Insider: Should the Colts pursue QB Lamar Jackson? A look at the pros, cons and likelihood
The Colts are on the hunt for a quarterback of the now and future, and it's a search they're finding hard to control. After the Bears shipped out the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft to the Panthers, the Colts are looking to, at best, select the third rookie quarterback off the board this spring. The Texans own the No. 2 pick, and even if they trade it, it won't be to their AFC South rival.
But there's a path out there to get a proven star quarterback in his mid-20s for less draft capital than that. His name is Lamar Jackson, and he's the topic in the NFL right now.
The 2019 MVP is at an impasse with the Ravens over a contract. He's currently under the non-exclusive franchise tag, which essentially allows him to negotiate deals with other teams that the Ravens can either match or let him walk for two first-round picks.
It's the route he now wants to happen, as he announced on Twitter that he requested a trade on March 2.
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If the Colts are interested, they can try to iron out a contract agreement with Jackson and see if the Ravens would let him walk for two first-round picks. If that's before this year's draft, that would include the Colts' No. 4 overall selection; if it's after, it would pull from the next two drafts.
It's an unprecedented route to find a quarterback, but as the Colts are desperate to end their search for one, it's something they will consider.
Pros of Lamar Jackson for Colts
The goal in the NFL is to land a star quarterback, one of the 10 or so humans on the planet who can throw, run, operate, lead and dominate with the weight on their shoulders.
Jackson is one of those 10. He's a 26-year-old who has already won an MVP. His blurring speed at 6-foot-2 and 212 pounds can rush for 1,000 yards in a single season, and it can extend passing plays for an eternity so he can find a receiver late with fearlessness and touch.
He has 101 touchdown passes to 38 interceptions with 63.7% accuracy and 7.4 yards per attempt in his career, which are strong passing numbers for the best running quarterback in the game. He averages 1,109 yards and five touchdowns rushing per season, on 6.1 yards per carry.
Jackson is as unique a talent as the league has at quarterback, one that can feed the brain of a creative offensive coach. That's what the Colts believe they have found in Shane Steichen, who has found success running three different systems for Philip Rivers, Justin Herbert and Jalen Hurts.
His latest work, developing Hurts into an MVP runner-up who played lights out in the Super Bowl, could be his case to Jackson. He can build an offense around the unique athleticism of his quarterback, creating the No. 1 rushing team per Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, while still remaining pass-first in philosophy. He can use the run to set up high-percentage passes through play-action, sprint outs and run-run-pass-option plays. It can allow a developing passer like Hurts to throw for 22 touchdowns and six interceptions on a 101.5 rating at its peak.
By pulling a safety into the box with the quarterback's run threat, Steichen can open up explosive throws outside the numbers that feed into Jackson's lively arm.
The Colts have to reshape their offensive line for any quarterback, but Jackson's ability to scramble and throw contested passes late can play into the size and skill sets of Michael Pittman Jr. and Alec Pierce. Those would be two of the better receivers he has played with, as the Ravens rank 31st in wide receiver spending over the past three seasons, even with Jackson on a rookie contract. Baltimore's free-agent acquisitions at the position have been aging veterans like Dez Bryant and DeSean Jackson. Part of why Jackson attempts two-thirds of his passes between the hashes is he doesn't have anyone out wide he can trust.
The Colts don't have a tight end like Mark Andrews to be his All-Pro safety valve, but they do have one with upside in Jelani Woods, who flashed rare speed with 12.5 yards per catch as a rookie last year.
The best advantage the Colts can offer Jackson is Jonathan Taylor. Not since 2019 has Jackson had a running back crack more than 805 yards, and the year he got 1,000 yards from Mark Ingram, Jackson led the league in touchdown passes and won the MVP. Taylor is two years removed from winning the rushing title with 1,811 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Jackson and Taylor are the two best runners at their respective positions. Both have been in need of a Robin to lessen the physical toll. They could be exactly what each other is searching for, and it could take the Colts' run game to untapped potential.
Jackson plays a rugged running style that has cost him 12 games, including 10 the past two years. The Colts have the coaching staff and personnel to pitch him on a new way. Jackson has never attempted fewer than 401 passes in a season, and with better receivers and a pass-first play designer, that should skyrocket to at least the 446 Hurts has averaged the past two seasons. He's never played with a bell-cow running back, but with Taylor, he could see his rushes per game decrease from 10.4 to fewer than nine. His speed would still be a weapon, just more in extending plays and creating deception around Taylor.
By becoming truly dual-threat rather than run-first, an experienced Jackson could be one that ages gracefully while still displaying those special traits with a game on the line.
Cons of Lamar Jackson for the Colts
Two key reasons have Jackson at this uncertain stage.
The first is that Jackson wants a fully guaranteed contract for a long-term deal like Deshaun Watson received last season from the Browns. Even though it’s a five-year contract, the NFL requires teams to place guaranteed money in an escrow account at the time of the signing. A $250 million fully guaranteed deal would need $250 million in liquid cash. Most owners don't have it, as their value is tied in assets and not actual cash.
The Colts are by no means an exception to this rule.
The other reason is that Jackson's unique playing style has made it hard for him to be on the field. Though teams can make some adjustment to the number of runs he has, he can only be himself if he's able to use his legs in miraculous ways. The risk will never disappear; eventually, it will get worse with age.
Investing a large percentage of the salary cap in a player who could miss critical games is a risky proposition. The unique, dynamic play that can make Jackson the MVP also makes him that much harder to replace when he's hurt. Baltimore is 46-19 with Jackson and 8-14 with a backup in his place.
The margin for error will diminish without next year's first-round pick. Though Jackson would likely make it a low pick, it could be a valuable resource to find a left tackle or a wide receiver, which Jackson might need in order to age gracefully. It's a much different world to live in than with a rookie contract, where the roster around the quarterback can be endlessly strong, as it was for the Eagles with Hurts.
Could the Colts just create their own Jackson on a rookie contract with the No. 4 pick? That's the question they have to wrestle with in evaluating Anthony Richardson and Will Levis. The upside comes in spades. But both are projects, too.
Will the Colts sign Lamar Jackson?
The Colts are open-minded to any possible solution to a dilemma that has haunted them since Andrew Luck's retirement. If one of those features a 26-year-old MVP with rare traits, they're going to give it a look.
The negotiation piece is a challenge. The Colts can't win this purely with guaranteed money. They will need to sell Jackson on something short-term, like the three-year, $84 million fully guaranteed contract Kirk Cousins received from the Vikings.
Perhaps a three-year, $150 million deal with high guarantees is something beneficial to everyone. It would tie with Aaron Rodgers for the highest annual salary of any player.
The incentive would be to keep signing new deals as the salary cap rises, maximizing earning potential. That short-term mentality would place an imperative on his health. If the Colts can pitch their best plan to keep him upright with a transition to more passing and complementing Taylor rather than playing as the centerpiece in the run game, it's possible that he sees this as his best opportunity.
The Ravens could see this as a time to reset at quarterback, especially financially. Florida's Anthony Richardson represents a generational athlete that could be had with the No. 4 pick. It's the highest pick of any team likely to have any interest in Jackson, so this gives the Colts some leverage.
Perhaps the Colts should take Richardson for that reason. But for one more first-round pick and a lot of salary, it could be worth trading for the player everyone is hoping he can become.
Contact Colts insider Nate Atkins at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Colts: Is trading for Lamar Jackson possible?