Throughout NFL history we have seen our fair share of running quarterbacks have success at the pro level. Mike Vick, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, and Deshaun Watson stand out as recent examples of quarterbacks that can both run and pass at a high level, and win football games just like pocket passers.
However, despite their success, we still have to listen to draft pundits and former NFL general managers tell us that 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson doesn’t have what it takes to be a quarterback at the next level. Jackson’s detractors say that he’s inaccurate, unable to handle an NFL offense, and injury prone due to his playing style.
Although Jackson does need to improve his accuracy, and every football player needs to stay healthy to be successful, the notion that Jackson cannot run an NFL offense is both lazy and absurd.
At the NFL Combine, Charles McDonald asked Jackson how playing in Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino’s pro-style system helped him prepare for the NFL.
lamar jackson on why he picked louisville pic.twitter.com/f9v1g4Y1Hf— charles mcdonald (a guy at the airport) (@FourVerts) March 2, 2018
If you listen to the clip closely, you’ll hear that Jackson says that Petrino ran an Erhardt system at Louisville, which happens to be the same offensive system that Tom Brady and the Patriots run every Sunday.
The Erhardt system label speaks to the verbiage that an offense uses to call plays, which in this case focuses on one-word associations to specific route concepts. For example, we often hear Tom Brady yell “Linda” at the line of scrimmage, which tells his receivers which routes to run based on the coverage.
That style of play calling allows the quarterback to change the play on the fly quickly, and it enables the coaching staff to plug in any receiver into any spot of the offense. For example, the call doesn’t change if running back James White is in the slot instead of a wide receiver; it’s still just “Linda.”
For Lamar Jackson, it’s deeper than just how the plays were called at his alma mater when it comes to his fit with the Patriots. At Louisville, Jackson was also asked to make very similar reads and throws to what the Patriots run, and his favorite passing concepts are some of the Patriots’ favorites as well.
Below, I will highlight half a dozen plays from Jackson’s junior season at Louisville where he was successful running things straight out of the Patriots’ playbook.
The first play has been a staple of the Patriots’ offense since tight end Rob Gronkowski became the focal point of the passing attack. The Pats call it smash-seam. The route concept calls for two receivers to run seam routes right down the hash marks to stretch the defense.
On this play, the defense is in a cover-3 look with a single-high safety. All Jackson has to do is see which side of the field the safety is shading towards and throw a dart to beat the coverage, which he does with ease. Here’s the Patriots running a very similar play for a touchdown pass to Chris Hogan in Super Bowl LII:
Earlier on that drive, Lamar Jackson made another NFL-type throw on a vertical route combination.
On this play, Jackson is going to read that the defense is in a cover-2 shell pre-snap with two high safeties on the play. Louisville is then going to run three vertical routes: a combination post-corner concept and a seam route on the opposite side of the field. That’s going to leave the safeties in a lose-lose situation, and Jackson catches them in no man’s land.
Not only does Jackson deliver a perfect ball with pace, but he also picked the right route based on the coverage. With the two-high safeties over the top, the middle of the field is wide open. The Patriots ran a similar play for a touchdown to Rob Gronkowski in their Week 12 win over the Dolphins last season:
Up next is another Patriots staple called high-low crossers. Jackson’s going to read the underneath linebackers that are dropping into zone coverage over the middle. If those linebackers react to the shallow crosser, he’s going to wait for the receiver at the intermediate level to come free.
Jackson is going to move the defense with his eyes by focusing in on the shallow crosser. Then, he’s going to use a subtle pump fake to get the linebackers to react to his eyes and try to jump the route. That’s when he locks onto the throw over the middle and zips a perfect pass to the receiver once he clears the linebacker. That’s a lot of defensive manipulation combined with a good throw for a quarterback that can only run. The Patriots ran a variation of this play multiple times out of bunch formations in the Super Bowl:
Another advantage of the Erhardt-Perkins system is that it allows the offense to spread the defense out to pick on matchups. Lamar Jackson was extremely aggressive throwing the ball downfield against man coverage last season primarily on passes to the outside when the defense had a single-high safety.
The Cardinals attack a matchup here with wide receiver Seth Dawkins getting vertical on a corner route out of the slot. As soon as Dawkins gets over the top, Jackson unloads the pass and drops it perfectly into the bucket for a touchdown. The Pats ran almost the same concept with Rob Gronkowski out of the slot for a huge completion against the Panthers in 2017:
One of Lamar Jackson’s favorite route concepts is a post-snag with the running back releasing into the flat. The inside receiver is going to run a corner route out of the slot, the outside receiver is going to run a snag route over the middle, and the running back is going to be Jackson’s hot read in the flat if the defense blitzes.
Jackson’s first read on this play is going to be to the snag route over the middle with the corner route being his “home run” option. Jackson is going to process the coverage about as fast as possible. He notices that the corner on the boundary is breaking on the corner route, and the running back is widening the linebackers underneath, so he rifles the pass over the middle for a nice gain on first down. The Patriots ran a comparable play for a short completion to James White in their divisional round win over the Titans this past postseason:
Lamar Jackson’s familiarity with the Patriots offense doesn’t guarantee that he would succeed in New England. But it’s an indication that Jackson could thrive in the Patriots offense and deserves to be a part of the discussion as a potential option in this year’s draft.
In many ways, Jackson is the polar opposite of Tom Brady, but Jackson’s understanding of timing and route combinations is far beyond the narrative. As his ability to read coverages.
The concerns about his accuracy, however, are real. Jackson ranked 25th out of 26 draft eligible quarterbacks last season in adjusted completion percentage according to PFF (72.2%), and will have to clean up his mechanics in his lower half to become a more accurate passer.
The Patriots would also have to install packages to take advantage of Jackson’s running abilities, and his NFL team will need to embrace the fact that a considerable part of his value as a player comes from his generational talent as a runner.
But Jackson’s abilities to read a defense are equal to others that are considered fast processors, and his arm talent is far superior to the Kyle Lauletta’s of the world.
On the surface, Jackson doesn’t appear to play the game in a way that would translate to success in the Patriots offense, but he’s been making Patriot-like throws for the last three seasons at Louisville.