Through 14 weeks, Lamar Jackson is the presumptive MVP and the story of the NFL season. And if you have him in fantasy football—or even if you don’t—he is likely defining your league, too.
Christian McCaffrey has been the top performer in fantasy this year, but Lamar has been right behind him as the rare quarterback who can vault a team into contention. His unique skill set has made him a sort of cheat code, combining the production of a QB1 with that of an RB1. And over the next two weeks, he could be the difference-maker in plenty of fantasy championship matchups.
Lamar set a new standard for fantasy quarterbacks this season, and he should have fantasy players everywhere rethinking what type of quarterback to prioritize. How big of an impact will Jackson’s 2019 season have on fantasy football? And can he maintain this level of production in 2020 and beyond?
It’s difficult to overstate Jackson’s fantasy impact this season. The second-year pro is on pace to score over 400 points, and he could break both Patrick Mahomes’s season-long points record (417.1 in 2018) and Aaron Rodgers’s per-game record (26.5 in 2011).
He’s also crushing in Pro Football Reference’s VBD metric, which measures a player’s production against that of a replacement player—in this case the 12th-ranked quarterback. Through 13 games, Jackson has a VBD of 130, meaning he has scored 130 more points than the 12th-highest-scoring passer (Tom Brady). If he continues to produce as an above-average quarterback down the stretch, he’ll easily top Mahomes’s 2018 VBD of 134, which was itself the highest VBD for a quarterback since Peyton Manning’s 153 in 2013. Put simply: Lamar is about as valuable a fantasy quarterback as we’ve ever seen.
Jackson leads the league in touchdown passes (28) and touchdown percentage (8.1), but he hasn’t reached these fantasy heights just because of his ability to throw the football. Jackson is the best rushing quarterback ever, full stop—and in fantasy, rushing is worth way more than passing.
The math is pretty straightforward. In most fantasy leagues, a rushing touchdown is worth six points, while a passing score is worth four. A rushing yard is worth 0.1 points, and a passing yard is worth 0.04 points—less than half. Think of it this way: A quarterback who passes a full 75 yards down the field gets three fantasy points. Jackson (or any QB) needs just 30 rushing yards to equal that total. So basically every time Jackson moves down the field using his legs instead of his arm, he gets a gigantic fantasy boost.
Lamar is averaging 59.0 rushing yards per game for his career, the highest mark ever by a QB. That number includes the first nine games of 2018, in which Jackson appeared but did not start, and averaged just 15.4 rushing yards per contest. In 2019 alone, he’s averaging 78.2 rushing yards per game, which is by far the highest single-season figure ever recorded by a quarterback.
If you’ve had Lamar on your fantasy team this season, you’ve seen the benefits up close. Not only can he almost single-handedly win you games every week, but he’ll also virtually never cost you one. Rushing quarterbacks have both higher fantasy ceilings and floors than their pocket-anchored counterparts. The ceiling is evident in Jackson’s record-setting fantasy year, but the floor has been visible, too.
In Week 5 against Pittsburgh, Jackson had his worst outing of the year, throwing for 161 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions. That passing performance is worth a paltry 4.4 fantasy points, but he also accumulated 70 rushing yards on 14 carries, which added 7.0 points and kept his day from being a complete disaster. In Week 7 against the Seahawks, Jackson had just 5.7 points as a passer (143 yards, no touchdowns or picks) but added 17.6 as a rusher (116 yards and a score). In Week 13 against the vaunted 49ers defense, he had just 8.2 passing points (105 yards and a touchdown) but contributed another 16.1 on the ground (101 yards and another touchdown). When Jackson has a bad day throwing the ball, he can bail himself—and his fantasy teams—out with his legs.
Jackson isn’t the first QB to exploit this fantasy loophole. Rich Hribar has been writing about the “Konami Code” of rushing quarterbacks since 2013, when the value of rushing production for QBs was certainly notable, but not eye-popping. In 2019, though, Lamar is making quarterback rushing seem like something out of a video game.
In 2013, Hribar proposed that all quarterback production—whether it came through the ground or the air—should be scored the same way. That idea didn’t gain traction back then, but if Jackson’s stat lines keep exploding, it may start to soon.
This season, Jackson has recorded 1,017 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns. If that was scored the same way passing yards and touchdowns are, he would have 63 fewer total points, a decline of 4.8 points per game. With that scoring format, Lamar would still be the top fantasy quarterback, but instead of the 56.8-point lead he has over the next-highest QB (Deshaun Watson), he’d have less than a six-point cushion between himself and Dak Prescott.
Lamar isn’t the only quarterback taking advantage of the rushing boost in 2019. Josh Allen (439 rushing yards, eight rushing touchdowns) is the QB5 on the year, but would be QB11 if his rushing production were scored the same as passing. Deshaun Watson (344 yards, seven TDs) would move from QB2 to QB4, Kyler Murray (448 yards, four TDs) would move from QB7 to QB15, and Russell Wilson (312 yards, three TDs) would move from QB4 to QB5.
Lamar would be an elite fantasy player solely as a passer, but the rushing loophole makes him a fantasy god.
The question now on every fantasy player’s mind is whether Jackson will keep this up—and there’s virtually no precedent to say one way or the other. Historically, quarterbacks have gotten most of their rushing production on scrambles, but Lamar gets his primarily on designed runs. Per Pro Football Focus, Jackson has earned 655 rushing yards on designed runs, with another 362 yards coming from scrambles. The only quarterback with a rushing split that looks even remotely similar to that is Murray, who has accumulated 269 yards on designed runs and 184 on scrambles. (Side note: Murray is an extremely enticing fantasy option for 2020. If Arizona’s offense takes a step forward, he could vault into fantasy’s top tier at the position.)
In the offseason, I tried to tell anyone I could that rushing quarterbacks would become fantasy’s cheat code. I identified five such QBs who were undervalued heading into fantasy drafts, and four of them are now in the top seven at the position in points (yeah, I whiffed on Mitchell Trubisky—no one is perfect). In 2020, the quarterbacks with those skill sets won’t be late-round sleepers. Rushing production is simply too potent, and Jackson is shining a spotlight on just how great the potential is for passers who can run.
The history of the NFL is full of breakout players who regressed the following year. Lamar is likely due for some regression himself, but we’ve also never seen a player like him. No quarterback has ever been better positioned to take advantage of fantasy football’s scoring system than he is—and with Baltimore’s offense designed to maximize his skill set, that doesn’t look like it’ll change any time soon.