Editor's note: NFL.com analyst Lance Zierlein will "dare to compare" prospects to NFL players throughout the college football season. This week, he provides a scouting report and comp for Louisville QB Lamar Jackson, who's the hottest player in college football heading into Week 4.
I took a quick glance at Lamar Jackson based on his dual-threat numbers as a freshman when I studied quarterbacks from around the country this summer. While his 12 touchdown passes and 8 interceptions were hardly eye-catching, his 960 yards and 11 touchdowns rushing grabbed my attention.
However, I didn't see anything on tape from 2015 that warranted putting Jackson on my list of the top quarterbacks to watch this year. His red-hot start sent me back for a closer examination. What I've found is that Jackson has clearly grown as a passer and his ability to attack defenses with his legs is unmatched by any other college quarterback. While Jackson is a work in progress and won't be draft eligible until 2018, at the earliest, here's a snap-shot look at some of his strengths and weaknesses along with my NFL comp for him.
Last season, Jackson showed he had the rushing ability to torment defenses as a scrambler and with called runs. This season, he's graduated from tormenting to outright demolition of defenses with his legs. Jackson isn't just a talented running quarterback -- he's a talented runner. He runs with the forward lean, elusiveness and the speed of a slashing running back. As a passer, Jackson has improved his overall approach from the pocket, which has helped improve his accuracy with intermediate and deep throws. Because of that, he's hitting a much higher percentage of big plays with his arm.
Jackson has admitted to being lost at times last year as a freshman, but his vastly improved confidence and pocket calm tell me that he's absorbed coaching and has a greater understanding of his strengths and weaknesses. Jackson does a nice job of looking off safeties when he wants to take his deep shots and he's throwing with much better accuracy and touch in the short passing game. With an ability to elude pressure or get rid of the ball quickly from difficult angles, Jackson proved to be way too much for a talented Florida State defense last week.
There is no getting around the fact that Lamar Jackson is rail thin (6-foot-3, 205 pounds, per school measurements). He will have to continue to add more muscle and bulk to his frame. While dialing back his rush attempts can help protect Jackson's lean frame, the hits sustained in the pocket can also be damaging if a quarterback doesn't have the build to absorb those shots. While it hasn't become a problem this season, ball security was a big concern for Jackson last year and will need to be monitored moving forward.
There are still some inconsistencies with Jackson's throwing velocity, but that might be something he can improve upon with technique work. From an accuracy standpoint, Jackson has shown improvement, but he still has work to do with his short-throw accuracy. He needs to a better job of leading receivers instead of making them adjust to his throws. It will be interesting to see if Jackson's pocket poise and ability to keep from staring down targets will continue to hold up as teams get more tape on him and adjust their game plans.
NFL comp: Randall Cunningham
In the midst of Jackson's dismantling of Florida State, I asked the Twittersphere for Jackson comps and the answers were thought-provoking. Some compared his running ability and body type to former Oregon Duck, Dennis Dixon, while one of the most popular answers to date has been Mike Vick (especially the Virginia Tech version). I believe Robert Griffin III is a solid comparison considering his build, elite speed and ability to heave the deep ball. However, I'm going with former Eagles and Vikings QB Randall Cunningham, which is an admittedly high-end comparison at this stage.
Like Cunningham, Jackson is slight of build but also has the ability to shred defenses once he hits his top gear outside of the pocket. I see Jackson as a quarterback who might end up being a little spotty with his short passing attack and ball placement but one with the ability to see opportunities to attack defenses down the field with the long ball. While Cunningham had more sling-shot strength in his right arm than Jackson appears to have, there are similarities in their games. This is an early comparison and we'll see plenty more of Jackson before any scouting report for him is complete, but Cunningham is the best comp for him at this time.
Follow Lance Zierlein on Twitter @LanceZierlein.