Improved Lamar Jackson a Huge Challenge for Pats’ D – NECN

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Curran’s Week 3 preview: Lamar Jackson poses huge challenge for Pats defense originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

FOXBORO – Did the Patriots err in not drafting Lamar Jackson in 2018? Would they be better than they are right now both overall and at that position?

In a vacuum? Yes to both. Jackson’s a better player than Mac Jones right now. He was a better player in his second season when he was the league MVP than Jones will be in his second season. Jackson would have been better in 2020 than Cam Newton was.

Here’s how Lamar Jackson has fared vs. Patriots in his Ravens career

And when you look at the players the Patriots selected in 2018 while Jackson was still on the board – Isaiah Wynn and Sony Michel – it’s impossible to argue that the two of them combined come close to being the impact player Jackson is. Beyond that, when you consider non-contributors the Patriots blew picks on in the first and second rounds – N’Keal Harry, JoeJuan Williams, Duke Dawson – how bad would a dice-roll on a supremely talented quarterback have been? Especially when Bill Belichick was verrrrrry dubious that Tom Brady would remain brilliant.

Outside the vacuum? Where context is included? It’s a lot less cut-and-dried. Jackson was going to be a project. He wasn’t going to contribute meaningfully right away and the Patriots had a finite amount of time to cash in on The Brady Window. A first-round pick on a player who’d be watching? Eh.

Meanwhile, the Patriots – running the most evolved system in NFL history with Josh McDaniels and Brady at the head – would have to figure a way to shoehorn in plays to take advantage of Jackson’s otherworldly running skills while holding out hope he’d develop as a passer.

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Finally, Brady’s edgier than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. You wanna piss him off by taking on a non-guaranteed project when Brady just finished climbing the walls about Jimmy G? Coming off a Super Bowl loss? After benching a starting cornerback in the last game for no specific reason and then allowing 41 points?

So it’s not hard to figure out why the Patriots passed on Lamar. And it’s not unreasonable to think his arc in New England may have been a whole lot different than it’s been in Baltimore.

Really, Jackson landed in a place that WANTED to pivot from its pocket quarterback Joe Flacco and completely sold out in maximizing Jackson’s primary skill – running – while developing the more conventional one – throwing – that will ultimately keep him in the league after his legs start to fade. The Ravens were not an annual AFCCG participant which the Patriots were at that point. They were in position to reboot.

Jackson fit hand-in-glove in Baltimore. Just as Mac Jones ultimately fits hand-in-glove here in New England.

The Lamar-Mac Dichotomy

USA TODAY Sports

But there is a fascinating dichotomy between Jackson and Jones, the one the Patriots passed on and the one they eventually got.

Mac Jones is the ultimate “high floor” player. Because of his smarts, accuracy and better-than-OK physical tools, he will never be a walking disaster. Generally speaking, Jones won’t be the reason you lose football games. But he isn’t going to be a one-man gang either.

Lamar Jackson is the ultimate “high ceiling” player. Because of his absurd speed and elusiveness, he was always going to be a dynamic threat to create. He also had plenty of arm strength. If he added the accuracy and patience? No limit. He would win you games. Singlehandedly at times.

And that’s what’s happened with Jackson who is 38-13 as a starter since taking over in Week 10 of 2018.

Jackson’s speedy rise

“The hard thing with him is … he got better,” Patriots safety and captain Devin McCourty said Wednesday.

McCourty isn’t alleging Jackson was not good when the Patriots saw him for the first time in 2019 in what would ultimately be his MVP year. McCourty’s pointing out that this Jackson compared to that one is almost incomparable.

“You’re watching him sit in the pocket a lot more,” said McCourty. “Patient. But the hardest thing is him reading the defense (now). When you’re in zone you can see he sees that. He stays in the pocket. He knows that, within that zone, his guy’s gonna uncover. He’s gonna have time. When you’re in man, he still wants to keep his eyes downfield. But if he sees that lane open up and he sees all the routes going another direction, he knows it’s trouble for you and you’ll see him take off and you’ll see big plays happen.”

Jackson’s ascent has been fascinating because he truly did have a long way to go. He made his first start in Week 10 of his rookie year.

He completed more than 60 percent of his passes just twice, some confirmation that there was tuning to do. But in each of his starts, he ran it more than 10 times. He had more than 65 rushing yards in all but one.

In the three seasons since, the running’s remained. He’s been over 80 yards on the ground a ridiculous 21 times in the 51 starts. He’s already sixth on the all-time quarterback rushing list and averages 65 yards per game. Meanwhile, the arm’s caught up. He has 90 touchdown passes and 32 picks, a 64.1 completion percentage and he’s never been under 7 yards per attempt.

There have been clunkers in there. Jackson is 1-3 in four playoff games and he’s thrown three touchdowns and five picks in the postseason. That will be his next dragon to slay.

But those 2018 pre-draft questions about Jackson as a pocket passer? Have they been answered?

“Without a doubt,” said Belichick. “He that type of player, an MVP-type of candidate. I think he’s more than answered them. But, we’ll see what his contract is, that will answer them.”

His contract, of course, is up at the end of this season. And his next one will be gargantuan.

Especially if he keeps producing as he has in the first two games – 136 rushing yards, six touchdown passes, one rushing touchdown, 38-for-59 for 538 yards which works out to 9.0 YPA.

McCourty outlined the challenge in more detail.

“Each year when we talk about some of these quarterbacks that were young, whether it’s him or Josh Allen, you’re seeing the mental part of the game just come so much easier for them,” he said. “They’ve been in the same offenses doing it over and over again, year in and year out. It’s dangerous. You saw in the Miami game where they were aggressive. Everybody was between the line of scrimmage and six yards. If Rashad Bateman catches a ball, if Lamar has a quarterback run and you don’t have anybody at the third level of the defense … goodnight. You’re not catching some of those guys. They have guys that can go.

“We have to bottle the ball up. Whether it’s in the front, second level or third level and not give up the 75 or 80-yard play because that will kill you against this team.  We’ll have a quarterback guy for Lamar Jackson. Do you have him though? That’s the thing. And that’s why we have discipline where (even) if a guy does have him, we have other guys running to the ball.

“We’ve watched it his whole career. There’s a guy that has him in the scheme. You do it in practice on Wednesday but actually getting that tackle, getting him on the ground Sunday is different.”

McCourty had one more “for instance” on Jackson.

“Consider Tom Brady or Peyton Manning,” he said. “If you go two-high man – two high safeties and everyone else in man – I’ve watched those guys scramble for 10-plus yards on a big third down.

“Now imagine you get really good athletes who sees man-to-man coverage and know, ‘Alright, there’s no one accounting for me. If I go, the first guy who’ll get close to me is 20 yards downfield. Or I can stand here and maybe get a sack or maybe someone opens up or I’ll just take the free 20 yards.’

“When you’re a younger quarterback and you’re athletic, you might take one look and just do that,” McCourty explained. “But now you’re watching Lamar Jackson read the defense, see it, look at his first read (think), ‘Ahhh, I don’t really like it but I see this is wide open, I’m just gonna go.’ ”

Why Mac’s the same but different

USA TODAY Sports

Which brings us back to Mac. Who would clearly fit more readily in the Manning-Brady category of athlete.

Jackson was the 32nd pick in 2018 because – despite his athleticism and running skill – evaluators were leery of how much he’d improve as a thrower and reader of defenses.

Jones was the last quarterback taken in the first round in 2021, 15th overall, because – despite his accuracy and high-level aptitude – his arm strength and overall athleticism paled in comparison to the four quarterbacks who went before him.

And Jones was better than all of them as a rookie. Just as Jackson has been better than Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen, all taken ahead of him. The only quarterback from the 2018 draft Jackson isn’t demonstrably better than is Josh Allen, taken seventh overall by the Bills out of Wyoming. He too was a projection.

Will Jones keep improving? Of course. Does he have the same room for improvement that Jackson did? Probably not. He’s never going to run a 4.3 so he can’t add the threat to run to his toolbox. Jackson had the capacity to become more accurate and a more sophisticated reader of defenses as McCourty alluded to. Those are things that can be learned. You can’t teach speed, as they say. Jones’ production will wax and wane based on who’s around him. Who’s coordinating the offense, calling the plays and shepherding him through rough patches? Who are his receivers? How good is his offensive line?

If he doesn’t have those things, he can’t take off and run like Jackson does. But Jones’ commitment to solving the puzzle of offensive football seems extreme. Like Brady. Like Manning. His improvements will be more subtle than Jackson’s have been.

Did the Patriots miss two times on drafting Jackson? Would they do it differently if they knew how good he’d become? Maybe. But cue Jim Calhoun on not signing Ryan Gomes. It was what it was and now it is what it is. The Patriots have Jones through at least 2025. A lot can happen between now and the end of his deal. Different as both players are, a team can win big with either one. Presumably.

Prediction

Ravens 20, Patriots 16

Improved Lamar Jackson a Huge Challenge for Pats’ D – NECN

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