News & Analysis

Fantasy Football Stock Watch: Take it easy on Lamar Jackson

Nov 1, 2020; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) runs the ball against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the second quarter at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mitchell Layton-USA TODAY Sports

Fantasy football managers who used a high draft pick to acquire Lamar Jackson’s 2020 services likely aren’t feeling all that great about the move at the moment. Sure, we’ve seen plenty of electric runs that serve as reminders that Jackson is truly one of the best athletes on the field at all times, but the reigning league MVP ranks just 11th in fantasy points per game this season after putting up the third-highest mark at the position *ever* in 2019.

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The Ravens are 5-2 with their lone losses coming to the Chiefs (7-1) and Steelers (7-0) — the only teams with at least seven wins ahead of Week 9. Baltimore (+71) only trails the Buccaneers (+82) and Chiefs (+101) when it comes to pure point differential. This is clearly an awesome team that figures to be playing come January.

Still, we simply haven’t seen the same juggernaut that took over the league in 2019. Jackson has certainly struggled to put up the same sort of numbers this season as a passer:

  • 2019: 85.3 PFF Passing Grade, 7.7 yards per attempt, 75.4% adjusted completion rate, 110.6 QB Rating
  • 2020: 71.7 PFF Passing Grade, 6.9 yards per attempt, 72.7% adjusted completion rate, 92.9 QB Rating

Overall, Jackson ranks as a below-average QB in PFF passing grade (23rd among 33 QBs with 100-plus dropbacks), yards per attempt (tied for 22nd), adjusted completion rate (28th) and QB Rating (94.3).

And guess what: He’s not the only one. Jackson has a higher PFF passing grade than Teddy Bridgewater, has averaged as many yards per attempt as Tom Brady, posted a better adjusted completion rate than Matthew Stafford and has a better QB Rating than Kyler Murray. Yes, Jackson posted top-15 marks in all of these categories last year. Also yes, the unironic RB-playing-QB jokes are objectively dumb.

I particularly reject the idea that Jackson being confused for a RB is somehow a negative for a QB. Credit to Peyton Manning and Tom Brady for emerging as GOATs at the position despite never having anything resembling even average mobility, but why shouldn’t we more actively reward signal-callers that bring an entire extra dimension to the game?

The Ravens have been a top-10 offense in a number of categories that represent off-script situations where things don’t go smoothly for the QB:

  • Scrambles: +0.69 EPA/play (No. 7 in the NFL)
  • Scramble to pass: +0.404 (No. 6)
  • Pressured: -0.192 (No. 10)
  • Hurried: +0.279 (No. 3)

Obviously, Jackson and company need to work on their overall execution in order to avoid leaning on the dual-threat QB’s legs too much; just realize there’s a much wider positive range of outcomes during any given play that is forced to go off-script with him under center compared to some of the league’s more statue-esque presences.

The general drop in passing efficiency might best explain why the Ravens are averaging 29 points per game in 2020 (No. 8) after going for 33.2 per contest in 2019 (No. 1). The most public issue facing the Ravens this week has been Jackson’s No. 1 WR Marquise Brown tweeting, then deleting: “What's the point of having souljas when you never use them.”

To be fair, Brown 1) leads the Ravens in targets, and 2) ranks fifth in air yard market share (39%) among all WRs. His two targets in Week 8 were inexcusable, but generally he’s been the focus of their passing attack.

A better critique would be to simply note that he hasn’t exactly received the most-catchable deep-ball targets this season. Just 40% of the Ravens’ deep-ball targets (20-plus yards downfield) have been deemed catchable this season — the eighth-worst mark in the league. Last season they ranked 18th with a 47% deep-ball catchable rate.

Jackson is 1) not throwing the ball as well in 2020 as he did in 2019, and 2) still a more than qualified QB to build a high-end offense around. Brown certainly looks the part of a top-talent, but this passing game in general is lacking a proven difference-making WR. Fellow rookie-contract QBs such as Baker Mayfield (Odell Beckham), Josh Allen (Stefon Diggs) and Kyler Murray (DeAndre Hopkins) were given a true alpha receiver; it’d be nice if the Ravens made a similar effort ahead of next season.

However, all this doesn’t unveil why Jackson has gone from one of the most fantasy-friendly talents the position has ever seen to just another solid weekly QB1. The answer to this puzzle might just be Jackson’s rushing usage. His loss in fantasy points from 2019-2020 has been more severe on the rushing side of things compared to passing:

  • Fantasy points per game from passing in 2019: 17.54. In 2020: 13.96. Difference: -3.58
  • Fantasy points per game from rushing in 2019: 9.64. In 2020: 5.87. Difference: -3.77

While Jackson has averaged an additional 0.4 pass attempts per game this season, his rushing usage has dropped by 2.3 carries per contest. Fumbling six times in seven games after losing the ball just nine times in all of 2019 also hasn’t helped. The above differences are certainly close, but clearly pinning his entire fantasy regression on passing ability is inaccurate.

Don’t get it twisted: Jackson is still operating as one of the most productive rushing QBs that the position has ever seen. His current 16-game pace in raw usage on the ground is basically only challenged by previous versions of himself, Cam Newton and 2020 Kyler Murray:

  • 2020 rush attempt pace: 151 (No. 2 among all QBs ever)
  • 2020 rush yards pace: 939 (No. 5)
  • 2020 rush TDs pace: 5 (tied for No. 72)

The absence of stud LT Ronnie Stanley (ankle, IR) will certainly not help matters. Still, if there’s anyone who can make the most out of a porous situation, it’s probably Jackson.

Jackson hasn’t been quite as good as he was in 2019, but the results have hardly been a tragedy. The roaring overall QB1 finishes haven’t been there; just realize this is still a weekly top-eight option at the position:

  • Week 1: Fantasy QB4
  • Week 2: QB18
  • Week 3: QB21
  • Week 4: QB5
  • Week 5: QB18
  • Week 6: QB5
  • Week 8: QB7

Only Kyler Murray (5), Russell Wilson (5), Josh Allen (4) and Patrick Mahomes (4) have more games with at least 25 fantasy points than Jackson (3) at the position.

The Ravens have two brutal matchups on the horizon in Indianapolis and New England — the league’s No. 2 and No. 1 defenses in fewest fantasy points per game allowed to opposing QBs. Still, Jackson will largely be in the clear after that with matchups against the Titans (No. 21), Steelers (No. 8), Cowboys (No. 16), Browns (No. 26), Jaguars (No. 30) and Giants (No. 13) up to championship Sunday.

Jackson is one of just 11 QBs who have averaged at least 20 fantasy points per game this season. A potentially worrisome knee injury that led to Jackson popping up on the injury report in Week 5 has been a non-issue considering he’s posted back-to-back 9-108-1 and 16-65-0 rushing performances. It’s unfortunate that Jackson hasn’t met 2020 expectations to this point, but the dual-threat talent remains largely an auto-start in fantasy land. This week the only QBs I have ranked ahead of him are: Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, Kyler Murray, Deshaun Watson and Josh Allen.

The Ravens have continued to feed Jackson a borderline cheat-code rushing workload. We’ll see if the passing game truly turns things around in the second half, but either way there should be more than enough rushing volume here for Jackson to work his way into the position’s top-five producers by the end of the season.

Maybe that's not the tantalizing ceiling outcome fantasy managers were hoping for, but fantasy as well as real-life football teams of all shapes and sizes are better off with Jackson than without as we enter Week 9 and beyond.

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