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QB Lamar Jackson enters NFL scouting combine as most polarizing player

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

This Lamar Jackson debate was bubbling months ago. Long before former Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Polian suggested the Heisman Trophy winner from Louisville should consider moving from quarterback to wide receiver. And before the most eagerly anticipated mock drafts left out Jackson from their first rounds. As early as November and December, when Yahoo Sports asked a group of seven NFL evaluators about the top quarterbacks in the draft, none received more mixed reviews than Jackson.

In the ensuing months, little has changed. And with the NFL’s annual scouting combine just days away, he’s fast becoming the most debated high-end player in this draft.

The breakdown of the seven evaluators in November and December spoke to what was coming. Specifically, an argument over Jackson’s refinement as a passing prospect versus a playmaking athlete. It’s a familiar chestnut in an NFL draft process that still has some lingering stereotypes at quarterback, where highly athletic (and often, black) players like Jackson are quick to ignite the “should he change positions” conversation among executives. Particularly if a player is considered extremely underwhelming in a key area: too short; too raw as a passer; bad mechanics; poor decision-making; etc. Any of those traits open a door for evaluators to suggest that another position would be a better fit. It’s how dynamic athletes like Michigan’s Denard Robinson and Ohio State’s tandem of Terrelle Pryor and Braxton Miller all ended up settling at positions other than quarterback in the NFL.

Lamar Jackson rushed for 50 TDs and threw for 69 scores in three seasons at Louisville. (AP)

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But the “trait debate” is also making Jackson a scattershot argument among evaluators. Unlike some other athletes-playing-quarterback, he has showcased size, improved mechanics and continued refinement as a passer. He’s an otherworldly athlete who has illustrated a developmental arc that suggests he can be groomed into an NFL passer. But those parallel tracks – the “now” athlete versus the “later” passer – are going to create conflict in how teams pigeonhole his ability.

As one evaluator said this week: “He’s a project in a few areas – maybe several areas – but so is [Wyoming quarterback] Josh Allen. The difference is Allen has special arm talent and Lamar Jackson is a special athlete.

“In the room, that conversation becomes, ‘Well, what can’t Allen do as a passer?’ And for Jackson it becomes, ‘What can’t he do as a quarterback?’”

In a nutshell, that’s the examination that will unfold the next two months: What can’t Lamar Jackson do as an NFL quarterback?

And in many ways, it has already started. As NFL evaluators have broken down tapes of other players or traveled to games the past three years, they’ve run across Jackson and made mental notes. And some of those came out in November and December when Yahoo Sports rounded up assessments on potential first-round quarterbacks. While USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Allen all had a consensus that pushed them to the top of the draft, the assessments of Jackson were far more open-ended.

The breakdown:

  • One evaluator said Jackson had “basketball legs” and expressed injury concerns when he looked at Jackson’s lower body. He thought Jackson was still thin for the position despite looking stronger and more physically developed as a junior at Louisville. But he continued to rail on Jackson’s legs and the belief that he was susceptible to Robert Griffin-like problems with lower-body injuries. He also noted that Jackson’s comparisons to Michael Vick almost always overlook an important key: Vick’s lower body was extremely powerful – far more than where Jackson is at physically.
  • Two evaluators shared similar critical expressions about Jackson as more of a run-first passing prospect. While they both liked his improvisational abilities, they also both discounted his progress as a passer between his sophomore and junior seasons. Each thought Jackson developed more physically but still had problems with mechanics as a passer and hadn’t taken a significant leap in accuracy and ball-placement.
  • One evaluator deep in Jackson’s corner said the player’s talent was on par or better than that of Deshaun Watson, a breakout star for the Houston Texans as a rookie last season. He pointed to the proliferation of spread systems in the NFL and remarked that many offensive coordinator hires are trending toward younger coaches who are more adept at molding schemes to the skills of their quarterbacks, particularly when the quarterbacks have the ability to improvise with their athleticism. He also raved about Jackson’s ceiling to become stronger physically and his year-over-year development at Louisville, noting that almost every aspect of his game experienced some level of advancement each season. He made a specific point to bring up the advancement of Jared Goff, who was pilloried for having run an extremely simple spread offense in college but who took big strides when paired with head coach Sean McVay’s system.
  • The other three evaluators all passed on giving an opinion of Jackson – either because they hadn’t spent enough time assessing him or felt it was premature before seeing him perform at the combine or in a workout.

That latter approach – holding back on Jackson – should resonate in the NFL scouting community because the reality is many are still trying to lock down their final evaluation. The combine will be the next big hurdle in that process. But it will hardly be the last step in Jackson’s evolution as a prospective pick before April’s draft. And it certainly won’t be the last word in the debate that surrounds him, which will get only bigger and louder going forward.

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