Louisville QB Lamar Jackson is a dynamic, tantalizing prospect who has serious question marks. Can he be the next Bengals franchise quarterback?
The Cincinnati Bengals met with Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson yesterday, which ignited an interesting debate surrounding the Bengals quarterback situation. Do the Bengals need to replace Dalton, and is this the year to replace him? In all likelihood, the Bengals were just doing their due diligence on potential first round picks. The Bengals front office is known for being particularly thorough in their scouting.
However, the Bengals must also answer these questions. This draft class will be especially telling since there are five or six first round QB prospects. Though many will go before the Bengals selection at 21, Lamar Jackson (and possibly Mason Rudolph) may be available. If this is the case, the Bengals will have a fascinating dilemma.
The Case For Lamar Jackson
The statistics surrounding longstanding unsuccessful tandems of QBs and head coaches are dismal. No coach-QB pair that hasn’t won a Super Bowl in their first five years together has ever won a Super Bowl in the following years. Well, quarterback Andy Dalton and head coach Marvin Lewis have been together for seven years, and they have yet to win a playoff game. While the regular season success has come in spades for Dalton and Lewis – five playoff appearances with two division titles in seven seasons – the playoff wins just haven’t followed. The odds are not good that they’ll all the sudden come now.
Moreover, Dalton has not returned to form the last couple years. In 2015, Dalton was a borderline MVP candidate before breaking his thumb. Even before that season, Dalton cobbled together several very solid statistical campaigns. However, in the last two seasons, something has not been right with Dalton’s performance. In 2016, Dalton eclipsed the 4,000-yard mark but had several games in which he did not pass the eye test at all. Last season, he only threw for about 3,400 yards, a dismal number in the modern NFL. Dalton is still a solid NFL QB – likely around average – but does not particularly move the needle.
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The same cannot be said for Lamar Jackson. Jackson proved to be one of the most dynamic players in all of college football the last two years, capturing the Heisman Trophy his sophomore year. Nearly every game produced a highlight-reel play of some sort, usually a breakaway scramble. That’s what stands out about Jackson immediately when you watch him: his running. Jackson has the rare athleticism to outrun every defensive lineman and linebacker in pursuit and elude secondary players once he breaks away. He’s nearly impossible to contain.
Jackson may be the best runner at the position to enter the draft since Michael Vick, but that shouldn’t distract from his passing. Though his accuracy and deep passing are not elite, Jackson is actually a very good passer. His mechanics are sound and he gets a lot of snap on the ball to make short and intermediate throws with good velocity. Jackson is also an excellent decision-maker. His TD-INT ratios the last two years have been greater than 3:1, even excluding his rushing TDs. Moreover, he can throw on the run, which is borderline lethal considering his rushing talents.
All in all, Jackson is a potentially special prospect who I think many NFL teams and analysts are sleeping on. I have Jackson ranked as my number 2 QB prospect, behind only Josh Rosen. A select few, like Football Gameplan’s Emory Hunt, believe Jackson is the best QB in this draft. Should he fall all the way to 21, it would be exceedingly difficult to pass on his ungodly talent and groom him as the next franchise QB.
The Case Against Lamar Jackson
Andy Dalton has never been a bad NFL QB. To characterize him as one would be outright wrong. There are many NFL teams that would kill to have had Dalton’s numbers and leadership over the past seven years. While Dalton has not won a playoff game, some of that is due to pure bad luck. Injuries have plagued this Bengals team at unfortunate times, most notably a red-hot Dalton in 2015. Fully healthy, this team has had very successful seasons with Dalton at the helm, and the core is still intact enough to make another playoff run.
The best way to ensure the Bengals can reach their full potential in the next couple years is to utilize the stability they already have in important positions. This includes a quarterback. With four picks in the top three rounds, and possibly more via in-draft trading, the Bengals can acquire talented young players who can immediately fill needs on this roster. Bolstering the offensive line and supplementing the defense with run-stoppers are the most vital needs for this team. Should they select prospects who are ready to make an impact from day one, this team could easily add two or three more wins to last year’s 7-9 record.
Wasting a first round pick on Lamar Jackson would hinder the Bengals next season. One option would be to immediately give Jackson the reins to the offense, who would almost certainly perform worse than the veteran Dalton next year. The other option is to allow Jackson to develop behind Dalton, but then the Bengals would still have a hole on the roster that wasn’t filled by that first round pick. Either way, next year’s team would be less complete if they select Lamar Jackson, which would mean fewer wins and reduced odds of going to the playoffs.
Furthermore, we’ve seen time and time again players of Jackson’s type have not translated to the NFL. Vince Young, Tim Tebow, RG3, Jordan Lynch – these players were dual-threat QBs who could not stick in the league. Jackson played in a very loose system at Louisville that gave him lots of freedom to make plays, and he will not enjoy that same type of freedom on the Bengals. He needs to become more accurate on his throws because NFL defenders will take advantage of missed throws more often.
Also, he cannot break the pocket every time he feels pressure, which was an issue in college. Though he may be able to outrun defenders at times, NFL defenses will adapt to his style, and force him to make difficult throws. That is all to say that Lamar Jackson is an incredibly high-risk player, and gambling on him when reliable, immediate impact prospects are on the board would be irresponsible for a Bengals team trying to win now.
Should the Bengals Take Lamar Jackson?
In my opinion? It depends. If the Bengals truly want to win now while their talented core is still together, then no. The Bengals can add to their lines on both sides of the ball and some additional playmakers on defense. By selecting these kinds of players, the Bengals will position themselves to make the playoffs next season with Dalton as the QB. In fact, I would project this team to make the playoffs if they adequately address their needs through the draft.
However, if Jackson falls to 21, he will be the best player remaining on the board. I listed several names above of former failed dual-threat QBs, many of whom won Heisman Trophies themselves in college. Lamar Jackson is more talented than all of those players. His speed and elusiveness when running have never been seen before, and his passing is incredibly underrated. Comparisons to Michael Vick are extremely accurate. Again, it would be very hard to pass up a player of Jackson’s caliber.
It’s a very difficult question to answer, but it’s also one the Bengals likely won’t have to answer. While many people are sleeping on Jackson, he’s still a consensus top-five QB prospect. With the rampant need for QBs in the top 15 of this draft, it would be absolutely stunning if Jackson tumbled all the way to 21. Cleveland, both New York teams, Denver, Miami, Buffalo, and Arizona all pick before the Bengals, and each of them has a desperate need for a franchise QB. For each of these teams to pass on Jackson, and then for no one to trade up ahead of 21, would be astounding.
Even though the debate about the Bengals’ future at QB is an important one, they likely will not have to answer it by either selecting or passing on Lamar Jackson.