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The Positioning of Lamar Jackson

There are two different debates about Jackson as the 2018 NFL draft approaches. One is reasonable. The other is not.

Lamar Jackson running with arrows in his body, in the style of Esquire’s Muhammad Ali cover AP Images/Ringer illustration

There are just too many quality quarterbacks. The NFL is overrun with them. If I’m counting correctly, at least 13 quarterbacks on each team’s roster made the Pro Bowl in January. Nobody knows where they come from, much less how to stop them. They are spreading like fungi; a team can draft one quarterback and turn around to find that dozens of others have sprouted beneath the floorboards of the locker room.

Apparently, there is only one solution that can save the league from this drastic oversaturation crisis: It must convince a single player, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, to play wide receiver instead of QB upon reaching the NFL.

There has been talk about Jackson potentially switching positions from the moment that sports-radio hosts saw highlights of a speedy black kid tearing through the ACC en route to a runaway Heisman Trophy in 2016. But the buzz about a possible move has picked up credence in recent weeks, largely due to relatively connected sources. First, former Bills, Panthers, and Colts general manager Bill Polian expressed his belief that Jackson would be best suited at wide receiver and should switch to the position as soon as possible. Among other things, Polian called Jackson too “short and slight” to succeed at quarterback, even though Jackson’s 6-foot-2, 216-pound frame makes him the same height as and a pound heavier than Andy Dalton, and an inch shorter and two pounds heavier than Kirk Cousins.

Then, as the combine approached, NFL.com reported that multiple teams had asked Jackson to work out as a wide receiver. Jackson flatly denied that report, saying teams had expressed interest in him only as a quarterback. Yet it’s possible that Jackson didn’t know teams had put in the request; as Ian Rapoport clarified on Twitter, those requests are filtered through the NFL. Rapoport also suggested that such a request would have been standard operating procedure.

These situations aren’t analogous. While it makes sense that a defensive end would be put through linebacker drills (outside linebackers and defensive ends often have more in common than outside linebackers and inside linebackers in the modern game) or that a running back would complete receiver drills (backs are more involved as pass catchers than ever before), there is no hybrid quarterback-wide-receiver position. Players are either quarterbacks or wide receivers. (Or Nick Foles, I guess.) Some traits are common to multiple football positions—all defenders need to tackle, many offensive players should be proficient at catching, etc.—but only quarterbacks have to be able to accurately throw the ball.

While 2017 proved a banner season for backup QBs, with Foles and Case Keenum leading their teams deep into the playoffs, it was also a campaign in which NFL teams voluntarily started Trevor Siemian, Mike Glennon, and Nathan Peterman, among others. Not even because of injury! By choice! Playing quarterback requires an extremely precise skill set that only a small number of people possess at a level that can help NFL teams win. This is what makes draft season so annually compelling: We attempt to gauge which college players are capable of joining that exclusive club, and which are not. Every player’s potential is up for debate.

This year, two separate Jackson debates are happening simultaneously. One is reasonable: whether he will be an effective NFL quarterback and whether he is worthy of being selected ahead of fellow 2018 prospects Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield, and Josh Allen. One is not. It is completely unreasonable to argue that NFL teams should ignore Jackson’s rare and critical talent at the game’s most important position and convert him to a position he’s never played. Lamar Jackson is a quarterback.

It is not new to say that a college quarterback should try a new position in the NFL. It’s been happening since the days of Marlin Briscoe and Freddie Solomon, who won Super Bowls with the Dolphins and 49ers, respectively. Brian Mitchell played quarterback at Louisiana-Lafayette and went on to become one of the greatest return specialists of all time. Josh Cribbs and Julian Edelman both played QB at Kent State; the former joins Mitchell on the short list of great return men, while the latter is a standout receiver for the Patriots. Antwaan Randle El was a quarterback at Indiana before becoming a fine wideout for the Steelers; the Jaguars used a 2005 first-round pick on Arkansas QB Matt Jones in the hope that he’d emerge as an effective receiver; and nearly a decade after drafting Jones, the Jags selected Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson as an “offensive weapon.” Right now, former Ohio State quarterbacks Braxton Miller and Terrelle Pryor are plying their trade as NFL wide receivers. There have been others, too: Brad Smith out of Missouri, Isaiah Stanback of Washington, Michael Robinson of Penn State, Armanti Edwards of Appalachian State.

Before we go any further, it’s worth noting that most of these players were bad at throwing the football. Mitchell threw six touchdowns and 17 interceptions in his senior college season. Cribbs had a four-touchdown, 14-interception campaign when he was at Kent State. Edelman never had a 2,000-yard passing season and graduated with more career interceptions than touchdowns. Randle El and Michael Robinson completed less than 50 percent of passes in their Big Ten careers; Jones’s single-season high in passing yardage was 2,073; and Denard Robinson threw the same number of touchdowns as interceptions as a senior. Miller, who looked like a Heisman candidate early in his Ohio State tenure, lost his starting quarterback job to not one, but two different players in 2015.

Really, the only quarterback turned receiver whose college career compares to Jackson’s is Pryor. Pryor threw for 8.6 yards per attempt as a junior, with 27 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions; Jackson averaged 8.5 yards per attempt with 27 touchdowns and 10 interceptions this past season. But Jackson is a superior passer and a more dynamic athlete—he ran for 21 touchdowns as a sophomore and 18 as a junior, while Pryor had just 17 rushing touchdowns in his entire collegiate career. And yet, Pryor still got drafted as a quarterback, started nine games for the Raiders, and was later signed as a QB by the Seahawks, Chiefs, and Browns before making the transition to receiver. He was deemed good enough to get that chance, because good NFL quarterbacks are rare.

This helps explain why the debate over Jackson switching positions is so maddening: He would be far and away the best quarterback who has ever been forced to move to receiver. He finished his college career with more than 9,000 passing yards, 4,000 rushing yards, 119 total touchdowns (69 passing, 50 rushing), and only 27 interceptions. He followed up his 2016 Heisman Trophy win by becoming the 2017 Heisman runner-up.

Jackson’s arm strength is legendary, the stuff of grainy YouTube clips. Why would we want someone who throws a football this far, this accurately, and this effortlessly, to play any position for which that rare skill goes unused?

Of course, the most amazing part of the above clip is that Jackson encountered horrific play-calling luck—he ran a play-action rollout toward the side of the field in which a cornerback was blitzing—and easily ditched the unblocked defender who had a free shot at him. Many NFL players make their living trying to tackle opposing quarterbacks; Jackson has a tremendous knack for evading would-be tacklers.

Jackson is not “too skinny to play quarterback”; he is skinny, but there are several other NFL quarterbacks (Dalton, Cousins, Tyrod Taylor, Mitchell Trubisky, among them) who are approximately his size. He is not incapable of playing in a pro offense; he went to Louisville specifically because he “wanted to be in a pro-style system,” and thrived while orchestrating a scheme that is complex by college standards. (Also, it’s 2018: NFL teams are having success asking QBs to do “college-style” things.)

When Polian described why he thinks Jackson should play wide receiver, he noted that Jackson has “exceptional ability to make you miss … exceptional instinct with the ball in his hand, and that’s rare for wide receivers.” He even went as far as telling SiriusXM: “The more you see him with the ball in his hands, the more you’re gonna say, ‘I gotta find more ways to get this guy the ball in his hands!’”

This may come as a shock, but having “exceptional instinct with the ball in his hand” might make Jackson a good quarterback, since quarterbacks have the ball in their hands on every play. His elusiveness and ability to run should be viewed as QB boons.

Which brings us to the underlying force behind this debate: race. As history shows, there would not be doubts about Jackson’s preparedness for a pro-style offense or calls that his athleticism is a detriment if he were white. Yes, a few white college quarterbacks have been asked to play receiver in the pros, including Jones and Edelman. Tim Tebow, a fellow Heisman winner, was asked to move to tight end late in his football career, although this happened after the Broncos drafted him in the first round as a quarterback, and after he was employed by four different NFL teams at the position. But none of those players was nearly as good at throwing as Jackson is. There are plenty of athletic white quarterbacks who are never asked to switch to receiver even though they aren’t nearly as good at passing as Jackson.

You can make a case that Jackson won’t be a successful NFL quarterback and cite only football reasons; it’s impossible to use football reasons to make a case that he should move to receiver before even getting a try at QB.

Quarterback is the most valuable position in American sports. It’s completely different from any other, and has proved supremely difficult to scout. The shortage of top options at the position informs why the four highest contracts in league history have been handed out to Andrew Luck, Derek Carr, Matt Stafford, and Jimmy Garoppolo over the last two years. Those aren’t even close to the four best quarterbacks in the NFL; finding an effective QB is just valuable enough that “the biggest contract in league history” has become the going rate.

Teams can’t afford to ignore chances to develop potentially great players at a position where there are strikingly few great players. Jackson will provide that opportunity at quarterback. To argue he should transition to receiver is to voluntarily ignore that opportunity, and there aren’t nearly enough effective quarterbacks on the planet to justify that.

I can’t decide whether I like Jackson or Mayfield best among the QBs in the 2018 class, but I understand that I’m biased toward preferring quarterbacks who just finished high-profile virtuosic college careers. This is why I kept telling anyone who would listen that teams should have drafted Deshaun Watson over every other quarterback last year, and why I did the same for Johnny Manziel in 2014. You win some, you lose some. I’d make Jackson my franchise quarterback and believe that he’s worthy of a first-round pick, but I understand the logic behind preferring Darnold, Rosen, or even the misfiring rocket launcher from Wyoming.

Given Jackson’s talents and the quarterback situation around the league, though, there is no acceptable logic behind insisting he should switch to receiver without getting a shot as a quarterback. Saying otherwise is stupid, misguided, or worse, intentionally provocative for the sake of attention.