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Lamar Jackson Is a Quarterback

Bill Polian and other NFL experts may think Jackson should convert to wide receiver, but a player who won the Heisman as a passer should continue to be a signal-caller

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Despite winning the Heisman Trophy in 2016 and coming in third in 2017, Lamar Jackson has spent his time as an NFL prospect fifth-wheeling. While Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, and Baker Mayfield grab headlines and trade spots at the top of mock drafts, Jackson has been largely distanced from the upper echelon of quarterback prospects. The difference in perspective between casual fans and NFL executives came into clearer focus on Monday when former Colts general manager Bill Polian said he believes Jackson should switch to wide receiver.

”Clearly, clearly not the thrower that the other guys are,” Polian said on ESPN’s Golic and Wingo. “The accuracy isn’t there.”

Polian went on to call Jackson short, despite the Louisville star being 6-foot-3, and implored Jackson to switch positions now rather than years down the line, like Terrelle Pryor, who converted to wide receiver at age 26.

“Don’t be like the kid from Ohio State and be 29 when you make the change.”

Polian was doubling down on similar thoughts he shared in September, making Jackson another entry in a long line of black quarterbacks being advised to play a different position in the pros.

The NFL has a tendency to manufacture fake draft controversies that drive everyone up a wall, especially during the short period between the Super Bowl and the draft when the league isn’t at the center of the universe. It seems that “Lamar Jackson should be a receiver” will be a Thing for the next two months, so let’s dispel with the notion once and for all with a flaming-hot take: The quarterback who won the Heisman and then almost won the Heisman again should stay a quarterback. Jackson certainly needs to develop areas of his game, but he also has NFL-level traits right now, and his skill set might offer a glimpse at the future of the league.

Jackson has a strong arm, can fit the ball into tight windows, and has the touch to throw receivers open either 4 or 40 yards down the field. When he sets his feet, Jackson can have lethal accuracy, and he has an impressive ability to stay in the pocket and keep his eyes downfield while under pressure. The offense he ran at Louisville under head coach Bobby Petrino required NFL-level recognition and progressions with different personnel packages. When Jackson puts that entire skill set together, it’s often jaw-dropping.

On that play, Jackson (1) sidesteps an unblocked blitzer, (2) steps up in the pocket and resets his feet while keeping his eyes downfield, (3) effortlessly launches a ball 40 yards in the air, and (4) throws it so perfectly that his receiver doesn’t break stride, helping the wideout avoid a would-be tackler en route to the end zone. In scouting circles that’s called “Aaron Rodgers shit.”

That’s one of the best plays of Jackson’s career, but it’s not an isolated incident. One of the most impressive parts of his game is a pocket presence that doesn’t rely on his abilities as a rusher (3,172 rushing yards in his last two seasons, second most in college football during that span). Jackson has a good feel for pressure and can slide his feet to maximize protection while keeping his eyes downfield and manipulating the secondary—two of the most crucial skills for young quarterbacks adjusting to the league. Take this touchdown against Virginia in November, where he shifts left and keeps his eyes and shoulders locked to that side of the field, dances his way around a defender without dropping his eye level, and then lofts a pass to Jaylen Smith, who makes an excellent catch.

The main knock on Jackson is his accuracy. Completion percentage is a flawed metric for gauging accuracy (not all throws are created equally!) but Jackson’s 59.1 percent completion rate (59th in the country) is often cited against him. However, using Pro Football Focus’s adjusted completion percentage, which removes throwaways, spikes, and batted passes from attempts and gives quarterbacks credit for dropped balls, Jackson’s adjusted completion percentage is 73.1 percent, tied for 29th in the country, in part because his receivers dropped more than 12 percent of his catchable balls—almost twice the figure for Darnold.

That doesn’t wipe away concerns about his accuracy. His footwork is inconsistent, which can affect his mechanics, and he sometimes struggles to throw outside the numbers, a crucial area for NFL success (though he’s improved in that area since his 2016 season). As Polian alluded to, 6-foot-3 and 211 pounds is considered a lean frame for his running style, which makes him an injury risk in theory. The concerns about his development are legitimate—and not every quarterback can quickly overcome footwork issues like Carson Wentz, or accuracy issues like Deshaun Watson.

[Deep breath.]

Having said that, the notion that Jackson’s flaws are concerning enough that he should switch positions is ludicrous. He’s not even the best example of a physically gifted quarterback that might need to switch positions in the draft. Josh Allen has a cannon arm and silly athleticism, but might not be able to hit water if he fell out of a boat. Jackson is worlds ahead of him in terms of decision-making and basic QB competence, but only the realest among us are calling for Allen to switch to tight end.

There’s also the reality that football is changing, and so are the responsibilities of NFL quarterbacks. The 2017 season appropriately culminated in Super Bowl LII, a glance at the future of the league that doubled as one of the most fun football games ever.

Hybrid pro-college concepts have been trickling into the league for a half-decade, and the Eagles’ Super Bowl win could open the floodgates. Coaches and coordinators across the league liberally borrow (steal) the schemes that work, and so as the league’s dominant concepts evolve, so will the skill sets needed under center. A shift toward college-style football would create a demand for the quarterbacks who dominated in college. If only there was an award for guys like that.