Lamar Jackson can sit back and watch this week’s NFL Combine from afar, knowing the Ravens have fully committed to him as their franchise quarterback.
A year ago, Jackson generated the biggest buzz at the Combine, and his experience was intense. Jackson was determined to prove he was first-round worthy, and that he was strictly a quarterback. He refused to work out at wide receiver, although some critics doubted his ability to play quarterback in the NFL.
Here’s a look back:
ESPN analyst and Hall of Fame NFL general manager Bill Polian made headlines before the 2018 combine, suggesting Jackson was a better prospect at wide receiver. Keep in mind, Jackson never caught a pass or played wide receiver in college at Louisville. Keep in mind Jackson won the Heisman Trophy playing quarterback.
Once he arrived at the combine, Jackson told anyone who asked that he was a quarterback – period. Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated wrote a piece detailing Jackson’s answers to questions in Indianapolis about possibly playing wide receiver. Jackson later revealed that a scout from the Los Angeles Chargers brought up the possibility of working out at wideout.
"He was the first one to come to me about it,” Jackson told “The Lounge” podcast. “I'm like, 'What?' He caught me off guard with it. I even made a face at first like, 'What?' I thought he was trying to be funny, but he kept going with it. So it just became blown out of proportion."
Throughout the Combine, national analysts continued to debate how Jackson’s game would translate to the NFL. ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith compared Jackson’s dual threat ability to Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers, who has been the league’s most valuable player and who has led the Panthers to the Super Bowl.
“If you’re a dual threat, there are systems and there are situations where you can produce in the National Football League which Cam Newton has proven,” Smith said. “Even the year they went 15-1 and went to the Super Bowl, Cam Newton had completed 59 percent of his passes that season. I’m asking this question. Can Lamar Jackson do that on the NFL level?
“If Bill Polian wants to say that he could play wide receiver, that he’s creating once the football is in his hands, if he’s a game-changer and a playmaker with his feet, why can’t he do that from the quarterback position, particularly when he’s shown the ability to at least make some of those throws? That’s my position, and that’s why I disagree with Bill Polian.”
Oakland Raiders General Manager Mike Mayock was still an analyst for NFL Network last year, and he opined on the combine from start to finish. From Day 1, Mayock was all over Jackson.
“I’m fascinated by Lamar Jackson,” Mayock said before Jackson’s throwing session. “I think part of the league is discounting him and saying he’s just a wide receiver - punt returner. I think part of the league is looking at him and saying, ‘Wait a minute, this kid’s a pretty interesting quarterback.’
“I think the way the NFL has gone recently is towards the college style of quarterback. He’s the most electrifying athlete in this draft. I think he’s a better athlete and a better thrower of the football than Michael Vick when Michael Vick came out. I look at this kid and say, ‘A, you’re a quarterback. B, I want to see you rip it this week. It’s going to be interesting at night, because I think some teams are very interested to see how this kid presents himself. Is he the face of a franchise?”
Mayock doubled-down on his support of Jackson later in March at Louisville’s Pro Day. Jackson refused to run the 40-yard dash as well during his Pro Day, and took snaps from under center to show he was ready to do that in the NFL.
“I think he’s trying to make a point,” Mayock said. “If you draft me, I’m a quarterback only. I’m not a punt returner, I’m not a slot receiver, I’m not a running back. If you draft me, I’m a quarterback. I’m on the record. I’m all in on this kid as far as the most spectacular athlete in this draft.
“If you draft him, you’ve got to commit to his style of play, just like the Texans did with DeShaun Watson. You’ve got to cut the field in half, you got to run the football. Give him a chance to win games with his legs while you’re developing his arm. Every defensive coach I’ve talked to in the last six weeks has said the same thing to me: ‘I don’t want that guy in my division.’ And from my perspective, that’s all you really need to know about Lamar Jackson.”
When Jackson took the field at the combine, he had a solid throwing session under intense scrutiny. Ravens Quarterbacks Coach James Urban was among those on the field watching Jackson throw. According to Ravens Director of College Scouting Joe Hortiz, it wasn’t just Jackson’s athletic ability that was impressive. It was his leadership.
“I thought what you saw from him was confidence,” Hortiz told “The Lounge” podcast this week. “The scouts that are running the groups talk about how this guy is the alpha. Lamar was the leader. The guys gravitated toward Lamar.”
Obviously, the Ravens left the combine impressed with Jackson, who is now the centerpiece of their offense. They proved how much they coveted Jackson when they traded up to take him with the final pick in the first round. But in hindsight, Hortiz does not criticize people who envisioned Jackson excelling at a different position.
“He’s a great athlete,” Hortiz said. “His fit isn’t for every offense. If you’re evaluating a player, and your offense doesn’t call for the run game, the athletic style of play, how would we best use this guy? Well, he’d be a great dual threat, a great weapon, put him at wideout.
“I understand that, but we felt strongly that he could play quarterback for us. And if we took him, we’d adjust obviously the way we do things offensively to best fit him. That’s what our coaches tried to do last year, and that’s what we’re building off of going forward.”