We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. I’ll be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2021 season. Click here to read the series of questions answered so far.
The Ravens get a ton of credit for stopping Lamar Jackson’s free fall in the 2018 draft at pick No. 32, although they’re also guilty of passing on the 2019 league MVP. It’s safe to say taking TE Hayden Hurst at pick No. 25 wasn’t the best move; either way, good on them for trading back into the first round in order to select one of the most exciting QBs that college and professional football has ever seen.
The first version of Jackson at the NFL level was a bit erratic as a passer, but his wheels helped the Ravens finish the season on a 6-1 tear before losing to the Chargers 23-17 in the Wild Card round. All he did for an encore was largely take over the damn league, blitzing into the playoffs on the back of a 14-2 record with the No. 1-ranked scoring offense before unfortunately being taken out by the Titans. Jackson and company managed to avenge that playoff loss in 2020, although they’d ultimately meet the same fate in the Divisional Round against the Bills.
Now we head into 2021 and the clock is ticking for the Ravens to make the most out of Jackson’s rookie contract. Reinforcements have been inserted into the offense in an attempt to boost this passing game; the time is now for Jackson to lead Baltimore back to the promised land. What follows is a breakdown on just how good the Ravens’ franchise QB has been since entering the league and what we should expect from him as a fantasy football asset in 2021.
Jackson has consistently been an elite fantasy QB
We’ve basically seen four acts from Jackson in terms of his regular season fantasy success: 1) taking over for Joe Flacco for the final seven games of 2018, 2) starting the first 15 games of 2019, 3) the first 10 games of 2020, and 4) the final five games of 2020 after Jackson returned from the COVID list.
Generally, each of his acts has been nothing short of fantastic from a fantasy perspective:
- Jackson finished the 2018 season as the fantasy QB5 in Weeks 11-17.
- To this day, no QB in NFL history has averaged more fantasy points per game in a single season than Jackson in 2019.
- Jackson disappointed based on his preseason status as fantasy’s consensus QB1, working as the QB9 for the first 11 weeks of 2020.
- A second-half resurgence boosted Jackson to the fantasy QB6 over the final six weeks of the season.
Basically the worst we’ve ever seen Jackson look in fantasy land is as a lower-end QB1. Sheesh.
The main reason for Jackson’s fantasy dominance is simple: his rushing. There are borderline cheat codes in fantasy land in the form of dual-threat players thanks to their ability to rack up production in multiple facets of the game. The most common forms of these players: rushing QBs and receiving RBs.
Jackson has largely taken this to a new level, as seen in his 176-1206-7 and 159-1005-7 rushing lines over the past two seasons. The eye test is somehow even more impressive than the numbers.
“America is all about speed, hot nasty bad-ass speed – Eleanor Roosevelt”
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) May 16, 2021
A full list of players with more fantasy points from purely rushing production than Jackson over the past two seasons: Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, Nick Chubb, Aaron Jones, Ezekiel Elliott and Josh Jacobs. That’s it.
Of course, even Lamar’s biggest haters can’t deny the man is a savant on the ground. The issue for most is when he drops back to pass. I won’t sit here and pretend that Jackson is in the same stratosphere as Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes as a pure thrower, but it’s also categorically false to call him a bad thrower. Overall, Jackson has been a top-15 QB in PFF passing grade (84.9), big-time throw rate (5.1%), yards per attempt (7.6) and QB rating (106.6) over the past two seasons.
Yes, we’d need to use a top-20 QB clarifier to use the same metrics for 2020 alone. Also yes, Jackson still made a bevy of high-level throws that many Twitter trolls seem to simply pretend didn’t happen.
Lamar Jackson throwing the football pic.twitter.com/OAN73s2ZhE
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) April 21, 2021
One common complaint for Jackson is that he’s struggled when asked to throw deeper down the field and outside the numbers. This is true: He grades out as PFF’s 28th QB among 38 qualified players when throwing at least 20 yards downfield within 10 yards of either sideline over the past two seasons. Of course, we also didn’t exactly see guys like Matthew Stafford (20th) or Drew Brees (21st) thrive when making these sorts of tough throws, either.
We’re always quick to criticize Jackson’s ability to throw the football, but his rushing ability almost seems to be taken for granted at this point. At the end of the day, a QB’s job is to put points on the scoreboard, and nobody has scored more points than the Ravens over the past two regular seasons.
The scary part about this Ravens offense is that the 2021 edition might just have the most weapons available yet.
This Ravens might have finally gotten Lamar a WR1
PFF’s Seth Galina recently published a piece on how the Ravens changed how opponents might have to defend them by doubling down at WR in the 2021 draft. A couple key notes from his article: First, Seth described some of the issues Jackson and company faced due to their lack of a true alpha receiver on the outside.
“Because the Ravens don’t throw to the isolated receiver, defenses feel comfortable playing that person in single coverages and allocating resources elsewhere on the field. Next, defenses played a lot of quarters coverage against the Ravens. On first and second down in 2020, Baltimore saw the highest percentage of quarters looks — just over four percentage points more than the next highest team. Importantly, they didn’t see other two-high looks. They faced the fourth-lowest rate of Cover 2, the fourth-lowest rate of what we chart as Cover 6 and a minimal amount of Cover 2 man. This is important because while we think of quarters as a great way to defend the pass, it’s a good way to get a lot of people dedicated to stopping the run against option teams, which the Ravens are.”
Enter: first-round pick Rashod Bateman and fourth-round pick Tylan Wallace. Hell, even Sammy Watkins, although a lot of his success in Kansas City came from the slot. As Seth explains, both Bateman and Wallace are perfect fits to help improve this exact piece of this passing game.
“Instead of resting on their laurels with the Watkins signing, the Ravens kept pushing and were rewarded with two really nice outside talents in Bateman and Wallace. Bateman's 90.5 grade over the past two seasons ranked third among college wideouts with at least 100 outside snaps, while Wallace's 89.1 mark tied for seventh. Both mostly played outside, as well, with Bateman running 67% of his routes out wide and Wallace doing so a whopping 88% of the time. This was a clear focus for the Ravens, and it led them to draft these two players.”
It remains to be seen just how effective Bateman and Wallace will be against NFL-quality corners; at least the Ravens attempted to fill a major hole in their offense. It’s been frustrating to see Jackson have to get by without a true No. 1 WR on the outside. The Browns went out and got Baker Mayfield a guy named Odell Beckham. Buffalo managed to unite Josh Allen with Stefon Diggs. The Cardinals traded for DeAndre Hopkins to help Kyler Murray.
And Jackson? All he’s worked with is a bottom-three offense in total spending in 2019, 2020 and 2021 alike. Unfortunately, the Ravens (again) declined to make a real splash in free agency, but at least having Bateman and Wallace involved could help change the way defenses attempt to defend Jackson.
“Baltimore has also struggled against man coverage, and that’s both a Lamar problem as well as a receiver problem. The offense doesn’t see a lot of straight Cover 1 — only 18% of their total passing snaps were against it, ranking 31st in the league — but they also couldn’t beat it, posting the 22nd-ranked EPA per play mark in the league last season on such plays (.011). They didn’t have a receiver who could dominate against man coverage or even when zone coverage became man coverage after the route distribution.”
Obviously the likes of Marquise Brown, Myles Boykin, Devin Duvernay, Mark Andrews, J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards will also assist in attempting to improve this passing game; it’s just good to see the Ravens not bring back the exact same group of receivers in 2021 and expect different results.
Add it all together and …
You only need one hand to count the QBs to draft before Jackson
Presently boasting an ADP as the QB4 over at Underdog Fantasy, the public is largely still on board with treating Jackson as a high-end QB1. And they should! Personally, he’s my QB5, but Jackson is fully deserving of being in the top tier at the position alongside Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Kyler Murray and Dak Prescott.
We’ve discussed the potential for Jackson’s offensive upgrades to make an immediate impact, and there’s also a chance that everyone involved sees an efficiency boost from all-world LT Ronnie Stanley’s return. PFF’s reigning 14th- and 10th-highest-graded run-blocking and pass-blocking offensive line finished 2019 as a top-three unit in both categories; a return to dominance at the line of scrimmage would be great news for Jackson as both a rusher and passer.
Jackson somehow owns the top-three single-season marks for rush attempts by a QB in NFL history. Madness. He’s changing the way teams think about the position and putting up a ton of fantasy points along the way. I doubt Jackson will be confused with the league’s very best passers from the pocket anytime soon; good thing we already know he doesn’t need to be in order to spearhead one of the league’s most-prolific offenses.
I lean toward taking Jackson after his piers in the top tier due to the concerns over another middling season through the air. Still, it’s tough to argue with anyone who wants to treat him as the overall QB1 entering the season. After all: The best version of Jackson is the single-best fantasy football player the position has ever seen.