Friday, February 23, 2018

Should the Vikings closely evaluate Louisville QB Lamar Jackson?

Photo: Zimbio

The Vikings are about to make a very important decision at quarterback, but could part of the solution come through the draft? Daniel House explores why Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson deserves an evaluation. 

Updated: February 23, 2018, 7:15 p.m.

By: Daniel House

The Vikings are about to make a franchise-altering decision. With three quarterbacks all entering free agency, Minnesota must quickly decide their future at the position. Will they franchise tag Case Keenum, re-sign Teddy Bridgewater or bring both of them back? All of those options are possible, but a wildcard may include the hot pursuit of veteran quarterback Kirk Cousins.

The team has until March 6 to determine whether they will apply the franchise or transition tag to Case Keenum. The franchise tag would likely be in the $23-24 million range, while a transition tag could hover near $21 million. The transition tag allows the right of first refusal to match any offer a player receives.

With the Vikings’ recent hiring of Eagles offensive coordinator, John DeFilippo, it is clear his offensive mind will have a major influence on the quarterback decision. In his first conference call, DeFilippo said he values character, decision making and athletic ability when he is evaluating quarterbacks. Case Keenum and Teddy Bridgewater certainly fit the mold of these attributes, but each of them have question marks.

Was Keenum a product of the system in 2017? Is Bridgewater going to be the same player again after suffering a devastating injury?

The Vikings’ front office and coaching staff can make the call on Bridgewater’s health after evaluating him in practice. If he can indeed return to form, the team would likely choose to move forward by signing Bridgewater to a short-term $6-7 million per year deal, filled with heavy incentives. They could then elect to transition tag Keenum and let the two players compete in camp. However, both quarterbacks would likely want a definitive role before agreeing to a deal.

On the other hand, the Vikings could wait until the combine and evaluate the market for quarterback Kirk Cousins. The price tag would likely be too high for Minnesota to keep their main core together for the next 3-4 seasons. Cousins would need to sign a team-friendly deal for it to make sense.

What’s clear is the fact Minnesota has plenty of options at the quarterback position. However, could they take an outside the box approach?

It might be in the team’s best interest to explore retaining either Keenum or Bridgewater, while drafting a quarterback the staff can develop.

With draft experts showing Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson sliding, may the Vikings do extra homework? Well, the timing might be perfect for a team that added an offensive coordinator with experience searching for top-tier quarterbacks. John DeFilippo was involved in the evaluation of Derek Carr and Carson Wentz. This also means he has done plenty of digging on Teddy Bridgewater, too. DeFilippo’s experience, coupled with senior offensive assistant Todd Downing and Kevin Stefanki’s expertise might be a reason the Vikings should consider drafting a quarterback early in 2018. The eyes of all three offensive coaches will certainly be around for one season, adding to the appeal of making a splash this year.

As teams and analysts panic about whether Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson is a legitimate prospect, the Vikings might be a sleeper fit. The young quarterback broke 42 records at Louisville and is the first player in college football history with at least 3,500 passing yards and 1,500 rushing yards in consecutive seasons. He is an electric player with his own draft website teams, analysts and fans can view. Many talk show hosts or analysts have recently questioned Jackson’s accuracy/footwork, completion percentage and “slender frame.” I’ll address these issues through a close analysis of his game.

Footwork an issue?
First of all, the accuracy is certainly something to monitor. Jackson’s footwork has a tendency to cause trouble. His front foot is often poorly positioned or he gets off balance in his release. The clip below is an example of the issue. Watch his front foot and where the ball is delivered as a result.

He can clean up his mechanics with a solid quarterbacks coach. What a coach can’t teach are the traits Jackson possesses. His arm strength and ability to drive the ball up the field stand out. From time to time, Jackson’s footwork can be sloppy, yet he still has the talent drop a deep throw into a tight window. The clip below is an example:

He has the pure, natural passing ability, but can take another step by tightening up his mechanics. Improving Jackson’s footwork is also something which will assist him when he feels pressure. He has the tendency to dance and rely on his athleticism in those situations. Nonetheless, he manages to always keep his eyes down the field and goes through his progressions. The clips below show three examples where Jackson checks all of those boxes.

All of the traits above, are things every quarterback evaluator is looking for. Through watching his tape, it is clear he understands this aspect of the game. He can keep plays alive and knows where his targets will be.

Was his offense too basic?
Louisville ran enough pro-style concepts to justify Jackson transferring well to the professional ranks. They run plenty of switch concepts and hi-low combinations, which tested Jackson’s ability to read coverages effectively. Many teams run a variety of switch concepts at the professional level because they are very hard to defend. It requires excellent communication and limits the total amount of jamming that occurs at the line of scrimmage. People assume he was a run-pas option (RPO) player all the time, but the offense features way more drop-back passing than anyone would anticipate. Louisville also ran plenty of 12 or 13 personnel, actively utilizing their tight ends. To put it simply: Jackson is asked to run through plenty of progressions offensively. It might not be an extremely high volume, but he has done enough of it. No matter what, he throws with tremendous power and when he can tighten his mechanics, a team will be receiving an underrated surprise. The improved footwork will help him become more consistently accurate as well. 

Lamar’s completion percentage is low?
Lamar Jackson has been criticized by many in the industry for his completion percentage. He has improved the statistic in each of his three seasons at Louisville. His completion percentage increased from 55 percent in his freshman year to 59 percent during his final season. These stats also don’t take into account the high volume of drops which occurred. A full look through his tape reveals how this statistic is slightly skewed. He certainly will need to improve his mechanics to eliminate the easy throws he is missing, but the power and arm talent are aspects that improve the confidence of his evaluation.

How might he fit with DeFilippo?
I spent the majority of this piece discussing how Jackson must improve as a passer. This is certainly the most important aspect of his translation at this level, but his running ability is special. Jackson's pure athleticism, vision and open field speed are fantastic. He threw for 27 touchdowns, but managed to add 1,601 rushing yards to go along with a whopping 18 scores. Many of these looks were designed runs or plays where he scrambled to pop off a long run. This is an example of his athletic ability off a designed running play.

Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo and Co. need to evaluate how Jackson would fit within the system. I looked at the past tendencies of DeFilippo in a recent article, but Jackson can fit nicely. With work on his mechanics, the full potential of an electric player can be tapped. The Eagles ran a few run-pass option (RPO) concepts, especially as the playoffs progressed. Many times, they deployed simple play-action looks off what appeared to be downhill zone running plays. Nonetheless, RPOs are an aspect he can incorporate more with a quarterback like Jackson. The idea of using Dalvin Cook’s superior athleticism, along with the outside threats of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen is intriguing. The Vikings would suddenly have a quarterback with athletic upside and arm talent they can groom. There are certainly areas where Jackson is rough around the edges (specifically his mechanics), but this coaching staff can make the most of the intangibles this quarterback possesses. The amount of evaluation experience among DeFilippo, Todd Downing and Kevin Stefanski is certainly an added bonus.

Many teams will panic about the smaller details of Lamar Jackson’s skill-set, and his size, despite the fact he measures in at 6-foot-3, 211 pounds. The one clear takeaway from watching Jackson’s film – he can flourish if he is placed in the right system. With three high-caliber offensive minds in critical roles with Minnesota, this might be the best time to consider drafting a quarterback -- even if it isn't Jackson.

However, many aspects of Jackson’s game feature things you can’t teach. Arm strength/power, athleticism, confidence and character. Perhaps he will slide down the draft board to pick No. 30. The offseason plan will be determined soon, but could the team decide to choose between Keenum and Bridgewater, while drafting a rookie quarterback like Jackson?

With John DeFilippo potentially being in Minnesota for just one season, 2018 may be the year to explore every quarterback option.

The search should start with a close analysis of Lamar Jackson, a playmaker with tremendous upside.