silly ones about whether Jackson should play quarterback or receiver.