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Three Reasons Why Lamar Jackson Deserves Your Respect

The football’s media narrative of Lamar Jackson has been a rollercoaster as of late. Just one year ago, Jackson became the second unanimous MVP in NFL history after setting the single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback. He was on the cover of Madden. Every kid on the playground wanted to juke out defenders just like him.

Now, Jackson has fallen out of the ‘elite’ category in many minds. This week, Pro Football Focus (PFF) generated headlines by omitting him from a list of the 50 best players in the league. Why the sudden drop-off? Jackson did fall short of expectations last year, but improving on his historic 2020 season was almost impossible. Don’t let recency bias obscure the fact that Jackson remains one of the most dangerous passers in football today.

1. Even Legends Have Down Years

The NFL media has a habit of declaring that players have lost their touch after a single disappointing season. Just one year ago, the sports world had decided that Aaron Rodgers was entering the decline of his career and had “lost his timing.” He responded by setting career-highs in touchdown passes and completion percentage in his 2020 MVP season. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady also both won Super Bowls after being written off by the media.

Obviously Lamar Jackson has not quite reached the status of those legendary players, but the point still stands. The 16-game NFL season is incredibly short — making generalizations about a player after one bad year is like denouncing a baseball player after a couple of bad weeks. Jackson should be judged based on what we know he is capable of, not only what we have seen recently.

2. Baltimore’s Receiving Corps Is Among The League’s Worst

Ravens position review: Wide receivers take small steps forward, but  there's still a big need - Baltimore Sun

Nearly every quarterback ranked above Jackson on PFF’s top 50 players list has one thing in common: an elite wide receiver to throw to. Patrick Mahomes has Tyreek Hill; Josh Allen has Stefon Diggs; and Lamar Jackson has … Marquise Brown?

It is unreasonable to judge Jackson’s passing stats without taking into account the lack of talent around him. Allen did not become a star player until Diggs joined his team. Yes, he did take great strides as a passer last year, but there’s no denying that Diggs was at least partially responsible for the turnaround.

Jackson, however, has had no such luck. Baltimore’s wide receivers earned a combined 68.5 pass-catching grade from PFF last year, fourth-worst in the league. None of them had over 800 yards. The Ravens used a first-round pick on Rashod Bateman to try and turn things around, but it is unlikely that the group will be much better next year.

Despite that lack of talent, Jackson had the seventh-highest QBR in the league last year. He is the only quarterback in the top 10 without a Pro-Bowl-caliber receiver.

3. His Arm Talent Is Real

Analysis: Bills took away explosive runs, shut down Lamar Jackson | Buffalo  Bills News | NFL | buffalonews.com

Though Jackson’s passing ability is less impressive than his running, he is more than capable in the pocket.

Baltimore’s offense is built entirely around running the ball. They ranked first in the league in rushing yards last year and had 31 runs of over 20 yards. That explosiveness allows Jackson to focus more on short plays in the passing game, at which he is among the league’s best. He had a 73% completion percentage on short throws last year, one point behind Mahomes.

Even if Jackson never becomes an elite deep ball thrower, his accuracy and ability to move the chains will keep Baltimore in Super Bowl contention for years to come.

Top 100 NFL Players of 2021: 80-71

Throughout the offseason, Baseline Times will be ranking the top 100 NFL players for the 2021 season.

Every Thursday night, 10 players will be released with a short discussion about what separates them from the rest of the pack. Rankings are based on both past performance and projections for next year.

Previous Top 100 NFL players:

80. Harrison Smith, S, Vikings

No team has done a better job in the past decade of keeping their defense intact than the Vikings, and Smith is their longest-tenured player. Though he was never truly game-changing, few active players have played at a high level for as long. Last year was his first Pro Bowl snub in six years, but he was just as impressive as always and shows no signs of slipping off.

79. Roquan Smith, LB, Bears

A bruising linebacker very much in line with the Chicago tradition, Smith broke out as a do-it-all player in his third season. He led the league with 18 tackles for loss and ranked second with 98 solo tackles. He was also the first Bear to rank top 10 in the league in tackles since Brian Urlacher.

Chicago’s defense was merely average last year despite tons of talent, but Smith was not part of the problem. He should have been an All-Pro, and likely will be this season.

78. Danielle Hunter, DE, Vikings

Once the unquestioned leader of Minnesota’s pass rush, Hunter missed all of last season with a neck injury. He racked up 29 sacks in the two years before that, earning Pro Bowl honors both times, and will rank much higher on this list next year if he proves he can return to form.

77. Amari Cooper, WR, Cowboys

Amari Cooper has made four trips to the Pro Bowl in six NFL seasons. (Ron Jenkins/Associated Press)

It’s almost impossible for a wide receiver to live up to being the No. 4 overall pick, but Cooper has come pretty darn close. In two and a half seasons with Dallas he has scored 19 touchdowns and become Dak Prescott‘s favorite target.

His stats are not exactly eye-popping — he has yet to top 1,200 yards in a season — but he has the ability to make contested catches and make defenders miss in the open field.

76. Chandler Jones, DE, Cardinals

Chandler Jones has always been in someone else’s shadow. He never got the respect that contemporaries like J.J. Watt and Von Miller did, but statistically he is almost as impressive. Once those players saw a dip in production, his 19-sack 2019 season was obscured by Stephon Gilmore‘s Defensive Player of the Year Award.

But since entering the league in 2012, no one has more than Jones’ 97 sacks — even though he missed most of last year with an arm injury. He and Watt may not produce gaudy numbers together in Arizona, but it is going to be pleasure to watch them both try and cement their cases for the Hall of Fame.

75. Marlon Humphrey, CB, Ravens

Humphrey is one of only a few cornerbacks left who can truly match up with any receiver. Since 2018, he has earned a grade of 90.0 from Pro Football Focus in single coverage, second only to Stephon Gilmore.

His play took a small step back last year but his physical brand of coverage still helped him force eight fumbles, the second-most ever by a defensive back. As he enters his fifth year, he is only going to better.

74. D.K. Metcalf, WR, Seahawks

Metcalf was one of the hardest players to rank on this list. On the one hand, just look at him. His 229-pound frame instantly makes him one of the league’s best deep threats, as evidenced by his 10 touchdowns last year. On the other hand, he lacks the polish so far to get open against elite defenders — Jalen Ramsey held him to 87 yards combined in two games last year.

But he is still much more than just the freak athlete who chased down Arizona’s Budda Baker. He is already the best wideout Russell Wilson has ever played with. If he can improve his quickness and route-running, he has the potential to be the best in the NFL.

73. Demario Davis, LB, Saints

Demario Davis produced 119 tackles last year and remains one of the league’s most disruptive players. (Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press)

The 32-year-old Davis still possesses the physicality of a player five years younger and was on the field for nearly every defensive snap in New Orleans last year. Now entering his tenth season, Davis stands out even on a defense filled with veteran leaders. His energizing prescience will be invaluable as the franchise tries to find its footing without Drew Brees.

72. Aaron Jones, RB, Packers

It’s easy to dismiss Jones’ 25 touchdowns over the past two years as a product of playing on the Packers. Reaching the end zone is not too hard when Davante Adams can make a 50-yard play on a whim.

But Jones is the rare workhorse back who also makes every rush count. He averaged 5.5 yards per attempt last year, second best in the league and almost unprecedented for a fifth-round pick.

With excellent vision, Jones weaves through gaps with ease and patience. It appears that he lacks explosiveness, but avoiding sharp cuts helps him maintain his speed and always gives him a chance at a big play.

71. Keenan Allen, WR, Chargers

Is Keenan Allen the most underappreciated player in football? The sure-handed Chargers wideout made his fourth-straight Pro Bowl last year and was eight yards away from his fifth 1,000-yard season, but is rarely mentioned with the league’s best. He unsurprisingly emerged as Justin Herbert‘s favorite target and will be invaluable while Herbert grows more comfortable in the pocket.

Top 100 NFL Players of 2021: 100-91

Throughout the offseason, Baseline Times will be ranking the top 100 NFL players for the 2021 season.

Every Thursday night, 10 players will be released with a short discussion about what separates them from the rest of the pack. Rankings are based on both past performance and projections for next year.

100. Brian Burns, DE, Carolina Panthers

First-round edge rushers typically take a few years to reach their potential, and Burns’ sophomore stat line suggests that he is in for a big 2021. With ten sacks and three forced fumbles in 14 starts, Burns quietly helped anchor a disappointing Carolina defense and will be a mainstay in a group that lacks an identity.

99. Ronnie Stanley, OT, Baltimore Ravens

Stanley had Pro Football Focus’s top pass-blocking grade when a Week 8 injury ended his season, and led all tackles in the stat in 2019. Lamar Jackson‘s mobility certainly helps in that area, but Stanley has proven more than capable of matching up with T.J. Watt and Myles Garrett twice a year. He has the tools to be truly elite, but will need to be on the field for more snaps before he enters that conversation.

98. Von Miller, LB, Denver Broncos

After missing all of last year with an ankle injury, no one knows if Miller is still the perennial All-Pro that dictated opponents’ game plans. He was a shadow of his former self in 2019 when he posted career-lows in sacks (8) and quarterback hits (20). This year he might be upstaged by rising star Bradley Chubb. Still, the former Super Bowl MVP’s experience should help him finish within the top 100 NFL players.

97. Terron Armstead, OT, New Orleans Saints

Though a case of COVID-19 kept Armstead from starting all 16 games for the first time in his career, he has been a mainstay at left tackle in New Orleans for seven years. Last season, he reached his third-straight Pro Bowl, a level of consistency that will be invaluable as the Saints look for Drew Brees‘ successor.

96. Calais Campbell, DE, Baltimore Ravens

One of the most physically intimidating pass rushers of the last decade, the 300-pound Campbell is nearly 35 and looking to end his career with a Super Bowl ring. He was slightly disappointing last year with a career-low four sacks — three of which came in a monster performance against Philadelphia — but more than justified the fifth-round pick Baltimore traded away for him. There is no reason to believe Campbell won’t earn his fifth-straight Pro Bowl nod this year.

95. Darren Waller, TE, Las Vegas Raiders

There are only two other tight ends on this list, both of whom will predictably rank much higher. But in a league obsessed with speedy wideouts, Waller made a name for himself in 2020 with nine touchdowns and nearly 1,196 yards. He essentially was the Raiders’ passing game, accounting for almost a quarter of the team’s total targets. That speaks more to the lack of talent in Las Vegas than to Waller’s ability, but he will still be all over highlight reels next year.

94. Richard Sherman, CB, Free Agent

Though a rumored reunion with the Seattle Seahawks is unlikely, Sherman will make an immediate impact wherever he ends up. His All-Pro days are behind him at age 33, but he remains perhaps one of the most intelligent corners in NFL history. Expect Sherman to emerge as a locker room leader on yet another Super Bowl contender before his Hall of Fame career is up.

93. John Johnson III, S, Cleveland Browns

Johnson had the league’s most unsung comeback story last year. After a horrific 2019 that ended in six games with a shoulder injury, Johnson played every defensive snap for the Browns in 2020. He allowed only 51 receptions, second-best among safeties. Despite lining up across from former No. 4 overall pick Denzel Ward, Johnson has emerged as the leader of Cleveland’s secondary and one of the top 100 NFL players.

92. Frank Ragnow, C, Detroit Lions

Ragnow is already the league’s highest-paid center. Now he needs to prove he’s worth $70 million. A second-team All-Pro in 2020, Ragnow did not allow any sacks and committed only three penalties. He will play alongside rookie Penei Sewell next year in what could suddenly be a top-caliber offensive line.

91. Devin White, LB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

On a defense loaded with famous faces, White was lost in the crowd after being drafted at No. 5 in 2019. But in the final minutes of Super Bowl LIV, he intercepted Patrick Mahomes in the end zone to cap a stunning postseason performance. White had 38 tackles, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries in three playoff starts. If he can carry that momentum into 2021, All-Pro status will not be out of the question.

Why the Orlando Brown trade is the rare deal where both sides win

On Friday, the Baltimore Ravens shipped Pro Bowl offensive lineman Orlando Brown to the Kansas City Chiefs for a head-spinning exchange of draft picks that essentially ends with the Ravens gaining an extra first-rounder.

When the two (arguably) best teams in football make a deal, the rest of the NFL takes notice. But if everything works out for both parties involved, the Ravens and Chiefs could end up as virtual locks to play each other in the AFC Championship Game. The Chiefs addressed their biggest free agency need, and the Ravens got a solid return for a player who publicly requested a trade.

Let’s take a look at the Chiefs. In the Super Bowl, Kansas City put forth the worst postseason offensive line performance I’ve seen in my lifetime. They made Jason Pierre-Paul look like Aaron Donald, and gave Patrick Mahomes — on average — .04 seconds to throw the football (give or take a few milliseconds). Mahomes is good at extending plays, but even he can’t do it if he’s lying on his back.

Unsurprisingly, the Chiefs have spent free agency upgrading the line. Brown is the third former All-Pro they’ve signed in the past two months. In a stunning move, they released former No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher in March. They then coaxed Joe Thuney away from the Patriots and brought Kyle Long out of retirement. 

With the trade, the Chiefs are once again the consensus favorites to win the Super Bowl. Brown gives them the talent to match up with the intimidating defensive lines of NFC powerhouses like the Buccaneers and Rams.

Meanwhile, the Ravens are now in prime position to address their biggest need—wide receiver—in a draft with a historic amount of talent at the position. Last year, the Ravens led the league in rushing yards but finished dead last in passing yards. 

Just letting Lamar Jackson run it every play actually seems to be working pretty well, but eventually they’ll need to throw the ball if they want to make a deep run in January. Marquise Brown is a talented receiver, but fits better as a speedy No. 2 option to complement a true gamechanger.

Baltimore now holds picks Nos. 27 and 31, giving them an opportunity to draft a late-round wideout like Rashod Bateman or Elijah Moore while still upgrading on defense. Or, as I expect them to, they could package both picks to trade up and draft Jaylen Waddle or Devonta Smith. 

The Carolina Panthers at No. 8 and the New York Giants at No. 11 have expressed a willingness to move back in the first round. Both need an edge rusher and an offensive lineman, and solid prospects like Azeez Ojuilar and Alex Leatherwood may be available where the Ravens are picking.

With Jackson still on his rookie contract for two more years, landing Waddle or Smith is the sort of all-in move that could help the Ravens capitalize on their championship window.

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