The two-time ACC Player of the Year posted back-to-back seasons with at least 3,500 passing yards and 1,500 rushing yards on the way to finishing his career with 119 total touchdowns in three seasons.
While that kind of production would typically put a quarterback firmly in the conversation to be one of the first signal-callers off the board in the draft, Jackson appears to be an outsider in a QB class that's been hyped for more than a year. In fact, Jackson's even had to answer questions about whether he'd consider moving to wide receiver in the NFL despite his success as one of the most prolific quarterbacks in NCAA history.
Miffed by the lack of respect Jackson's received to this point in the draft process, I decided to dig into the tape and contact a few scouting colleagues for their opinion of the former Heisman Trophy winner's game. Now that I've sorted through the information, here's The Book on Jackson.
What I'm hearing
"I would love to work with him because it's hard to find quarterbacks with that kind of natural talent. Sure, he needs to work on some things, but if you get him right, you could have a superstar on your hands." -- NFC offensive coordinator
"He's a long ways away. He will make a few splash plays because of his athletic talent, but he's not ready to handle the mental stuff like protections and 'check-with-me' calls. Maybe he could play early as part of a package or as a returner, but I think he will struggle as a pure quarterback to start." -- AFC quarterback coach
"He's a 'create-a-player' on a video game. You just don't find quarterbacks with that kind of speed, athleticism, and arm talent. If you're willing to build an offense around his game, you could unleash a monster on the league." -- AFC college scouting director
"He hasn't helped himself this offseason. He struggled on the board in our meetings with him at the (NFL Scouting) Combine. You love the talent, but I don't know if he can handle some of the complex scheming and communication that's a part of the job." -- AFC personnel executive
"The athleticism is off the charts. Big arm, outstanding speed, quickness, and burst. You would like to see more consistency from the pocket, but that can be cleaned up with some work on his footwork and mechanics. Durability would be my main concern if he continues to run around like he did in college." -- AFC scout
What I'm seeing
Jackson possesses a rare combination of A-plus traits (speed, athleticism, and arm talent) that could make him a superstar dual-threat playmaker in the league for the next decade.
As a runner, Jackson is a magician on the perimeter. He makes defenders miss with dead-leg moves and stutter steps in the open field before running away from the crowd. His explosiveness and stop-start quickness are remarkable. Defenders are at his mercy when he tucks the ball under his arm on designed quarterback runs and impromptu scrambles from the pocket. Jackson's running skills make him a threat to move the chains in critical moments, and he's a legitimate threat to score from anywhere on the field whenever he takes the snap from center. In a league where scoring is coveted at a premium, Jackson's home-run potential (50 rushing touchdowns) as a runner could enhance an offense looking for a spark.
As a passer, Jackson exhibits outstanding natural arm talent. He can push the ball down the field as well as any quarterback while displaying excellent range, touch and timing on various rainbow throws down the boundary or to the post. Jackson's deep-ball prowess would make him a perfect fit for an offense that features a variety of vertical throws off of play-action.
On short and intermediate throws, Jackson is at his best throwing rhythm passes between the numbers. He excels at throwing slants, seams and skinny posts to either side of the field following a one- or three-step drop from the shotgun. On out-breaking routes at intermediate range, Jackson struggles to consistently hit the strike zone. The game tape shows he frequently misses high and wide on those throws, and his inconsistencies continued to show up when he went through positional drills earlier this month at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Part of Jackson's woes stem from his inconsistent footwork and mechanics in the pocket. He doesn't fully incorporate his lower body into his throws and his "arm-only" flicks are ineffective on drive throws (line-drive tosses) that require a little more juice on the ball.
From a schematic standpoint, Jackson has been effective on traditional play-action pass concepts from the pocket and movement-based passes from under center. He's more than capable of executing play fakes with his back to the defense before whipping his head around to find his intended targets at intermediate or deep range. On the move, he can make pinpoint tosses when rolling to either side, which would make him a good fit in an offense that features a variety of stretch-bootleg concepts.
From the shotgun, Jackson is at his best on "catch, rock, and fire" quick passes (slants, hitches and quick outs) with simple reads. Although the simple reads and isolation-heavy route tree he benefited from at Louisville have led to questions about his ability to break down or diagnose coverages, those concepts are staples in several NFL offenses with young quarterbacks (see Houston Texans offense with Deshaun Watson and Jacksonville Jaguars with Blake Bortles). Thus, Jackson can certainly be the centerpiece of a NFL offense with a little tweaking from a creative offensive coordinator.
When examining Jackson's numbers throughout his career, it's important to note his steady progression as a passer in an offense that's directed by a respected offensive mind with pro experience in Bobby Petrino. Jackson improved his completion percentage each season (from 54.7 to 56.2 to 59.1) and finished with a strong 69:27 touchdown-to-interception ratio. To be clear, those stats aren't inflated by a high number of bubble screens and swing passes. He's a more efficient passer than some suggest.
If I had to point out a couple areas of concern for Jackson, I would cite his lack of ball security and unrefined mechanics in the pocket. He puts the ball on the ground frequently (24 fumbles) and needs to do a better job of protecting the ball in traffic. As for his footwork, Jackson will need to work with a coach to clean up some of the balance and body-control issues that hurt him in the accuracy department.
Despite those concerns, I believe a position change is a ridiculous suggestion for Jackson based on his talent and production. Overall, Jackson is an intriguing quarterback prospect with the potential to grow into a difference maker at the position down the road. He possesses an explosive combination of skills that could make him a star in an offense built around his playmaking talents. Last year, we saw Watson take the league by storm in a scheme that closely resembled the system he thrived in at Clemson. Jackson could wreak havoc on the league in a similar fashion if a NFL offensive coordinator is willing to build around his game instead of forcing him into a system that fails to accentuate his strengths as a dual-threat playmaker.
NFL comp: Michael Vick
It's easy to compare Jackson to Vick, the four-time Pro Bowl QB, as a pure playmaker when looking at their highlight reels. Vick took the comp several steps further during the 2016 college football season, suggesting in a tweet that Jackson was "five times better than I was" at Virginia Tech. Vick doubled down on that assessment when Daniel Jeremiah and I chatted with him on the Move The Sticks Podcast a month ago, and said Jackson was a "spitting image" of himself.
There's no doubt that the dual-threat playmaker is the most explosive athlete I've seen at the position since Vick. From Jackson's breakneck speed and explosiveness as a runner to his remarkable arm talent as a deep-ball thrower, the Heisman Trophy winner displays the exact traits that helped Vick revolutionize the game as a dual-threat quarterback in the NFL.
Remember, Vick was the first quarterback to post a 1,000-yard season as a rusher and is the NFL's all-time rushing leader among quarterbacks. While I'm not suggesting that Jackson will run roughshod over the league as a run-first playmaker, I can envision him making life miserable for defensive coordinators around the league as an improvisational wizard on the move. He's such a dazzling runner that I would expect a NFL offensive coordinator to encourage him to take off when opportunities arise in games.
However, like Vick, Jackson must find a way to advance his game as a passer to become a Pro Bowl-caliber player at the position. He needs to develop better timing and anticipation on rhythm throws. He must also show better touch and precision on some of his throws outside the numbers. If he's able to master those skills as a passer, Jackson could be the ultimate weapon at the position -- just like Vick was in his heyday.
Where he should be picked
In most instances, an explosive playmaker with Jackson's spectacular resume would be locked in as a first-round pick, but the uncertainty about his ability to transition into an NFL offense seems to be hindering his stock. Few teams have endorsed him as a Day 1 prospect at quarterback despite a number of signature games and statistical accomplishments that surpass the resumes of other prospects for the 2018 draft at his position.
While I'm disheartened by the lack of respect for Jackson's game as an accomplished quarterback with A-plus traits in several areas (speed, athleticism and arm talent), I believe there are a handful of teams willing to build around his talents as a unique playmaker at the position. In a perfect world, the Seattle Seahawks, Carolina Panthers or Houston Texans would target Jackson as a QB2 to develop behind their established starters. Those teams would add another dual-threat playmaker to the roster to keep the offense flowing when the starter went down. Coaches wouldn't need to make major changes to their playbook to accommodate Jackson's talents because the game plans are already designed with a dual-threat quarterback in mind.
If those teams ultimately aren't interested in investing a pick in Jackson due to the presence of established QB1s, I would point to the Cincinnati Bengals, Jacksonville Jaguars and New Orleans Saints as ideal spots for the Louisville QB. Marvin Lewis has an offensive coordinator (Bill Lazor) with experience directing a spread offense with an athletic quarterback at the helm and the supporting cast around the quarterback would elevate Jackson's game. In Jacksonville, Jackson would also benefit from an offensive coordinator (Nathaniel Hackett) with ties to the college game that would help him build an offense around a dual-threat playmaker. In addition, the Jaguars have a strong running game and defense that would allow Jackson to perform as a complementary playmaker for the squad.
The Saints could be the perfect scenario for Jackson due to the presence of Drew Brees and Sean Payton. Jackson would get a chance to learn the nuances of the position from watching Brees work each day. From his work ethic to his leadership skills to his pocket discipline, Brees would provide the rookie with a blueprint to follow to become a great player at the position. As one of the most creative offensive minds in football, Payton is clever enough to build an offense around Jackson's unique talents as a dual-threat quarterback. Given the coach's success as a play designer, the Saints' offense with Jackson could have a video-game-like flavor that changes the way mobile playmakers are viewed in the league.
From a grading standpoint, I rated Jackson a borderline first-round pick (eventual NFL starter) based on his outstanding talent and potential. Despite his flaws as a passer, he has enough natural ability and arm talent to find success as a pro in a system built around his explosiveness as a dual-threat playmaker. If Jackson lands with the right team and works with a coach to refine his mechanics within the pocket, he could become the most explosive playmaker that we've seen at the position.