Greg Cosell's draft analysis: Lamar Jackson can execute an NFL passing game

When I watch Lamar Jackson on film I think about the Houston Texans last season. You look at what Bill O’Brien did with Deshaun Watson and I wonder, why couldn’t Jackson execute that offensive system effectively?

In studying Jackson’s tape from 2016 and 2017, you see a quarterback who can operate effectively within framework of a structured passing game. Louisville’s offense had NFL passing game concepts, and that’s a plus for Jackson. There’s also a spectacular dimension to Jackson’s game that shows up with both designed runs and second-reaction throws and runs.

Jackson will be polarizing in draft rooms. Teams will have to weigh Jackson’s second-reaction playmaking, which is outstanding, and his pocket efficiency, an area in which work is needed. Though, Jackson has shown the ability to operate in an NFL-style offense. The big question will become: What can and can’t be coached with Jackson, and what’s simply in his playing DNA when it comes to pocket stability?

Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson won the 2016 Heisman Trophy. (AP)
Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson won the 2016 Heisman Trophy. (AP)

There’s clearly an elite playmaking dimension with Jackson. Let’s take a long look at one of the most intriguing players in this draft class:

Lamar Jackson’s strengths

Let’s get the obvious out their first: Jackson has outstanding ability as a runner. His NFL team can design a run game around Jackson’s skills, and he’ll make plays running the ball through second-reaction improvisation. Jackson will give his team an explosive quarterback run game with multiple dimensions and backfield actions. That type of offense can be very hard to defend, as we’ve seen with Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers.

Here’s an example of a designed run off a read option that Jackson broke for a 61-yard touchdown in the 2015 Music City Bowl. This is why Jackson’s NFL team will likely feature him on designed runs. Louisville featured many different designed runs, such as zone read and quarterback power, counter, draw or sweep, with some pistol runs as well.

Here’s an example of what Jackson can do when he improvises. While an NFL team doesn’t want to make improvisation the foundation of its offense, Jackson will make plays like this when things break down.

You won’t find much debate about Jackson’s ability to make things happen with his legs. It’s part of what made him a very productive player at Louisville. The debate is about Jackson’s ability to operate from the pocket. Though those questions are fair (and we’ll discuss them in a moment), Jackson has some good pocket skills. Part of that is the college experience he had.

Louisville ran an offense with a lot of NFL concepts: mesh routes, sit routes, wheel routes and flat routes. You’d see two-man route concepts to the boundary, or short side of the field (like slant/flat combinations), and three-man route concepts to the field, or wide side. You’d see dagger and high-low concepts with other options built in, like posts, outs and flat routes. You see all of those things in NFL offenses. You’ll hear a lot about the work Jackson needs as he enters the NFL, and some of that will be fair, but what must also be mentioned is that Jackson ran an offense with a lot of passing-game concepts you see on Sundays — and he was highly productive doing so.

It’s important for an NFL quarterback to show timing and anticipation, and you saw that at times from Jackson. When the throw was defined within the initial timing of the drop, Jackson looked very comfortable as a passer. Here’s a good example, a 74-yard touchdown pass in 2016 against N.C. State, in which he sets up in the pocket and made a nice downfield throw within the timing of the play (it comes at 0:18 on the video below):

(YouTube.com/ACCDigitalNetwork screen shot)
(YouTube.com/ACCDigitalNetwork screen shot)
(YouTube.com/ACCDigitalNetwork screen shot)
(YouTube.com/ACCDigitalNetwork screen shot)
(YouTube.com/ACCDigitalNetwork screen shot)
(YouTube.com/ACCDigitalNetwork screen shot)

On this 30-yard touchdown against Marshall, Jackson makes a good throw from the pocket. He shows good pace and touch here, which is necessary in the NFL. He makes the right read, throws it on time and with accuracy for the score (0:37 on the video below):

(YouTube.com/ACCDigitalNetwork screen shot)
(YouTube.com/ACCDigitalNetwork screen shot)
(YouTube.com/ACCDigitalNetwork screen shot)
(YouTube.com/ACCDigitalNetwork screen shot)
(YouTube.com/ACCDigitalNetwork screen shot)
(YouTube.com/ACCDigitalNetwork screen shot)

While Jackson’s ability in the pocket has been debated, he isn’t entirely raw. He had a good feel for the pass-game concepts in Louisville’s offense, including progression reading. He flashed ability to move in the pocket and then reset with his eyes staying focused downfield. He is very good at making tight-window throws between the hashes (he’s more advanced at that than throwing outside the numbers, which is where some accuracy issues show up) against zone coverage, throwing into voids in the coverage and leading his receivers.

There are questions about Jackson’s ability from the pocket, but he has some pluses in that area.

Lamar Jackson’s weaknesses

Physically, there are a few questions about Jackson as a thrower. He’s a short-arm thrower whose delivery is not smooth or natural. He often lacks a firm base. That limits what at times is a lively arm.

There are concerns about accuracy. He has a lack of consistent ball placement, especially outside the numbers. Some of that could be fixed with improved mechanics — he had a tendency to throw with all arm at times and not get his core involved with weight transfer. There are other issues with footwork on his drops, and he can keep his feet too close together in the pocket, but these are things that NFL teams will try to improve with coaching.

What needs to be looked at very carefully is his reaction to pressure and collapsing pockets. That’s an issue that consistently came up in his 2016 and 2017 tape, and it’s concerning. In particular, against Clemson and N.C. State last season he played fast when he got pressured. He would then perceive pressure and move when he did not need to, and that breaks down the timing of a passing game. He would have a tendency to break down too quickly in the pocket and play to his legs when he sensed pressure, and when you see that it leads to the questions about whether Jackson can adjust his game to get rid of that tendency.

Here’s an example against Clemson last season. On a third-down play, Jackson breaks down almost immediately even though there’s no pressure. He tried to reset but the timing of the play was thrown off and he ran. He was stopped short of the first down:

(YouTube.com/TigerTV screen shot)
(YouTube.com/TigerTV screen shot)
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Here’s another play later in the game in which Jackson senses the rush before he even hit the final step of his drop-back, and he immediately looked to pull the ball down and run.

(YouTube.com/TigerTV screen shot)
(YouTube.com/TigerTV screen shot)
(YouTube.com/TigerTV screen shot)
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(YouTube.com/TigerTV screen shot)
(YouTube.com/TigerTV screen shot)

There were snaps in which Jackson had too active a helmet, when he saw everything and saw nothing at the same time. NFL quarterbacks have to oftentimes ignore the rush, stay in the pocket with a calm helmet and deliver the pass within the structure of the play. Jackson has shown he can do that. His NFL team will have to see if he can eliminate the plays in which he is too sensitive to pressure. There are more bodies around the quarterback in the NFL, and that tends to lead to more premature and random movement.

Though Jackson needs refinement, that’s not unusual for a young quarterback.

Transition to NFL

In 2016, Jackson won a Heisman Trophy. But in 2017 you regularly saw a quarterback who can operate effectively within framework of a structured passing game. Jackson executed many NFL concepts in Louisville’s offense and can do the same in the NFL. And there’s no question what he can bring to a team’s run game.

There were also a few games over the past couple years in which Jackson was overly frenetic in the pocket due to pressure and broke down too quickly. That type of performance does not transition well to the NFL. Then the evaluation of Jackson as an NFL quarterback will be a function of one’s belief in the needed balance between consistent pocket play — and how and if that can be taught and refined — and the playmaking dimension Jackson brings.

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NFL analyst and NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell watches as much NFL game film as anyone. Before the NFL draft, Cosell will join Yahoo Sports to share his observations on some of the top prospects.

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