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How'd We Miss That? Lamar Jackson's 2019 Breakout


Fantasy football analysts say a lot of things, and often those things turn out to be true. But the nature of saying a lot of things is that sometimes those things turn out to be not true, and sometimes a lot of us say the same thing that turns out to be not true.

I'll be working on a series of pieces about the community's biggest misses of the year and why we all missed on those things, because it can be useful to think about exactly why we got some things wrong.

Today, we're talking about Lamar Jackson. Drafted late in 2019 fantasy drafts, Jackson turned out to be the overall QB1 when the fantasy season ended. How'd we all miss on this?

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Lamar Jackson 2019 Review

Let's start with where the fantasy community had Jackson heading into the year.

In terms of ADP, Yahoo had Jackson at QB13. ESPN had him at 15. I remember writing something before the season about how Jackson could finish in the lower half of the top 10 at the position and I felt like even stating that was opening a can of worms. Basically, none of the major fantasy providers had Jackson ranked as a top-10 option coming into the year.

But...why not? Jackson's average ADP on the major sites ranked behind rookie quarterback Kyler Murray. Surely, Jackson was a better fantasy option on draft day than Murray was, right? (Full disclosure: I drafted Murray over Jackson in the one league where I had that choice to make.)

One key reason why we thought what we did -- or at least why I thought what I thought, which was that Jackson was a low-end QB1 -- was that the playoffs last year gave us a map for taking Jackson out of the game. Remember when the Chargers put an extra safety on the field to help spy on Jackson, which limited him to nine carries for 54 yards and forced Jackson to throw more? He struggled as a passer in that game, going 14-for-29 for 94 yards, two late touchdowns, and an interception.

That game skewed a lot of fantasy opinions, because it was a convincing argument that Jackson could be figured out. It took away a lot of the mystery from Jackson's game, and mystery factors into a lot of fantasy rankings: if you haven't seen someone at their worst, you're going to be higher on them.

Jackson's rushing was also a factor in his ranking. We like quarterbacks who run when it comes to fantasy because one point per 10 rushing yards adds up faster than one point per 25 passing yards does, but we also don't like quarterbacks who run too much because we assume two things: first, that the rushing covers up for some other deficiency in their game, and second, that the injury risk increases because they take more hits.

Jackson's been able to succeed because he doesn't neatly fit into either of those assumptions.

For the first part -- the worry that running quarterbacks aren't good passers -- we need only to look at Jackson's numbers this year as a refutation of that. Some running quarterbacks are inaccurate passers. I'll probably never stop beating the drum that Josh Allen's tremendous rushing ability helps to hide his issues with ball placement, for instance. But not all rushing quarterbacks struggle to throw the ball accurately, and while that was a concern for Jackson heading into the 2018 NFL Draft, when teams reportedly wanted to work him out at wide receiver because of those concerns, he's answered those questions.

Last year, Jackson completed 58.2 percent of his passes, with just six touchdown passes in seven regular-season starts, adding plenty of fuel to the "can he pass?" fire. But Jackson was also a rookie who opened the year as a gadget player before Joe Flacco was benched, and to expect him to suddenly be a high-caliber passer right off the bat was expecting too much. The Ravens wanted Jackson to do what he did best at that stage of his career, which was to lead a run-heavy offense and give Baltimore the best chance to win. He did that. It worked until the playoffs.

But this year, the Ravens built an offense that allowed Jackson to make a huge impact as a passer as well, and he showed that he was more than capable of doing that. Jackson threw for 36 touchdowns in the regular season with just six interceptions. He completed 66.1 percent of his passes, which ranked 10th in the league through Week 16.

I think it's fair to say two things can both be true here: Jackson's leap in accuracy wasn't a guarantee heading into the year, which made it fair to rank him where he was ranked, and also that the way the Ravens were built meant that we should have been more receptive to the idea that Jackson would take a step forward as a passer. I thought he'd definitely improve, but I also worried that the Ravens didn't have the right offensive skill players in place to really help him make a leap, but I wasn't accounting for how much they'd rely on their tight ends, even if it should be clear in retrospect that they'd be putting multiple tight ends on the field and giving Jackson those safe throws while also using Marquise Brown as a deep threat.

I mean, that's just such a beautiful and perfect pass from Jackson. The arm strength to get the ball there. The timing and accuracy to drop it right into Brown's hands. The fantasy community knew Jackson was strong enough to make this play, but we underestimated his ability to place this ball so well.

Josh Allen ended up as the overall QB6 this year because, like Jackson, he's got the wheels to make things happen on the ground. But the difference between Allen and Jackson and the big key to why Jackson ended up averaging nine more fantasy points per game than Allen is that Jackson's able to take control of his arm and make pinpoint passes. He showed signs of that last year, but in 2019 we really got to see what kind of talent Jackson is as a passer.

The other thing that likely hurt Jackson's fantasy stock was the history of rushing quarterbacks getting injured. You don't even need to look outside of Baltimore for evidence of this happening, as Jackson's backup, Robert Griffin III, is a prime example of a promising passer whose career was derailed by injury.

But Jackson is a really, really smart runner who seems to always be angling for the sidelines to avoid contact. Rushing always adds the threat of injury because it increases the number of hits a quarterback takes, but Jackson isn't some Cam Newton-esque pounder who runs it up the gut and gets crushed by a linebacker. In the short term, we overthought this. From a dynasty perspective, there are still valid reasons to knock Jackson because of worries about long term durability because of his rushing, but it's obvious now that we cared too much about this issue from a redraft perspective.

Overall, I think we should have collectively ranked Jackson higher coming into this year. Knowing what we already knew about him and his rushing ability plus with the addition of Brown and the continued development of the second-year tight ends Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst, a better preseason projection for Jackson -- even without us knowing how he'd make a leap as a passer -- would have likely been around QB7 or so.

 

What can we learn from this?

For one, maybe we should value high-upside young quarterbacks a little more, and maybe we should actually listen more to the people who cover college football and say a quarterback's going to be good. I don't think Lamar Jackson is going to make me project Daniel Jones to be a top 10 fantasy option next year, but maybe Jackson's breakout makes me more likely to think that...

*looks over who the young fantasy quarterbacks are right now*

Actually, maybe Lamar Jackson doesn't teach me anything about evaluating young quarterbacks. Looking outside this year's QB1 tier, is there really a guy who could make a Jackson-like leap in 2020? Maybe Jackson's success makes me more willing to bet on Baker Mayfield if the Browns build an offense around him like the Ravens built one around Jackson?

There's also the flip side of this, which I'm sure we'll discuss plenty over the offseason so I'll touch on just briefly now: should Jackson's huge year change how we value fantasy quarterbacks during the draft? Will Jackson be a first-round pick? Will he live up to those expectations or will he end up being overdrafted like Patrick Mahomes was this season?

My current gut instinct says that while Jackson might have me thinking differently about how I think about individual quarterbacks, he's not going to make me change where I'm willing to draft quarterbacks. But again, I might need to give that some more thought at some point, so for now I'll leave that subject alone.

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