The Great Debate: Is Louisville's Lamar Jackson an NFL QB or a future NFL bust?

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Because there simply is not enough to argue about in America these days, feel free to join in what is becoming the hottest debate in college football:

Lamar Jackson, passing quarterback.

Opinions are flowing in from all directions. The spectrum is vast. The takery is hot. Some say he is the best; some say he is an inevitable bust. This isn’t quite Colin Kaepernick vs. the national anthem or Sarah Huckabee Sanders vs. Jemele Hill’s Twitter feed (a 2017 beef if there ever was one), but it is a lively and at times contentious discussion.

It began almost as soon as last season ended and may be reaching a high right now. (A temporary high; wait until he enters the NFL draft.) The Louisville quarterback and his teammates host Clemson on Saturday, the biggest game of the week nationally and potentially a major pivot point for Lamar defenders and Lamar doubters.

In living rooms, sports bars and on social media, every pass against the defending national champions will be a referendum on whether Jackson is a “true” QB. Strap in.

Jackson won the Heisman Trophy last year, and he’d barely finished his acceptance speech before the voter’s remorse started flowing in. Playing with turf toe and behind a dreadful offensive line, Jackson was quite bad in the Cardinals’ bowl loss to LSU – and then Heisman runner-up Deshaun Watson was simply heroic in leading Clemson past Alabama for the national championship.

That began an offseason cycle of dismissing Jackson. This was almost Soviet-era historical revisionism, like his 51 total touchdowns and 5,100 yards of total offense never happened. New Heisman top-five lists were constructed without his inclusion. So was at least one list of the nation’s top five quarterbacks. You’d have thought he lost a limb somewhere between January and September.

This disrespect of Jackson led to one particularly odd theory: That white sportswriters were not giving a black quarterback his due in the preseason Heisman hype. Problem being: White sportswriters voted for Jackson to win by a wide margin last year, and for Watson second. White sportswriters also voted for Jameis Winston, Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton, so that was a dubious angle to take in this instance.

Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) ran all over UNC on Saturday. (AP)
Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) ran all over UNC on Saturday. (AP)

Then the actual football playing began, and Jackson issued a reminder that he’s still around – and, in fact, improved. Through two games against Power Five opponents Purdue and North Carolina, Jackson leads the nation in total offense (505 yards per game) and has eight touchdowns running and throwing. That has swung the pendulum of judgment abruptly back in his favor.

Few things influence the discussion of the sport more than playing a great game at noon on ESPN, with little in the way of competition for the spotlight, and that’s what Jackson had against the Tar Heels. That put his highlights in a 15-hour rotation on the network, with prolific analyst homage included.

There were bigger games during prime time, but four of them overlapped and overloaded the viewing public. Then Baker Mayfield diluted his own brilliant performance by planting the Oklahoma flag at midfield of the Horseshoe, and a fake controversy was born. While Mayfield was apologizing for that, Jackson was winning the weekend.

But winning the weekend isn’t the same as winning over everyone. The debate rages on. Two samples from different sides of the divide:

ESPN analyst Tom Luginbill, who did sideline work from the North Carolina-Louisville game, wrote about Jackson’s 2017 improvement for The Athletic: “What makes this version of Lamar Jackson so scary is that he has grown into a passer who happens to be a great athlete, not just an athlete who can throw the football. … Once prone to risky and sometimes poor decisions coupled with accuracy issues, Jackson’s offseason work in the film room and on the practice field have paid off … ”

Then there is this take on Jackson’s NFL future from Rich Bartel, a former NFL backup QB who now serves as director and creator of business development for KANO Sports, which created a software app for long-term quarterback development: “To me he’s going to have to learn how to handle punts and kickoffs and become a slot or an outside wide receiver who can go back and take a snap [as a third roster quarterback].”

Insulting as that opinion might seem, there are others looking at Jackson through an NFL prism who see issues. One NFL personnel director told my colleague Pete Thamel: “He can throw but can’t, meaning every now and then he’ll hit something. He’s a really good athlete. ”

By most 2018 draft projections, Jackson ranks behind more traditional NFL-style quarterbacks. The pecking order in what is considered an unusually deep and talented QB draft starts with Sam Darnold of USC and Josh Rosen of UCLA, then often goes to Wyoming’s Josh Allen and Washington State’s Luke Falk before arriving at Jackson.

Former NFL journeyman QB Sage Rosenfels is now a private QB coach in the Omaha area. He believes Jackson will be a quarterback in the NFL, not a receiver, but is skeptical of his long-term upside.

“You just don’t get away with all that running-around stuff in the league,” Rosenfels said. “You don’t. The field gets smaller and smaller. Players get bigger and faster and smarter. You can eliminate all those runs. For a quarterback in the NFL, if you’re not an accurate passer, you’re not going to play in the league. That’s his issue. He’s not an accurate passer.”

All of this makes Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, who spent four seasons in the NFL as a coordinator or head coach, want to combust.

“He definitely can play [quarterback in the NFL],” Petrino told Yahoo Sports in August. “No question about it. Take his running game and throw it away and he can still play in the NFL.

“He can make all the throws: go route, post, corner, he can stick the in cut, he can throw the deep out. All the dynamic highlight plays they show are him running the football, but you sit down and study his video, he can really throw it.”

The three primary criticisms people have of Jackson are these: he’s slightly built and thus more injury prone, especially given how much he runs; he is not accurate enough to thrive in a pro-style offense; his ability to read defenses lags well behind the NFL level. There is some merit to those criticisms, but also reason to wonder whether they are being selectively applied. A look at each:

· Size. Jackson is listed at 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds. He’s gained a dozen pounds of muscle since last season. Still, NFL teams are worried about his ability to withstand hits with a slight frame.

Of the 30 NFL QBs who saw the most action in the first week of this season, the average height and weight is 6-3 ½ and 224 pounds. That includes many QBs who look a lot like Jackson on the stat sheet: Derek Carr (6-3, 215), Kirk Cousins (6-2, 202), Tyrod Taylor (6-1, 215), Andy Dalton (6-2, 220), Watson (6-3, 215), Alex Smith (6-4, 217) and Matt Ryan (6-4, 217).

The quarterback to whom Jackson is most often compared, Michael Vick, was listed at 6-feet and 215 pounds in his playing days. Vick was the No. 1 overall pick in 2001, went to four Pro Bowls and had a long NFL career.

Among fellow potential 2018 draft prospects, Jackson is an inch shorter than Rosen and 6 pounds lighter – hardly significant differences. He’s an inch shorter than highly touted Tanner Lee of Nebraska but 9 pounds heavier, yet there are no stories about Lee being too skinny for the NFL.

• Accuracy. Jackson’s career completion percentage of 56.7 percent does indeed lag behind most high draft picks in recent years. That’s why this current 2017 percentage of 64.7 is important, and needs to be maintained to satisfy some of his critics.

But that criticism also seems applicable to other potential ’18 draftees. Draft darling Allen, from Wyoming, has a career percentage of 57.1, against weaker competition. Lee’s percentage is 53.4. Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson, another prospect who generated a lot of offseason buzz, has a career percentage of 55.8. Even Rosen, who has been praised as a prototype NFL QB for years, is only moderately more accurate at 60.1 percent.

If Jackson needs to change positions, what about those guys?

• Reading defenses. Jackson came from a very simple high school offense in Florida, and Louisville kept his decisions simple in order to get him on the field and maximize his talents as a true freshman. Last year Petrino upped the complexity, and there were some struggles along the way – particularly late in the year, when defenses got a read on Jackson and Louisville’s offensive line collapsed.

That led to a lot of offseason work on reads, particularly in the middle of the field (safeties and linebackers). So far, Louisville coaches are beaming about Jackson’s improved ability to stay still, recognize coverages and find secondary receivers.

“I think you can see his presence in the pocket, how calm he is in there,” said Cardinals quarterbacks coach Nick Petrino, Bobby’s son. “I think he’s come a long way in terms of being comfortable in the pocket and not freaking out when he sees a little flash.”

Nick Petrino was especially impressed by two reads Jackson made on a touchdown throw to freshman Dez Fitzpatrick last week at North Carolina. Jackson had an “alert” check pre-snap, recognizing a potential mismatch created by the defensive alignment; then he had to read a dropping linebacker to decide whether to go over the top to Fitzpatrick or check down to an underneath receiver. Jackson went over the top, delivering a strike for six points.

There was also a 75-yard touchdown in which Jackson flitted away from an unblocked corner blitz, set himself and threw a Vick-style wrist-flick downfield to Jaylen Smith.

“That’s just a play you don’t see most people make,” Nick Petrino said.

Lamar Jackson can make a lot of amazing plays. How many he makes Saturday against Clemson – especially with his arm – will further frame the most intense player debate in college football.