Welcome to The Ringer’s weekly NFL rankings, where we’ll break down the good, the bad, and the absurd of the 2019 season. Every Tuesday, we’ll have a ranking of the moments, players, or story lines that are driving the conversation around the league. This week, we’re looking at the numbers that define the most exciting player in football.
Lamar Jackson has changed the terms of the NFL MVP debate. After another stellar performance in the Ravens’ 41-7 annihilation of the Texans on Sunday—and with decisive victories against the previous favorite, Russell Wilson, and three-time MVP Tom Brady in recent weeks—the second-year pro looks like the front-runner. Vegas agrees. Perhaps more importantly, so does at least one of his peers.
Deshaun Watson wrote "MVP" on the signed jersey that he gave to Lamar Jackson after the game. pic.twitter.com/PhrKA5WTmI— Brett Kollmann (@BrettKollmann) November 17, 2019
We’ve come a long way from last season, when Jackson looked like a talented runner who needed to iron out some flaws in his passing game. In his first full season as a starter, he’s been spectacular when asked to use his feet and nearly as effective when using his arm. We see this when he evades defenders for a long run or hits a receiver with a dart. But even if you don’t trust your eyes, the numbers make it clear that we’re seeing Lamar do things a QB has never done before.
Weekly Lamar Jackson tweet:— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) November 10, 2019
/insert stats no one would believe/
"Lamar is unbelievable"
While stats can never fully capture how special Jackson’s season has been, they do tell the story of a unique NFL talent. Let’s count down which numbers best explain that.
6. The Comparisons to All-Time Great QBs
In Sunday’s rout against Houston, Jackson became the first quarterback in Ravens history with multiple four-TD games in a single season. Both came this season. He also didn’t throw an interception in either, which gives him at least as many four-touchdown, zero-pick games as a list of guys who have 10 Super Bowl rings between them. It may be tempting to dismiss this nugget because all of those players’ careers came before the great passing boom of the 21st century, but remember, the Ravens are a run-first team. Through 10 games, they’re first in rush attempts (358) and last in pass attempts (293). They’re running it on 53.4 percent of their plays, which gives them the highest rate in the league and makes them one of just three teams to rush more than they’re passing. The Ravens aren’t throwing as often as we’re used to, but when they do, they’re making it count.
5. The Eye-Popping Game Grades
With the caveat that it came against the lowly Bengals, Jackson’s Week 10 thrashing of Cincinnati was one of the best QB performances we’ve seen all year. It was also historic: Pro Football Focus has it as its second-best game in its database, behind only a Russell Wilson performance last year and ahead of the best game of Tom Brady’s legendary 2007 season.
Lamar Jackson earned the second-highest game grade by a QB in the PFF era on Sunday— PFF (@PFF) November 11, 2019
Jackson’s day against the Bengals also made him just the second QB since at least 1950 to post a perfect passer rating twice in the same season—and the first to do so while attempting 17 or more passes in both games. (Ben Roethlisberger had a 158.3 rating twice in 2007, but attempted just 16 passes in one of those games.)
The 2016 Heisman winner also has the two highest grades in ESPN’s QBR this season. He’s just one of two signal-callers to make two appearances in the all-time top 10, which accounts for games from 2006 onward. (The other player is Carson Palmer, who did it in 2009 and 2010. We’re about due for a Palmer reappraisal.)
4. The Dramatic Improvements Over Last Season
If game grades mean little to you, there are some more straightforward ways to show how great Jackson has been. Those start with the comparisons between his 2018 and 2019 seasons. After completing just 58.2 percent of his passes last year, that number is at 66.3 percent after Week 11, which ties him with Patrick Mahomes (not counting the latter’s Monday night game). He’s already thrown 19 touchdown passes this year. Last year, he had six.
Last season, Lamar Jackson never finished with more than 14 completions in a game.— Jonas Shaffer (@jonas_shaffer) November 17, 2019
He just missed his 14th straight completion.
Jackson also appears to have addressed his biggest flaw as a rusher: a lack of ball security. Despite starting just seven games in 2018, he led the league with 12 fumbles. This year, in three more starts, he’s had just four.
This has all helped spur a dramatic improvement for the Ravens as a whole. Baltimore was 13th in points scored last year with 389. This year, the team leads the league with 341 in 10 games. The Ravens’ offensive efficiency has also dramatically increased—they were 15th last year in Football Outsiders’ DVOA and ranked third heading into Week 11 this year—and it appears that ranking will only rise.
Top 5 offenses by DVOA since Week 7:— Aaron Schatz (@FO_ASchatz) November 18, 2019
Top 5 defenses by DVOA since Week 7:
No team is hotter than #RavensFlock.
Jackson’s performance is a big part of the reason the Ravens are in line for a bye after clawing into the playoffs last year.
3. The Numbers That Tell Us How Elusive He’s Been
Jackson’s leap as a pro passer is somewhat surprising. His continued improvement as a rusher is not. Still, it’s worth diving into the numbers that show just how effective he’s been on the ground this year.
Lamar leads the league in Pro Football Focus breakaway percentage, which calculates how much of a runner’s yardage comes on big plays (defined as any designed run of 15 yards or more). His 56.6 percent is more than 6 percentage points higher than the no. 2 rusher in that category, LeSean McCoy, had heading into his Monday night matchup. The only other quarterback in the top 10 is Kyler Murray, who has fewer than half as many yards as Jackson has on big plays.
Jackson’s not just doing it with open lanes. His elusiveness rating—a blocking-independent Pro Football Focus stat that tracks how hard a runner is to bring down—is 159.9. That’s nearly 40 points higher than the second-most-elusive rusher, Duke Johnson. The gap between Jackson and Johnson is greater than the one between Johnson and no. 7 on the list, Nick Chubb.
Simply put: Even when players get close to him they can’t make a play. According to ESPN Next Gen Stats, he’s the best in the league when a defender is within 1 yard of him.
Lamar Jackson continues to gash opposing defenses on the ground—9 carries, 86 yards in today's win vs HOU.@Lj_era8 has gained 518 rushing yards after a defender closes within 1-yard this season, almost double the next closest QB (Josh Allen, 281).#HOUvsBAL | #RavensFlock pic.twitter.com/bKnl30KvgG— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) November 17, 2019
This all sounds fancy. How does it look on the field?
Lamar Jackson can move like no other QB we’ve ever seen. Dudes elusiveness is special— Skubie Mageza KWQC-TV6 (@Skubie3Mageza) November 4, 2019
Another look at that 47-yard touchdown run by Lamar Jackson.pic.twitter.com/K2pC8YnPk0— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) November 10, 2019
Pretty damn good, turns out.
2. His World-Destroying Fantasy Season
On average, Lamar Jackson was the 14th QB off the board in preseason drafts. Through 11 weeks, he’s not just no. 1 in all of fantasy—he’s currently on pace to break the single-season points record Mahomes set last year, assuming he doesn’t sit a game at the end of the season.
That fantasy value has come from his dual-threat nature. He’d rank just 14th at his position if we looked only at his passing stats—the passing TDs are there but the yardage isn’t—but his rushing alone would have him as RB13. If that doesn’t sound impressive, consider that he doesn’t get the benefit of catching passes, which is a pretty important part of playing running back in 2019.
It also hasn’t mattered much who he’s played against. The Patriots defense has shut down virtually every passer they’ve faced this year. Not Lamar.
Lamar Jackson's 28.6 fantasy points are the most that any individual player has scored against the Patriots all season. In fact, he's only the second player to score at least 15 points against them in 2019 (Golden Tate, 22.2 points in Week 6).— Tristan H. Cockcroft (@SultanofStat) November 4, 2019
That combo of passing and rushing talent leads us to no. 1 in our ranking …
1. The Stats That Show Lamar Is Already Better Than Michael Vick
For all the offensive advancements of the past 13 years, you’d figure some QB would have produced a rushing season better than Vick’s 2006. But the former no. 1 draft pick’s mark of 1,039 has stood. It looks almost certain to fall this year, given Jackson is on pace for 1,261. (Comparing Lamar’s first 16 starts dating back to last year to Vick’s first full season in 2002 makes Jackson look even better.)
The main reason we compare Jackson to Vick is because of their rushing totals. But Vick did not come close to producing the same value as a passer in 2006 as Jackson has in 2019. Through 11 weeks, Jackson is the fifth-highest-graded passer by Pro Football Focus. In 2006, Vick finished 32nd in that metric. Even as a rusher, Vick’s best year didn’t match Jackson’s current season. While Vick ended 2006 with a grade of 84.8, Jackson currently sits at 86.6.
Numbers rarely tell a full story; they can mean little without actual play to back them up. But in Jackson’s case they do tell us something important: We’re witnessing something we’ve never seen before.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Lamar Jackson is the only quarterback in Ravens history with multiple four-touchdown games. He is the only one to achieve that milestone within a single season.