We are thankfully beyond the point when the greater football world feels the need to question the very idea of Lamar Jackson playing quarterback. At nearly every turn during his ascension, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner at Louisville and the last pick of the first round of the 2018 NFL draft has countered the dated and baseless views of his skill set.
He should switch to wide receiver, you say? Jackson led the league with 36 touchdown passes in 2019, his first full season as a starter. He also finished third with a 113.3 quarterback rating, ahead of Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes and Dak Prescott.
He can’t complete a deep pass, you say? He finished ninth in average air yards per throw (8.8) and 12th in completion percentage above expectation (+0.8), meaning that he was one of only 15 NFL quarterbacks last year who registered a completion percentage above what was probable on a given play. He did this while maintaining a percentage of aggressive throws, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, that was higher than those of Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers.
He’ll need a great defense for his team to succeed, you say? Jackson finished first in Pro Football Reference’s approximate value metric by a comfortable margin, meaning there was no single player more critical to his team’s success in 2019 than Jackson.
Jackson had a season for the ages in 2019, and one that reaped unexpected bounty for fantasy owners. On average he was the 14th quarterback selected, but he ended up as the top scorer at his position by a wide margin, thanks not just to those passing touchdowns but also his rushing stats: 1,206 yards and seven TDs.
So if, in preparing for the 2020 fantasy draft, you’re asking yourself whether Jackson is capable of repeating his herculean performance, you’re asking the wrong question. Of course he is, because Jackson has clearly established that he is an exceptional quarterback with the requisite tools to succeed at the position.
The question, really, is more about Baltimore’s coaches. What will they do to build on the schematic momentum they created that allowed Jackson to dominate?
Jackson’s situation is similar to that of some other talented quarterbacks of recent vintage whose breakout years were ignited by an innovative playbook. Once a player succeeds as Jackson did, you know that the offense will be picked apart by defensive coordinators preparing for 2020. That is the challenge he and the Ravens face.
Consider this unlikely comp for Jackson: Nick Foles. While not as physically gifted as Jackson, he has had two exceptional seasons in the course of his otherwise unspectacular NFL career as a starter and backup. One was with the Eagles in 2013 under coach Chip Kelly, whose fast-paced offensive system, developed at Oregon, overwhelmed NFL defensive coordinators when Kelly debuted it in the pros. During training camp, opposing coaches could practice against only what they thought Kelly might do. Thus, Foles, a good quarterback landing in an exceptional schematic situation, threw for an astounding 27 touchdowns with only two interceptions and had a 119.2 quarterback rating over 10 starts—the third-best single-season rating in NFL history.
Over the next three seasons Foles’s production regressed, and he was dismissed as a product of the scheme. He completed 58.6% of his passes with 23 TDs and 20 interceptions for the Eagles, Rams and Chiefs. But then in 2017, back in Philadelphia, Foles took over for an injured Carson Wentz amid the team’s Super Bowl push, and suddenly the journeyman was elite again. Why? Foles was running an offense—this time, coach Doug Pederson’s analytics-powered, RPO-inspired attack—that defenses did not know how to counter properly.
The lesson is this: With the exception of the few rare talents who can succeed in any system, drafting a fantasy quarterback is as much a vote of confidence in his offensive scheme as it is the player himself.
Another example worth considering: Jared Goff. In 2017, riding the wave of a Sean McVay attack that was gutting NFL defenses with regularity, Goff threw for 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions, and he followed that up with a Super Bowl run that featured 32 TDs and 12 INTs. But in ’19, Goff leveled off significantly, throwing only 22 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Some of that decline was due to the Rams’ free-agency losses and the departure of key offensive assistants. But another major factor was Bill Belichick’s Super Bowl LIII game plan, which shut down McVay’s offense and gave other teams a blueprint for how to do it.
Goff’s poor showing last year doesn’t mean he is a bad quarterback who can never return to statistical form. And if Jackson doesn’t match his ’19 numbers this season, it won’t make him a bad quarterback, either. It will mean that opposing coaches have caught up to the Ravens’ innovations.
Just as Jackson changed the way we viewed the quarterback position in 2019, Baltimore’s offensive coaches were changing a lot of how we thought about modern blocking, motion, scheme and personnel deployment. In the preseason they brought in guests such as college triple-option guru Paul Johnson. The resulting creation, a hybrid of modern RPO and older triple-option concepts, represented the same flashpoint we’ve seen with one breakout quarterback after the next: the perfect marriage of an original scheme and the unique strengths of a player.
If the Ravens were open-minded enough to shelve their 2018 offense last year, there is a good chance they have spent this offseason planning a further evolution for Jackson.
As a fantasy football general manager, that is the assessment you’ll be making on draft day: Will the Ravens’ coaches continue to stay a step ahead of the opposition? As for Jackson, he’s already shown you everything you need to see.
This story originally appeared in SI's fantasy football preview issue, available on newsstands now. Check out SI Fantasy for more fantasy football coverage. SI Fantasy has Jackson ranked as the No. 2 quarterback behind Patrick Mahomes.
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