Lamar Jackson's speed is blinding some to his promise as NFL draft prospect

Lamar Jackson’s high school coach is retired now, having coached for 42 years. He has seen it all, including when Tommie Frazier ran wild in Bradenton, Florida, back in the early 1990s. He remembers the reaction to Jackson when he arrived at Boynton Beach High School in 2012, and he remembers it wasn’t always positive or fair.

“He got so much publicity,” Rick Swain says. “It’s a natural thing to resent. They resented him.”

“They” would be teammates and teachers. Not a majority; just a few. But enough so that Swain noticed.

“I think everybody kinda wants to be him,” he said. “It’s a natural thing, when you have the accolades and the talent. He was pretty damn crazy amazing in high school.”

Lamar Jackson is one of the most debated players in this NFL draft class. (AP)
Lamar Jackson is one of the most debated players in this NFL draft class. (AP)

Swain describes a weird reaction to Jackson, a reluctance to believe what you see. There’s an effortless style to his game that is deceiving. Jackson came out for varsity football as a sophomore transfer and Swain didn’t have anything option-related in the offense except for maybe one play.

“We’d gone over stuff but never really run it,” he says. “When I saw him stick his foot in the ground, I went to my assistant and said, ‘Me and you are meeting right after practice.’ ”

The assistant did a double-take. Didn’t Swain swear by his tried-and-true Wing-T offense? He’s going to reboot it for this player?

“I love it,” he said, “but when you have something like this … ”

Swain went to pistol formation and four-wideout sets. He now had his own Tommie Frazier – except this kid could throw it 70 yards. A school that never sent a player to Division I when Swain arrived was about to export a player to Louisville to win the Heisman Trophy. And that wasn’t all; Swain says 21 of Jackson’s prep teammates went on to play some level of college football.

“Having Lamar exposed a lot of other players,” Swain says. “I don’t think they realized it [at the time].”

Now Swain is wondering if the NFL realizes what it has in Jackson. Once again there seems to be an uncertain reaction to him. While most of the quarterbacks coming out of college this year are projected optimistically, almost irrationally, Jackson hasn’t gotten that response. There was debate that he should play another position.

“If he doesn’t play quarterback, it’s the biggest travesty that’s ever going to happen in the NFL,” Swain says. “I’ve never seen anybody with his determination, competitive nature. You’ll never see how competitive he is.”

Jackson has a rifle arm. He has terrific speed. He has never churned up controversy. Why is the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner, Baker Mayfield, rated higher in all the mock drafts than the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner?

“Lamar Jackson wasn’t planting a flag or grabbing his crotch,” says Lamar Thomas, who recruited Jackson to Louisville. “People are wondering, ‘If some team gives [Jackson] a chance at quarterback.’ We’re not saying that about any other quarterback in the draft.”

And why hasn’t much been made of Jackson’s 2017 numbers, which are basically identical to those that won him the Heisman the year before? Sam Darnold’s stats fell off more than Jackson’s did. He’s projected No. 1 by many.

To be sure, Jackson is imperfect. He seemed frustrated and confused at times in last season’s loss to Clemson. He has had accuracy issues. He’s raw. But he just turned 21 in January. Ryan Tannehill struggled to win the starting quarterback job through a large part of his college career, played many games at receiver, and he went eighth overall. If the experts could see a long NFL career in Tannehill’s future, why can’t they project the same for Jackson?

The easy answer is race. There might be something to that about Jackson, who is black. Teddy Bridgewater went lower than he should have, and so did Deshaun Watson. “That’s the elephant in the room,” Thomas says. “It boils down to those other guys aren’t being questioned the same way.”

There’s probably another level of explanation that’s more specific to Jackson. People may be blinded by Jackson’s speed, and unable to see him as a pure passer. He may be too fast for his own good.

When Louisville was recruiting him, Thomas asked Swain to alter Jackson’s game tape to put the passing highlights early and the running highlights last.

Accuracy is a source of contention in Lamar Jackson's game. (Getty Images)
Accuracy is a source of contention in Lamar Jackson’s game. (Getty Images)

“You can’t have the running,” Thomas said. “[Petrino’s] gonna turn it off.” Sure enough, Petrino loved the pure passer he saw on film. Thomas was right. But it shows again how so many see the speed first and the arm second.

“They can’t believe a quarterback can be that athletic,” Swain says.

Petrino is not a spread guy. He’s a pro-style guy. And Jackson won a Heisman there, convincing doubters – at least for a time.

“Kids love him, they love him,” Thomas says. “It’s kind of deflating.”

You can’t do much better than a quarterback who can launch rockets and run as fast as a defensive back. It’s an RPO world now, right? Jackson is a run-pass option. A quarterback who leaves the pocket often is necessarily more vulnerable to injury, but Carson Wentz left the pocket last season, tore his ACL, and nobody thinks picking him second was an error.

“I know he’s going to make it and everybody is going to wish they had selected him,” Swain says of Jackson. “They will say, ‘Wow, this guy is unbelievable.’ ”

He has been unbelievable his entire career, both in a hyperbolic sense and a literal one: Jackson can be hard to believe. One NFL team will believe enough to draft him, and if history holds to form, the idea of Lamar Jackson playing anything but quarterback will soon seem way out-of-date.

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