Lamar Jackson was almost a first-round afterthought in last year’s NFL Draft, with Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen and Josh Allen all going ahead of the former Louisville star and all projected as more conventional NFL quarterbacks.
As it turns out, Jackson is the last man standing.
Taken by the Ravens with the 32nd and last pick of the first round, Jackson is the only rookie quarterback to make it into this year’s playoffs. And given how well he has played and the unique skill set he brings to the position, it’s anyone’s guess how far he can take the Ravens — this year and into the future.
“Some people think they’re Superman, and he’s kind of one of those, so it’s sort of been that way all season,” Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said of Jackson.
Mornhinweg, a former offensive coordinator with the Jets under Rex Ryan, has done a splendid job maximizing Jackson’s talents, and it has taken some out-of-the-box thinking to put him in the best position to succeed. Since taking over for Joe Flacco, who suffered a hip injury midway through the season, Jackson has a 6-1 record as a starter and is proving to be a major headache for opposing defenses.
He has modest passing numbers — 1,201 yards, six touchdown passes and three interceptions — but his threat as a runner makes him one of the NFL’s most dangerous and unpredictable offensive weapons. Jackson has rushed 147 times for 695 yards and five touchdowns. At that rate over a full season, he’d have 1,588 yards and 11 touchdowns — more than NFL rushing leader Ezekiel Elliott of the Cowboys, who finished with 1,434 yards and six touchdowns.
Jackson, who won the 2016 Heisman Trophy and turns 22 on Monday, was rarely mentioned in the same breath as the four quarterbacks taken ahead of him. That’s because most teams didn’t believe he could easily adapt as an NFL passer after excelling in a college game in which running quarterbacks aren’t often projected to become reliable pocket passers.
But Jackson has managed to rewrite the rules and will put his skills to the test in his first postseason game Sunday as the Ravens host the Chargers in the AFC wild-card round.
“I’ll tell you, experience matters [in the playoffs]. There’s no substitute for experience,” Mornhinweg said. “Now sometimes it’s the quality of experience as well. So [Jackson] has had some pretty good experiences going. Man alive, look at all the things he’s done — a very mature young man for that age in many, many ways. And he’s a very confident guy. He’s taken every game in stride and he’s very well-prepared.”
Jackson doesn’t seem ruffled by the increased intensity of a playoff environment. On Wednesday, his first full day of practice for his first playoff game, when asked if anything was different, he quipped: “I changed my clothes. That’s about it. Everything else is the same.”
He admits he didn’t think he’d be in this position, not after being drafted by a team that started the season with Flacco — even though the former Super Bowl MVP’s recent struggles prompted the team to take Jackson.
“I can’t lie. No, I didn’t think about it at all,” he said about the possibility early in the season that he’d be starting a playoff game. “I came to learn, whether it’s this year or next year, or I just want to sit out and learn. I just got my ticket in the middle of the season. They threw me out there, and we’ve been having success.”
Combine Jackson’s run/pass abilities and a dominant defense that is among the best in the NFL, and the Ravens go into the playoffs as a dangerous opponent. Especially against the Chargers, who were beaten by the Ravens in Los Angeles, 22-10, on Dec. 22. Jackson threw for 204 yards and a touchdown and ran 13 times for 39 yards in that game.
He’s now about to become the youngest quarterback in NFL history to start a playoff game.
No big deal.
“I’m here to play football,” Jackson said. “I was 21 all year, so this is another game for me.”