Before he was a Heisman Trophy winner, a unanimous All-American performer, a prospective first-round draft pick, a likely College Football Hall of Famer, an icon, an enigma, and the subject of a Lil Mook song, Lamar Jackson was a meme.
This is what us millennials refer to us a “blessed image.” Of course, pure, organic happenstances compound the general meme-ness of the meme itself, but what further nudges such blessed images in the direction of virality is when the subject becomes a paragon. And that’s precisely what happened to Lamar Jackson.
Pictured above is Traveon Samuel, a lightening bolt stuffed into a diminutive, 170-pound frame, seated next to Jackson, presumably discussing offensive strategy (or maybe even memes). Shortly before ACC Network cameras captured this now-infamous screen-grab, Jackson scored his first of eight touchdowns in what ended up being a 70-14 rout of UNC-Charlotte—which, you know, so what? Louisville, at the time, was the 19th-best team in the country according to the folks who make those kinds of decisions, whereas UNC-Charlotte, a bottom-feeder in Conference USA, launched its football program in 2013 and had only a single season in the FBS ranks under its belt. Still, eight touchdowns is eight touchdowns. That, reader, is a lot of touchdowns for one person to score in a regulation football game.
Jackson went on to score 10 total touchdowns—eight of which came on the ground—over Louisville’s next two games, a pair of 60-something to 20-something blowouts against Syracuse and #2-ranked Florida State. By now, having struck down a pair of conference foes with great vengeance and furious anger (tee hee), Jackson was a household name.
He ate omnivorously for the remainder of the 2016 season, feasting on a healthy diet of passing and rushing touchdowns, the latter coming from designed running plays and feats of post-pocket-breakdown wizardry alike. He amassed well over 5,000 yards that season and scored 51 total touchdowns, nabbing the Heisman in a landslide. He was somewhat less prolific in 2017—though he still finished the season with more than 4,900 yards and 42 touchdowns, which is ridiculous—but improved his completion percentage, quarterback rating, and yards per attempt and tossed only 6 interceptions in 399 attempts, compared to 9 in 409 attempts the year prior. (As an aside, Jackson reserved what was quite possibly the poorest outing of his college career for Louisville’s bowl game against Mississippi State, tossing four interceptions). Jackson rightfully announced that he planned to forgo his senior season to enter the 2018 NFL Draft, where he will be among five or six potential day-one quarterbacks.
That puts us here, a little more than a week (or a few days, depending on when Jeff wants to publish this) before the 2018 NFL Combine, a venue is which Jackson will presumably wow both scouts and analysts with his volcanic and overwhelming physical skillset. Understand this: we are going to hear some absolutely thermonuclear Lamar Jackson takes. Bill Polian got the ball rolling early, calling the 6-foot-3 Jackson “short” and indicating that Jackson should consider playing receiver in the NFL. Not satisfied with that piping-hot bit of intel, Polian went on to inexplicably compare Jackson, a Heisman-winning college quarterback, to Antonio Brown, a 5-foot-10 wide receiver. But I’ll digress.
Hey, speaking of Antonio Brown, the Steelers should totally draft Lamar Jackson. As is customary for former Heisman winners, Jackson is among the most divisive prospects available in the draft, and the team that ultimately selects him will enchant and enrage its fanbase. Pittsburgh will be no different. (If I’m being honest, the thought of reading the replies on the Steelers’ “With our [X] pick, we’ve selected Louisville QB Lamar Jackson!” Twitter post warms my heart.)
Jackson is once-in-a-generation physical specimen, one whose ridiculous arm talent and knack for making big plays should place him firmly atop draft boards. Obviously, he, much like every rookie quarterback in the history of ever, would probably benefit from a de facto redshirt season or two, and the Steelers are certainly well-positioned to cultivate the general quarterbacking acumen of a young player. Ben Roethlisberger has committed to playing for at least one additional season—though his teammates have suggested it could be more than that—which should allow the Steelers to remain in the title hunt while simultaneously preparing for the future, should they elect to pull the trigger on a high-profile rookie passer. That’s a luxury few teams in the NFL can boast.
I’m not a draft expert, so perhaps residing firmly on one side of the Lamar Jackson schism is a little headstrong on my part. I have not watched dozens of hours of film, so maybe the concerns levied against Jackson—he’s too thin; he’s too inaccurate; he sails too many passes; he’s too eager to tuck-and-run; his field vision is too inconsistent—are legitimate.
But I think too often that we, the football watcher—to say nothing of the professional scouts and executives who get paid to make these observations—get engulfed in judging traits rather than the body of work. Both aspects matter, certainly, but it’s madness to discount one attribute totally in favor of the other. Go, right now, and check whatever “draft board” on a random NFL site. Wyoming QB Josh Allen is a near-unanimous first-round prospect, with a non-zero number of scouts suggesting the Cleveland Browns could nab Allen with the first pick of the draft. It is worth mentioning that Allen is coming off a highly-prolific season in which he amassed 1,812 passing yards and 13 touchdowns in 11 games. I’m confident many evaluators are willing to die on the Josh Allen hill because he was not playing with a supporting cast commensurate with his skillset. But, honestly, doesn’t it strike you as somewhat asinine that Allen is viewed as this untapped foundation of unlimited potential whereas Jackson is seen widely as a vexing, complex labyrinth of irreparable nuances?
Do the Steelers need to draft a quarterback this year? They likely do not, and their after-Ben plan could very well still be sealed in an envelope deep in the annals of their headquarters. Should the Steelers consider drafting a quarterback this year? Yeah, they probably should: it is, after all, a pretty deep class, and if a quarterback with Jackson’s pedigree is still sitting on the board in the first or second round, it would make sense to pull the trigger. There is little doubt that the Steelers have a number of pressing draft needs this season—inside linebacker, possibly running back, maybe cornerback, definitely safety—but working to safeguard the long-term vitality of the quarterback position is something to consider.