The Jacksonville Jaguars could have selected quarterback Lamar Jackson with the 29th pick of the 2018 NFL draft. This decision would have altered the course of their franchise forever.
Instead, they elected to stick with Blake Bortles as their starter, who led the Jacksonville Jaguars to the AFC championship game the year prior. In retrospect, this was not a good strategy. Bortles predictably played poorly in 2018, and the Jaguars, a year removed from winning the AFC South, won just five games. But what if Jacksonville had taken a different path? What if, instead of placing their fate in the hands of the NFL’s worst starting quarterback, the Jaguars had decided to take a risk and draft Lamar Jackson near the end of the 1st round?
It’s almost pointless to think about now. The Jaguars recently acquired former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles. They hope that the Super Bowl LII MVP will be able to maximize the potential of their incredibly talented roster. But this move was only necessary because Jacksonville failed to maximize that potential so spectacularly in 2018. So, in this particular instance, I think it could be valuable to consider what might have been.
Comparing Jackson to the Jaguars actual draft pick
Let’s start by examining the player that Jacksonville selected instead of Jackson: Taven Bryan, a defensive tackle from the University of Florida. It would be unfair to suggest that Bryan had a poor rookie season. However, he was hardly a significant factor in the Jaguars defense. Bryan played less than 30% of the Jaguars defensive snaps in 2018. Most of those snaps came in the last few games of the season, and at that point, Jacksonville was already out of playoff contention. Ultimately, Bryan finished the season with just 20 tackles and one sack. These are not awful numbers for a rookie, but I think it is fair to say that Bryan was not a major contributor during his first season in the NFL.
Jackson, on the other hand, was undeniably crucial for the Baltimore Ravens. He certainly did not play perfectly, and there were many moments where he struggled. These struggles were particularly obvious in their playoff game against the Los Angeles Chargers. However, it is important to keep those moments in perspective and to remember just how critical Jackson was to Baltimore’s success in 2018.
Before Jackson became the starter, the Ravens had a 4-5 record, and it appeared as though they would miss the playoffs. But after Joe Flacco got hurt, Jackson helped the team to a 6-1 record and a division win. If Flacco had remained the starter, Baltimore likely misses the playoffs. Jackson’s presence changed the course of the Ravens season. If the Jaguars drafted him instead, he may have been able to do the same for them.
Comparing Lamar Jackson to Blake Bortles
Interestingly, both Jackson and Bortles had relatively poor PFN Offensive Share Metric (OSM) grades. Jackson’s grade of 18.85 was one of the worst in the league. This low grade implies that he may not have been the primary component for Baltimore’s success. But despite the low grade, Jackson actually outperforms Bortles in this metric as well. This is because Bortles’ OSM grade was an abysmal 14.68, which made him the worst graded quarterback in the NFL, behind the likes of C.J. Beathard and Bortles’ teammate Cody Kessler.
Although both quarterbacks had low OSM grades, Jackson clearly performed better than Bortles statistically. Comparing the two quarterbacks is tricky because neither played the entire season. But if you take Jackson’s seven starts, and compare them with the 13 games that Bortles played in, it rapidly becomes clear that Jackson was the more effective player overall.
During the period of games that we are examining, Bortles averaged 209.1 passing yards per game, while Jackson only averaged 159.14. But Jackson also averaged 79.43 rushing yards per game during that time, compared to Bortles’ 28.08. When you combine these two statistics, their average total yards per game are almost identical. However, the difference between the two quarterbacks was in their number of touchdowns and interceptions.
In his seven regular-season games as a starter, Jackson had ten total touchdowns, five passing and five rushing. He also threw only three interceptions. Bortles, over a longer period of time, had just four more total touchdowns but threw eight more interceptions. These statistics put Jackson’s total touchdown-to-interception ratio at 10 to 3, and Bortles’ at 7 to 5.5. This difference represents a fairly significant point swing, and it explains, at least in part, why the Ravens were so much more successful than the Jaguars in 2018.
Could Jacksonville run the same style of offense as Baltimore?
Despite all of this, it must be said that Jackson benefited a great deal from the fact that the Ravens tailored their offense around him. When he took over as the starting quarterback, Baltimore changed their entire offensive strategy. In the first nine games of the season, the Ravens averaged 92.67 rushing yards per game. But over their last seven games, with Jackson as the starter, they averaged an astonishing 229.57 rushing yards per game.
It is impossible to know whether or not the Jaguars coaching staff would have been willing to commit to their running game in this manner. But we can examine whether or not they had the talent to do so.
Comparing Jacksonville and Baltimore’s running back situations in 2018
Just like with the quarterbacks, comparing the running games of the two teams is difficult. This difficulty is in part because of the different styles they played, and in part because of differences in playing time between the various running backs. For example, Gus Edwards rushed for 718 yards last season, which was far more than any of Jacksonville’s running backs. However, he also played in an offense designed around the running game, and had a quarterback who could force opposing defenses to spend time focusing on him. The Jaguars running backs did not have either of these things.
It is in cases like this that OSM is quite useful. It allows us to compare these players in a way that ignores these outside factors and focuses exclusively on what the players could control. And when examined in this way, the three leading running backs for Jacksonville and the two leading running backs for Baltimore (Jackson was their second-leading rusher) all rank fairly closely. Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette, who was injured for a large portion of the season, received a grade of 32.6. The other two Jaguars running backs, T.J. Yeldon and Carlos Hyde, received grades of 29.9 and 34.2, respectively. For the Ravens, Edwards received a grade of 28.35, and Alex Collins received a grade of 34.3. All five of these running backs received fairly similar grades, implying that, regardless of their wildly different statistics, there were similar levels of talent on both teams.
How would Jacksonville’s 2018 season have turned out if they had drafted Jackson?
I think now is a good time to return to our original question. Jackson was significantly better than Bortles in 2018. And the Jaguars had the running back talent necessary for the run-heavy offense that Baltimore ran last season. Additionally, even though the Jaguars defense performed poorly, they were still very talented. If their offense had been more productive and reduced their turnovers, this would have taken the pressure off of the defense and placed them in better positions to succeed.
Overall, it seems reasonably likely that, with Jackson as their starting quarterback, Jacksonville would have performed better statistically in most areas. And I would argue that this increase in statistical success would have led to a similar increase in wins. Six of Jacksonville’s 11 losses came against divisional opponents. All three of the other AFC South teams were quite good in 2018. Both the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts made the playoffs, and the Tennessee Titans just missed out with a 9-7 record.
A significantly improved Jaguars team would likely have won at least a few of those divisional games. Jacksonville also lost close games to the Washington Redskins and the Buffalo Bills, neither of which made the playoffs. And if the Jaguars had won just four of these eight games, they would have had a winning record and a chance at making the playoffs. Then, in 2019 and beyond, they could have continued to build their already talented roster around Jackson in the same way Baltimore is trying to do now.
Why does any of this matter?
Because Jacksonville signed a former Super Bowl MVP in Nick Foles this offseason, it might seem as though not drafting Jackson was the right decision. And I won’t deny that signing Foles was the right decision. But at the time, the Jaguars had no way of knowing that this would even be a possibility. They intentionally tied themselves to Blake Bortles when a talented young quarterback was available for them to draft. And the fact that everything appears to have worked out for the organization should not excuse the failures of those involved, most of whom are still with the team. Not drafting Jackson in 2018 was a massive mistake and the people who made it should be held accountable for it. They won’t, but they should.