Saturday’s AFC divisional game between the Baltimore Ravens and Buffalo Bills represents a historical matchup between Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen, the fourth postseason meeting in the past three decades between first-round quarterbacks from the same draft class.
Others will simply see this as the Super Bowl of old takes exposed.
Jackson and Allen were considered the projects of the 2018 NFL draft. Three seasons later, they’re the Pro Bowl quarterbacks of that class, playing Saturday (8:15 p.m. ET, NBC) for a trip to the AFC Championship Game.
Baker Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick in 2018, was the proven winner and playmaker. Sam Darnold, the No. 3 selection by the New York Jets, was the “cleanest” prospect with the prototypical frame and skill set. Josh Rosen, who was taken at No. 10 by the Arizona Cardinals, was deemed the most pro-ready.
Allen and Jackson lacked polish. They were too inaccurate. Even if they panned out, it would take five years before teams would see a return on their investments.
When the Bills traded up for Allen at No. 7, there were tweets that the team chose the wrong Josh. An analyst at Football Outsiders wrote: “I would rather have Tyrod Taylor quarterbacking my team over the next four years than Josh Allen.”
It was an even crueler draft day for Jackson, who plummeted to the bottom of the first round before the Ravens traded to get him with the No. 32 pick. This freefall came after an unnamed ACC coach was quoted as saying Jackson “has no shot at playing quarterback in the NFL” and a Chargers scout asked him at the NFL combine to work out as a wide receiver.
“For anybody to say these two quarterbacks, when they were drafted, would be playing in this type of game is lying to you,” ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. said. “Did I think it was possible? Yes. In terms of Josh and Lamar to see where they are right now, it doesn’t surprise me at all.”
Kiper thought Allen would go with the No. 1 pick. And he was sure Jackson was the targeted player when the New Orleans Saints moved up to No. 14. Both have since caused teams to repeatedly second-guess themselves for passing on them. Mayfield has been up-and-down for the Cleveland Browns, Darnold could get traded by the Jets this offseason and Rosen is on his fourth team.
Meanwhile, Jackson is the reigning NFL MVP and the first quarterback in league history with at least 5,000 yards passing and 2,500 yards rushing in his first three NFL seasons. Allen is a top-three contender for the league MVP award this season after becoming the first quarterback to surpass 4,500 yards passing, 35 touchdown passes and five rushing touchdowns in a single season.
Biggest uncertainties of the 2018 draft? Jackson and Allen are more like the faces of this generation’s dual-threat quarterbacks.
“I don’t know many quarterbacks in the history of this league that have had as much on their plate every game as Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen,” Kiper said. “They’re going to dictate every play what happens. They’re either running it or throwing it. If they’re going to win, it’s going to be because of these guys. If Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson are contained, you’re not winning. That’s why these two quarterbacks — only in their third year now — are incredibly special entities.”
A major jump
It’s not just that Allen has improved in 2020; that would be criminally underselling his ascension into the NFL’s elite tier of quarterbacks.
It’s that he has improved at a rate the NFL has rarely seen.
His leap from completing 58.8% of his passes in 2019 to 69.2% in 2020 marks the fourth-largest such improvement over the past 20 seasons. In the process, he’s gone from the butt of myriad jokes on social media to a legitimate MVP candidate, complete with his own apology form for anyone who abandoned ship on him too quickly.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of him,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “Just the way he’s approached his offseason, the way he’s approached camp, training camp. … Very humble approach, very hungry approach, and very team-first approach — which is, it’s a great foundation from which to build on.”
That improvement in his accuracy has amplified his most special quality — his arm talent. It’s difficult to pinpoint one of Allen’s skills as more prevalent than the others, but his ability to make throws that only one or two other quarterbacks can make is what sets him apart.
He made a series of throws during Buffalo’s playoff win against the Indianapolis Colts that fit the bill. From his own 4-yard line, Allen fielded a snap, rolled to his right and lofted a ball 37 yards downfield to Gabriel Davis, who toe-tapped the sideline for the completion. Two plays later, he did the same thing on the other side of the field, throwing across his body for a 19-yard gain.
“He’s special, this is a special group, Josh is almost like a character on Madden — a 99 overall,” Bills lineman Dion Dawkins said. “He just keeps doing it week in and week out. I’m happy to call him my quarterback and I’m happy to block for him.”
While his arm strength allows him to throw on the run, Allen was the league’s most accurate passer from inside the pocket this season, completing 72.9%. And he is still proficient as a runner, finishing with the third-most rushing touchdowns (eight) among quarterbacks this season. Whether with his arm or his legs, Allen is a playmaker.
That ability to make something out of nothing, however, still gets Allen into trouble every now and then.
Allen took a 17-yard sack on Buffalo’s final drive of the game against the Colts but lost 6 yards — and the ball — when he kept fighting to stay upright. Those types of plays occur far less often than they did during his first two seasons, but they could be disastrous in the playoffs, which seems to be a lesson he learned from a ridicule-filled playoff debut against the Houston Texans last season.
“We were able to take what we learned last year and take it into this game,” Allen said after the Colts victory. “Not trying to press or do too much. Let the game come to us. That’s what we did. … Made enough plays to win. I’m still kicking myself for a couple plays … you [have to] forget about it and focus on next week. It doesn’t matter what we did, it’s back to 0-0. Whatever team we face, they’re 0-0 and they’re coming into our house.”
Of course, Buffalo will face the Ravens, who bullied Allen into one of his worst performances of his 2019 season. Consider Saturday a shot at redemption.
Scrambling to save a season
The only reason Jackson is set to duel Allen is that Jackson decided to come back with a vengeance.
The low point of Jackson’s season came on Thanksgiving, when he tested positive for COVID-19. He knew the struggling Ravens needed him, but he was forced to watch helplessly. Toward the end of his 10-day quarantine, Baltimore lost its third straight game to drop to 6-5.
When he returned, he didn’t play like he felt the pressure of five weeks of must-win situations. Jackson put defenses on their heels, scrambling for touchdowns and hitting receivers downfield for scores.
This week, for the first time all season, Jackson acknowledged what changed upon his return — his mindset.
“I’m just attacking the game more, being more aggressive,” Jackson said. “I’ll say, in the beginning of the season, I was conservative a lot; just staying back and getting sacked a lot more. But as the season went on, [when] things break down, my first read is not there, second read is not there, I take advantage of what the defense gives me.”
What makes Jackson special is his athleticism and the fear it puts in defenders when he hits open space. No one else in the NFL can turn a near sack and 10-yard loss into a touchdown run in a blink.
In Sunday’s wild-card win over the Titans, Jackson escaped a collapsing pocket on third-and-9 and sprinted 48 yards to the end zone. His maximum speed was 20.52 miles per hour on that run. The wildest part: That was his third-fastest run of the season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
The biggest improvement in Jackson’s game can be seen when he’s had time in the pocket, which is usually off play-action. The Ravens led the NFL in rushing for a second straight season, and Jackson has used that to his advantage more toward the end of the season unlike any other time.
Jackson will sell the fake handoff to his running back so well that he turns his back to the defense. He then whips his head around to quickly diagnose the coverage of the safeties.
Over the past six games, eight of Jackson’s 68 completions inside the pocket (an average of one per 8.5 passes) have been touchdowns. The only quarterback who’s had a better touchdown rate inside the pocket in that span is Aaron Rodgers.
“Lamar Jackson doesn’t get the credit as a pocket passer,” ESPN analyst Matt Hasselbeck said. “This might sound crazy, in the last month of the season, I think he’s been playing better than any quarterback in the NFL from the pocket.”
The next step in Jackson’s development is stretching the field. That was a point of emphasis in training camp, and he has failed to consistently throw on-target deep passes.
Jackson’s completion rate on passes that travel 20 or more yards is 37.5%, which ranks 24th in the NFL. He’s thrown five touchdowns and four interceptions on such passes.
But it was just a few days ago when Jackson was questioned for his inability to win in the postseason and rally his team from a double-digit hole. On Sunday, he pulled Baltimore from a 10-0 first quarter-deficit to deliver his first victory in the playoffs.
“The conversation that some people have had about Lamar was he can’t, he can’t, he can’t,” ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky said. “There are some who thought he could. There is a difference between knowing and thinking. He now knows he can do it. His team now knows he can do it.”
It’s not only the Ravens who believed in Jackson. The quarterback standing across the field Saturday — and who understands more than anyone else about conquering doubts — did so as well.
“I tell this to everybody I talk to about him — he is one of the greatest dudes you can be around. He really is,” Allen said. “I root heavily for him, just knowing what he went through his first year, how he’s been able to do it, and how humble and awesome he is off the field. It’s hard not to root for him even when we’re playing against him. But we’re enemies on Saturday, and we both know that. But I can’t say enough about just how good of a dude he is and it makes you love him that much more on the field.”