INDIANAPOLIS — The throng of reporters gathered around the podium where Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson stepped up to speak Friday at the NFL scouting combine numbered more than 100. That throng had little patience for the initial question, which concerned Jackson’s adjustment to the Louisville offense, coming out of high school.
Before any further forays into the minutiae of Atlantic Coast Conference football could be mounted, a voice bellowed the question the throng had gathered to hear addressed: “LAMAR WHAT TEAMS HAVE ASKED YOU TO WORK OUT AT WIDE RECEIVER, AND DO YOU PLAN TO DO THAT?”
The throng leaned forward as one.
“No teams have asked me to play wide receiver. I don’t even know where it comes from, to be honest with you,” Jackson replied. “I’m strictly a quarterback, yes sir.”
It came from the NFL Network and NFL.com, entities owned by the league. Reporter Peter Schrager said “multiple teams” had asked that Jackson add running pass routes to his quarterbacking drills in Indianapolis, “per a source informed of the situation.”
The smoldering NFL cultural tinder box burst into flame in the wake of Schrager’s report. Hall of Fame guard Randy Cross tweeted: “The 20th century is chiming in, they need their evaluations back.”
Eagles defensive end Chris Long tweeted: “If I’m LJ and a team asked me to work out at WR, I wouldn’t want to play for that team. It’s insulting.”
All this really got going last month, when retired NFL general manager Bill Polian opined on ESPN that he thought Jackson’s future was at wide receiver, even though Jackson has been widely projected as a first-to-second-round pick as a QB. Even though Jackson won the 2016 Heisman Trophy, even though he threw for 57 touchdowns against 19 interceptions over the past two seasons.
Jackson’s 57 percent accuracy at Louisville is lower than scouts would like. But Wyoming’s Josh Allen, seen as a surefire first-rounder, finished his college career at 56.2 percent.
There was a time when African American quarterbacks who weren’t traditional pocket passers routinely were turned into wide receivers, but that was, as Cross noted, a while back.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid made a rare venture into sarcasm this week, when he was asked at the combine if he thought Jackson could be a wide receiver.
“Yeah, I’m not much on that,” Reid said. “Let’s exhaust that other thing that we know he’s good at, and see.”
In the wake of what Polian said, and assuming Schrager’s report didn’t come out of thin air, which is not usually how the NFL Network works, it seems likely some teams DO want to see how Jackson’s athleticism translates into wide receiver. Maybe the report was a trial balloon. If so, it went over like a lead balloon. Jackson kept the mood light Friday, but he also made it clear that he won’t be working out at wide receiver or playing wide receiver.
“I’m not going to be a wide receiver,” he said.”Whoever wants me as a quarterback, that’s where I’m going. That’s strictly my position … That’s crazy; I thought I was doing a good job at quarterback, you know, but hey.”
Along with racist categorizations of what positions players are suited for, another thing the NFL has moved past is the simplicity that would allow someone who has never been a wide receiver to segue smoothly into that role at the game’s highest level.
In 2018, receivers don’t just run real fast and catch the football. There are all kinds of nuances involving timing, body lean going in and out of breaks, stopping and starting, leverage in going up for the ball against defensive backs, getting off the line against press coverage, and so on. If Jackson, who measured 6-2¼ here and weighed in at 216 pounds, has any quarterbacking viability at all, that is likely to be a more promising path than trying to learn how to do something he has never done.
“I can break pressure and keep my eyes down the field,” Jackson said, asked what he does well as a QB. “I think I sense pressure very well … Very mobile, I can throw on the run, [can make the throw to] any part of the field, any route.”
Jackson said he has been working on his footwork, because he knows he needs to be more accurate. He mentioned the Eagles as a team he has met with, which might be due diligence, but is interesting, given that the team clearly left open the possibility of trading Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles.
Jackson said he plans to throw here, to show teams what he can do. There is one thing he isn’t doing – running the 40-yard dash. Maybe he doesn’t want to fuel a narrative there.