The heinous display of football ensured the most compelling NFL attraction before Sunday would not come on Thursday night. Instead it will happen Saturday night, with an eye toward the 2018 NFL Draft. It will happen in Louisville, where the amazing Lamar Jackson will throw another log on his draft-stock fire.
Jackson, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and the most electric quarterback on the planet, has become a polarizing figure in NFL circles and among draftniks. His athleticism and arm strength give him tools that make draft evaluators melt. But he has a slight frame, and the dip in his performance at the end of last season made some question his ability to read defenses. Is he a more polished Michael Vick? Or is he Johnny Manziel without the off-field trouble?
The Post’s Barry Svrluga examined Jackson from the most important standpoint, which is how he fits into the college landscape as he chases a consecutive Heismans, a historic endeavor made possible by his six-touchdown performance against North Carolina. It’s a great column with great perspective. From the NFL’s standpoint, the key passage is here:
Midway through the second quarter, Carolina came with a corner blitz from Jackson’s right. Last year, Jackson had the athletic ability to sidestep a single rusher and gain yardage. This year, though, when confronted with an unblocked defender, Jackson not only dodged him with ease, but kept his eyes downfield. The play, on which a normal quarterback would have been dead, turned into a 75-yard touchdown pass.
That kind of play is why UNC Coach Larry Fedora could say, “I think he’s much improved as a passer” from last season. It’s ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. moving Jackson up to 13th on his board. It’s why Jackson is more than an athlete, despite stereotypes baked into how he plays and how he looks.
“He definitely can play” in the NFL, Louisville Coach Bobby Petrino, a former NFL head coach, told Yahoo! Sports before the season. “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.”
Saturday will be a crucial test for Jackson in convincing the NFL he’s a worthy candidate to be a franchise quarterback. Louisville plays defending national champion Clemson, which means he will be chased and defended by a raft of NFL prospects. Defensive linemen Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins could both be top-10 picks. It will be Jackson’s best chance to show the NFL what he can do against NFL-caliber talent.
Then again, Jackson may have already done enough. By next spring, the current debate over Jackson’s NFL prospects will seem silly. If you buy Petrino’s promotion of Jackson’s passing, then he’s a no-brainer top-15 pick with a chance to crack the Josh Rosen-Sam Darnold-Josh Allen collective at the top of the quarterback class. If you think he’s still a raw passer, Jackson should still settle into the first round. Just look back to last year.
Patrick Mahomes played in the “Air Raid” at Texas Tech, one of the offenses least-conducive to preparing a quarterback for the NFL. He was regarded as a package of raw talent who hadn’t proven his accuracy or ability to read defense within a pro-style system. And yet, his overwhelming arm strength and athleticism convinced the Kansas City Chiefs to trade up and draft him 10th. The NFL needs quarterbacks, and its going to pounce on Jackson’s unique package of skills.
Jackson has all of Mahomes’ pure talent and more. He has breathtaking speed and throws lasers with a flick of his wrist. He’s the closest thing to Vick the sport has seen since Vick. The NFL decided Vick was worthy of being selected first overall. Jackson may not reach those heights, but if he comes close, it will start this weekend, in a game that can’t possibly be as bad as Thursday night’s.
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