2018 NFL Draft preseason evaluations: Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville

ORLANDO, FL - DECEMBER 31: Lamar Jackson #8 of the Louisville Cardinals warms up prior to the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl against the LSU Tigers at Camping World Stadium on December 31, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
ORLANDO, FL - DECEMBER 31: Lamar Jackson #8 of the Louisville Cardinals warms up prior to the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl against the LSU Tigers at Camping World Stadium on December 31, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) /

2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson is the most exciting player in college football, but he should also be a first-round lock for the 2018 NFL Draft.

Watching film of Lamar Jackson is an absolute treat, because the Louisville Cardinals quarterback is truly a magician with the ball in his hands. He scores some of the prettiest long touchdown runs you’ll ever see with his electric speed, sharp cuts and deceptive strength. It’s the last quality that also goes underrated when assessing Jackson as a quarterback, because his arm talent is pretty much on the level of Josh Allen’s.

Must Read: Sam Darnold Preseason Scouting Report

Jackson is at his best as a runner, and his rushing ability allows him to avoid making poor decisions with the football. Quarterbacks with less mobility don’t have the luxury of taking off for big gains or making “Houdini” plays, so they will force passes. Although Jackson will sometimes attempt ill-advised passes (as every young quarterback does), it’s telling that he threw just nine interceptions last season.

Since Jackson is such a special talent as a rusher, I get the sense that some analysts have severely disrespected his work as a passer. His deep passing ability is among the best in the class, and he is unquestionably the superior deep ball passer to the likes of Mason Rudolph and Josh Rosen. Jackson excels at reading coverages, as he rarely makes bad passes that are sucked up by safeties or linebackers. When he misses, it’s usually a pass down the field into double-coverage.

I enjoy watching as Jackson reads through his progressions before making a decision on where to go with the football, or whether to even throw the ball at all. He’ll pump fake and pull it back for a long run if he sees the linebackers have moved out of position. Mobile quarterbacks tend to be superior at reading defenses, because they must also recognize running lanes. Jackson is undoubtedly a master at this, and you can get an appreciation for this when watching him make decisions on zone read option plays.

The biggest criticisms of Jackson are criticisms that several of the other first-round hopefuls in this draft class share. He completed just 56.2 precent of his passes, and while he seems more accurate on film that this number indicates, he can leave throws on the table or misplace passes badly. An example came on his interception in the Florida State game to Tarvarus McFadden on a “fade” route that was completely misjudged by the signal-caller.

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An important caveat related to Jackson’s low completion percentage is that mobile quarterbacks tend to have low interception rates and low completion percentages. They throw fewer interceptions, because they don’t have to force as many throws. They can simply elect to run the ball. They are less accurate, however, because they tend to hold onto the ball longer. This means that most of the passes they attempt are further down the field, or, less importantly, the defenses have figured out how to cover all of the options so the passer must throw the ball away.

With 9.1 adjusted yards per pass attempt, Jackson was the second-most efficient passer in the ACC, which pairs nicely with his conference-leading 21 rushing touchdowns (an almost unheard of number at the quarterback position).

What aids Jackson in being an efficient passer, beyond the deep passes, is his ability to lead his receivers effectively. Few quarterbacks in college football are as good as Jackson at helping his pass-catchers generate yards after the catch. While Jackson benefits greatly from the talent around him, he knows how to place the ball on short passes to wide-open receivers so that the are led into open spaces. Compare this to Allen, who consistently throws the ball behind his receivers on simple screen passes.

Jackson is the type of special athlete who wholeheartedly deserves to be in the first-round discussion. He doesn’t take unnecessary risks with the football, he is more than capable of reading defenses, he has sensational arm strength (again, do not overlook this), he has the ability to make difficult passes, and his rushing ability makes him a once-in-a-generation type of talent.

Next: Josh Rosen Preseason Scouting Report

As far as I’m concerned, Sam Darnold is the only quarterback in this class who is more complete than Jackson, and I am willing to say that Jackson should give Darnold a run for his money as the top pick in this class. Although Jackson isn’t as accurate and is not as effective than the USC star on short and intermediate throws, his mobility and arm talent are superior. It will be interesting to see how Jackson’s follow-up campaign to his Heisman-winning season goes, because it is difficult to rank three quarterbacks above him in this draft class.