Before we get started, let me say two things.
First: I doubt the Bengals will draft Lamar Jackson even though I believe it could make them better in the long run.
Second: I am always a proponent of sitting a quarterback early in his career. Perhaps that makes the Bengals and Jackson a more natural fit in my eyes than someone else’s.
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Admittedly, this is more a fun thought experiment than anything else, but I believe there is a case to be made for Cincinnati looking to Louisville for its quarterback for the future, especially if things break just right.
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It could even be consistent with their general philosophy for drafting during the Marvin Lewis era, depending on what kind of grade they give Jackson after evaluating him.
1. Putting aside position, this is the kind of pick the Bengals love to make.
The 2016 Heisman Trophy winner has the physical tools, but they need some refining.
That means he won’t go No. 1 overall even though he might have top pick ability.
The Bengals are all about value picks like that for reasons both practical and monetary.
That’s certainly why they tabbed Joe Mixon with their No. 2 pick last year and probably why they picked John Ross even though receiver was low on their list of needs.
No question this inspired the selection of Cedric Ogbuehi a couple of years earlier as he had slid because of an injury, too, not to mention how they ended up with numerous other players both via the draft and free agency.
So Jackson could make some sense to them in real life along those lines.
2. The Bengals are in a great position to develop him.
They have a capable quarterback in Andy Dalton, but he is coming off a year in which he ranked in the bottom third of quarterbacks in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus.
Even if you want to explain that away by saying he didn’t have enough help, I would counter it’s still fairly clear the position isn’t being maximized.
There are other quarterbacks who have played as long as he has who handled a lack of help better, Aaron Rodgers probably being the best example. Plus the Bengals collection of skill players is still pretty good.
Then you might say, “Well Andy Dalton isn’t Aaron Rodgers, but he can still be a productive player.”
That is true, but shouldn’t the team strive to have a quarterback as good as Aaron Rodgers as much as it reasonably can?
3. Their current starter has a team-friendly contract.
According to OverTheCap.com, Dalton is set to be the 18th-highest-paid quarterback in the NFL this year (he will drop as more sign, too), and they aren’t on the hook for a lot of guaranteed money if they decide to release him before his contract is up.
Teams looking for stop-gap starters who also plan to draft a quarterback of the future are likely to end up paying more for the former than the Bengals are going to pay Dalton this year, so why shouldn’t the team consider taking a shot at a talent like Jackson?
The Bengals can hedge their bets on Dalton by drafting a high-ceiling quarterback who either A) Doesn’t work out, which also happens with a lot of other draft picks, B) Becomes a reliable backup, which is important, C) Ends up being better than what they have.
Those are pretty good options to me.
4. Jackson could learn a lot by watching.
At Louisville, Jackson did enough from a playbook perspective there is good reason to believe he can handle all the general things an NFL quarterback does, but like pretty much all young quarterbacks, it won’t come together for him overnight.
For as powerful as his arm is, he has some mechanical issues that need to be cleaned up, and that can be done on the practice field.
It will need to be because right now he is a big-play threat, but he needs to be able to take all the layups that will be presented to him in order to move the chains and be an efficient quarterback.
I don’t know if he can make enough precise throws from the pocket necessary to thrive in the NFL yet, but that should come with time and work on his lower body (many quarterbacks coaches would rather mess with this than the actual throwing motion).
Jackson is probably so explosive he can get by early in his career just on raw ability, a la Mike Vick, but I need more than that.
If he has complete mastery of the playbook and some of the more nuanced things that go into being a quarterback, he could be in position to excel as soon as he gets the job rather than having to do what he can just to survive, which inevitably also includes a high risk of injury if he has to scramble frequently.
5. The point of the draft is to get the most players with the most talent.
If the Bengals reach a point where Jackson is the most talented player on the board when they are picking, they should take him.
That would be consistent with the way they have drafted throughout the Marvin Lewis era, a philosophy of taking the best player available that has helped them at times and hurt them others.
At worst, Jackson could be a Kordell Stewart-like change-of-pace player even if he never evolves into Steve Young.
At best, he becomes a star and they can release Dalton without a huge cap hit.
The 12th pick might be too high for the Bengals to select Jackson, but maybe they like him enough to trade back into the first round after grabbing a sorely needed offensive tackle. Maybe if he somehow slides to the second round, they decide that’s too good to be true and make the call then.
Maybe they don’t do any of those things… no matter how much sense it might make.