There are many unknowns leading up to April’s NFL draft, but one thing should be clear.
Lamar Jackson isn’t a wide receiver. Not even close.
A Heisman Trophy winner who can effortlessly sling a pigskin 50 yards with the flick of the wrist while eluding a pass-rusher should not catch passes for a living.
Jackson should enter the NFL as a quarterback—and retire as one, too.
Yet, some NFL pundits, former NFL general manager Bill Polian chief among them, say the former Louisville quarterback is better suited as a pro wide receiver, even if he didn’t record a catch in college. The topic was one of the biggest stories out of the NFL Scouting Combine when NFL Network reported “multiple teams” requested Jackson test at the position. The 21-year-old said a team didn’t specifically ask him to work out at wide receiver, stating he’s “strictly [a] quarterback.”
“His tape speaks volumes, but staffs can’t see beyond their biases,” one NFC scout told Bleacher Report. “He’s black and athletic. Bias tells you he has to prove to you that he is smart enough. And if he can’t, he’s more valuable somewhere else because he’s athletic. Lamar has to be twice as good, both mentally and physically.”
It’s unfortunately a common development this time of year, when black quarterbacks seem to be held to a different standard than their white counterparts at one of the most important positions on the field.
But the film don’t lie.
Jackson deserves the same opportunity to succeed or fail at the position as every other flawed quarterback in this draft. The question is whether he will receive it.
“I can’t remember a faster guy lining up at the quarterback position other than myself,” Michael Vick, a former Pro Bowl quarterback and No. 1 NFL draft pick, said. “… He just does things that you just don’t see or haven’t seen in a long time.”
Considered by most talent evaluators to be among the top five quarterbacks in a class with Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen and Baker Mayfield, Jackson has the most exciting film for a quarterback prospect since Vick. He became the first college player to record 3,500 passing yards and 1,500 rushing yards in consecutive seasons, proving in one of this decade’s most extraordinary college careers that he is more than just a scrambler.
Gregory Payan/Associated Press/Associated Press
With 69 touchdown passes and 27 interceptions on 1,086 attempts in college, Jackson proved he’s capable of making good decisions and can make every throw needed to succeed in the NFL. The two-time ACC Player of the Year, voted by the conference’s coaches and media, carried the Cardinals with his ability to make a special play at any moment, whether that’s throwing a dime to win a 2016 game against Virginia or gliding around Florida State defenders with his legs.
“If you don’t think he can succeed at quarterback, I think you’re wrong,” Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long said. Long has followed the Jackson stans and critics as they duke it out on his timeline over the last year and tweeted out his two cents during the combine March 2. Of Jackson’s critics as a quarterback, he said: “I think it’s kind of an interesting take because there are so few, and you’re taking a chance on any college quarterback these days. So why him? Why is he different?”
The argument for Jackson at wide receiver starts with his athleticism and slender build, listed at 6’3″ and 200 pounds, then continues with his mediocre throwing accuracy. Jackson completed just 57 percent of his passes during his three seasons with the Cardinals and never surpassed 60 percent in a given year.
“[He’s] short and a little bit slight, and clearly, clearly not the thrower that the other guys are,” Polian, a current ESPN analyst, said on Golic and Wingo in February. “The accuracy isn’t there. So I would say don’t wait to make that change [to receiver].”
Jackson was more accurate than Allen, who is white and completed just 56.2 percent of his passes in 27 games with Wyoming against lesser competition, yet no one is calling for him to pursue another position.
“Stats are for losers, in my opinion. The guy won,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said on a January conference call when asked about Allen’s completion percentage. A month later, when asked why he doesn’t believe Jackson is a first-rounder, Kiper responded, “It’s the accuracy throwing the football.”
Where they do that at?
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Allen, at 6’5″ and 233 pounds, isn’t being asked to move to tight end. Instead, he could be a top-three pick, while Jackson wasn’t selected in Kiper’s latest first-round mock draft.
Former NFL quarterback and current Bleacher Report NFL analyst Chris Simms has Jackson rated as the top signal-caller in the draft, followed by Allen. On The Simms & Lefkoe Podcast, Simms said the conversation behind moving Jackson to wide receiver “is truly the dumbest f–king thing I’ve ever heard. Was it pretty all the time? No. But the decision-making is pretty damn good. It’s very good actually. He plays the position the right way.”
Jackson faces a systemic issue regarding black quarterbacks that dates back to the beginning of the sport’s existence. Marlin Briscoe broke the racial barrier in 1968 when he lined up under center for the Denver Broncos during his rookie season, throwing for 1,589 yards and a team-best 14 touchdowns.
Briscoe was traded the following season to the Buffalo Bills, who converted him to wide receiver.
“It’s something that we hear far too often, or way more frequently, with black quarterbacks,” said Dr. Carl Suddler, who teaches African American history and African American sports history at Florida Atlantic University. Suddler has watched successful black quarterbacks build impressive resumes in college, “yet the expectation is that they don’t have what it takes to play quarterback at the next level.”
A discrepancy still exists in the language used to describe black and white quarterbacks. Just last year, as evaluators debated between Deshaun Watson and Mitchell Trubisky, the Washington Post studied NFL draft profiles and “found substantial racial differences in the language used to describe quarterback prospects—differences that are consistent with established racial stereotypes.”
It notes how white quarterbacks are more likely to be discussed by “intangible internal qualities for which himself is responsible.” However, black quarterbacks are more often viewed by their physical characteristics, “to be judged erratic and unpredictable, and to have his successes and failures ascribed to outside forces.”
“We do it across the spectrum in football,” said Long, who has found it lazy that every white pass-rusher gets compared to him or Washington’s Ryan Kerrigan, who are both white. But, he said, that kind of racial stereotyping is most obvious when it comes to black quarterbacks, who play the most important position on the field.
Jackson didn’t help himself during his interviews with NFL teams, grading poorly with his preparation on the whiteboard, according to multiple sources. Teams have quarterbacks draw up their favorite plays against certain coverages, and they’re looking for prospects to be as thorough as possible to grade their football intelligence.
Jackson wasn’t detailed, allowing skeptics to reinforce their view that he should change positions because of his “football IQ.”
“He has enough pluses that I still like him,” said one NFL quarterbacks coach. “If he was really sharp with that, then he would be a top-10 pick. It was bad, but not the worst I’ve ever seen. Not even the worst at this combine.”
Vick wants to help Jackson navigate the draft process, but aside from a few conversations, he’s had a difficult time contacting him. Jackson has a tiny camp, electing to represent himself instead of hiring an agent. His mother, Felicia Jones, serves as his manager.
“The preparation is everything in the National Football League, from the time prior to the draft to your last game,” Vick said. “That has to be at a premium for him now more than ever. It’s very important, and I’mma get him there. I’m gonna continue to fight to help get him there.”
Regardless of whether he does or doesn’t “get there,” Jackson deserves this opportunity. He played his entire career at quarterback. He was a Heisman winner, then a finalist the following year, playing the position. He is one of the best playmakers in the draft.
Jackson has earned the opportunity to play quarterback in the NFL. Anyone saying different should check the tape.