Andrea AdelsonESPN Staff Writer
Lamar Jackson has begun his NFL draft prep in South Florida, quietly going about his business while keeping a lid on what his plans entail.
Over the next few months, as draft anticipation builds, he is sure to become the talk on talk radio and television, the most scrutinized player in this draft class in the way Deshaun Watson and Teddy Bridgewater drew withering scrutiny before him.
But there is a slight difference in the talking points. Critics wondered whether Watson and Bridgewater could be successful quarterbacks in the NFL. The question about Jackson goes something like this: Can he actually play quarterback in the NFL?
Although the Louisville tape and record books and trophy case say yes, those who think they know better watch Jackson run and consider that license to denigrate his skill set as a quarterback. To be sure, Jackson does not fit the prototypical NFL quarterback mold. Josh Allen does, and he finds himself in the discussion to be among the first quarterbacks taken.
Jackson finished this past season with a better completion percentage than Allen (among other statistics). Mel Kiper Jr. recently unveiled his first mock draft, and had Allen at No. 1 overall. Ranking all quarterbacks, Kiper listed Jackson No. 6.
Those rankings are highly subjective, dependent on what the evaluator believes makes a successful quarterback on the next level. In many cases, rankings and evaluations are wrong. Still, this notion that Jackson switch positions to improve his NFL draft stock is one that is still out there, and one that in all likelihood will stay out there through the combine and team evaluations.
Louisville coach Bobby Petrino knows the skepticism is out there, and it makes him angry. During a recent phone conversation, Petrino said he had no explanation for the narrative. “There’s no question he’s a quarterback in the NFL, and he’s a special, special player,” Petrino said. “I don’t know who started that or why they did it, but it’s ridiculous.”
What would Petrino tell those skeptics out there?
“They just need to come in and do their work, watch the video, see him, that’s it,” Petrino said. “That’s just talk. Do your work.”
The work would show a far from complete player, but one with a skill set that translates to the NFL with the proper coaching and guidance — the same as any prospect hoping to become an NFL starting quarterback one day. There are no perfect quarterbacks in this draft class; Jackson is far from a finished product.
One Power 5 defensive coordinator, who watched Jackson play, said without hesitation Jackson is an NFL quarterback. He pointed to all the naysayers coming forward as one reason why the league has struggled to develop quarterbacks. “Instead of adapting to the players coming into the league, they’re trying to do what they’ve always done,” he said.
Indeed, dual-threat quarterbacks get knocked every single year in the run-up to the draft. It just so happens Jackson is different than any dual-threat quarterback since Michael Vick, because he runs like a shifty running back and throws the ball 90 yards on a dime with little effort. Vick, by the way, did play quarterback in the NFL (and he played it pretty well, too).
Although the subpar bowl performance against Mississippi State is sure to get dissected, Jackson did make significant progress in 2017 with his footwork, ball delivery and ability to read defenses. He followed up his Heisman Trophy season with another invite to New York, and ended up with 42 school and seven conference records when he declared his eligibility for the draft.
Before the bowl game, Jackson talked at length about all the ways he made improvements, although he was more reticent to discuss the future. Jackson said he first heard talk about switching positions during his Heisman trip, and it surprised him.
“It is annoying because quarterback is all I played all my life,” Jackson said. “People look at my legs and they see I can make big plays, but they don’t really see my arm, and I make big plays with my arm. I scored more touchdowns with my arm than my legs so …”
For those scoring at home, Jackson had 69 passing touchdowns and 50 rushing touchdowns in his career.
As for his own message to anybody who doubts his ability:
“Just find out when I get there.”