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Don’t Be Shocked If Chargers Take Lamar Jackson at Pick 17

The Bolts are on the brink of becoming legitimate contenders, but a first-round pick looking towards the future wouldn’t be a bad idea in the slightest

NFL: Combine Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since Tom Telesco first put on a hat featuring a yellow lightning bolt, the modus operandi of his front office has revolved around one concept: mum’s the word.

Leading up to almost all of his drafts, the Chargers GM has a tradition of keeping whispers to a minimum and running a tight ship. Remember when Draft Internet blew up with reports about the team shipping Rivers to Tennessee in order to secure Marcus Mariota with the #2 overall pick in 2015? Or, as recently in 2016, when the Chargers surprised many by selecting Joey Bosa third, even though they came out afterwards saying the former Buckeye was their guy all along?

Another strategy Telesco’s office has used is to not meet with the prospect they’re targeting in the first round, effectively smoke-screening their true intentions by doing their homework on guys they’re not interested in. The team did not meet with their respective 2013 and 2014 first-rounders in D.J. Fluker and Jason Verrett; this trend may have been bucked in recent years, however, as they did, in fact, meet with Melvin Gordon, Joey Bosa, and Mike Williams before the draft.

With all this being said, it’s been surprising this spring to hear the effusive praise mounted on Lamar Jackson—the 2016 Heisman Winner and superstar quarterback out of Louisville—by members of the Chargers’ organization. Telesco commented on Jackson’s rare leadership skills at the combine, and at the same event, head coach Anthony Lynn described Jackson as a “nightmare for defenses.” The team has shown a not-so-subtle interest in him in other ways as well, with offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and Co. traveling to his pro day in Kentucky and reportedly spending a little bit more time with him than others.

It’s not surprising to hear the love for Jackson stemming from Lynn and his ground-and-pound style, however, as they were brought in to right the lopsided ship Mike McCoy left behind. In October 2017, when he was in the middle of what looked like a lost rookie campaign, Lynn came out seemingly against his owe veteran QB by stating, “The days of the one-dimensional pocket-passing quarterback in the NFL are over...I know coaches and experts say and want to think otherwise, but the fact is, if you don’t have a quarterback who can give you some kind of effective movement, you’ve got a dead offense.”

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers Kickoff Ceremony Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, this was before Lynn and Whisenhunt opened up the offense for Philip Rivers to go back to his gun-slinging ways and the team found a great deal of success through the air. Thus, this begs two questions: first, is Anthony Lynn’s clear preference for the ground game and a mobile quarterback necessary and/or viable in today’s NFL? And second, does the team absolutely, positively need to draft Rivers’ replacement while he’s still balling out?

I’ll start that second question off with a resounding no—for this year, at least. The Chargers pick in an unimpressive spot at #17; with the way QB-needy teams have been jostling for draft position, it’s all but impossible that the perceived Top Five options in Jackson, Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, and Baker Mayfield last that long. My guess is that in order to guarantee they get their guy, the club would need to trade into the Top Ten, which—with needs at OT, DT, LB, and S—could be disastrous in terms of lost draft capital.

Basically, what I’m saying is that Philip Rivers proved that though he may have lost some of the zip on his fastball, he certainly can still lead a high-powered offense at the ripe age of 36. After all, Tom Brady has proven that 40 is the new 20, and with Rivers’ contract up in two years, it is almost certain that he won’t have fallen off a complete cliff by then. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but it’s safe to believe that Rivers will be, at worst, a game manager and not the focal point of the offense.

Therefore, with some putrid AFC West competition—and an overall weak lineup of AFC competition nonetheless—we would be safe in saying that with a solid draft, the Chargers could most certainly find themselves representing the conference in February. They have the pieces, particularly key contributors on cheap deals such as Joey Bosa, Hunter Henry, and Tyrell Williams. With the right amount of talent influx, the team will be right there with the best in the league.

Here’s the inherent problem, though: for the first time since 2015, the Bolts are not picking in the Top Ten of each round. And in looking at Tommy Boy’s draft history picking in the teens, names like Craig Mager, Chris Watt, and D.J. Fluker may very well give you nightmares.

This is the conundrum with registering a mediocre mark in the NFL. I guess you could make the argument that the Chargers should prepare for terribleness in the post-Rivers era in order to secure a top draft pick and pick the quarterback of their dreams. Hell, they wouldn’t be the first team to do it. Nevertheless, this is the point in which we weigh the talent of Lamar Jackson against the so-called “blue-chip prospects” that are likely to be available when the Bolts are on the clock.

If guys like Derwin James, Vita Vea, or Quenton Nelson slide, then yes, I believe TT can absolutely justify an “all-in” mentality by taking these top talents. But personally, I’m not a big believer in drafting inside linebackers (Vander Esch, Evans) or run-stuffing big men (Payne) in the first because I think you can pick up similar talent later on in the draft. The idea of pairing Hurst with Ingram and Bosa is tantalizing, and there are some offensive lineman like Mike McGlinchey and Isaiah Wynn that are intriguing. Overall, though, I don’t really think there’s a ton of home-run options that are objectively better prospects than Jackson that are likely to be available than Jackson at 17.

Let’s go back to that first question, then: is having a mobile quarterback as fundamentally vital to a team’s success in today’s NFL as Anthony Lynn seems to make it out to be. Similarly, the answer here is no.

NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s the list of quarterbacks who have won the Big Game since 2010: Brees, Rodgers, Eli, Flacco, Wilson, Brady (2x), Peyton, and Foles/Wentz. All of these guys fall on a spectrum of varying degrees of mobility (Peyton and Brady to Wilson and Rodgers), but the main constant here is that they are all indeed effective pocket passers.

It takes more than one guy to win a Super Bowl, of course, and “running” quarterbacks such as Cam Newton and Michael Vick have found sustained success in the league. But again, the best quarterbacks are the ones who can sling the rock, period—and that’s where Jackson falls into the discussion.

About a month ago, The Ringer published a piece by Rodger Sherman talking about how it was okay to question Jackson’s quarterbacking skills yet impossible to assume he’s anything but a quarterback. Sherman made sure to call out Bill Polian’s argument as to why Jackson should switch to receiver:

...Polian called Jackson too “short and slight” to succeed at quarterback, even though Jackson’s 6-foot-2, 216-pound frame makes him the same height as and a pound heavier than Andy Dalton, and an inch shorter and two pounds heavier than Kirk Cousins.

This bridges to my next point: contrary to the beliefs of people whose only familiarity with Jackson’s play on the field revolves around highlight videos featuring him turning on the jets and scrambling past all-too-slow defenders, he’s actually a gifted passer.

Like, really good.

I know this, you probably know this. Yet the YouTube generation wants to believe Jackson is a “short and slight” QB that’ll go the way of RG3 before him, running himself into the ground and not having the build of a Cam Newton to survive.

There just is no proof of this ridiculousness! Unlike the aforementioned RG3, the guy ran an offense at Louisville on par with some of the pros, even if not everyone seems to be on the same page regarding this particular subject. He was asked to make progressions and throws that his counterparts in this year’s draft didn’t even do and, if the Chargers’ Week 16 tilt with the Jets proved, an actual NFL QB by the name of Bryce Petty still hasn’t learned. With all the noise Bill Polian and Mel Kiper’s “stats are for losers” have drummed up, the analysis of Jackson’s game seems to be coming in an honest fashion from one specific source—Jackson himself:

If Jackson’s mobility means there’s an injury concern present, ask yourself this: if you believed you had a shot at the next Aaron Rodgers or Ben Roethlisberger, guys who miss time to extend plays and sometimes pay the price for it, would you still go for it? And do you think these questions were being asked when those guys were entering the league, or is there a confounding factor?

I know a lot of what I’m saying has been covered in much greater detail, so I’ll conclude by stating why I’m on board with Telesco pulling the trigger on Jackson. I think that with a few kinks ironed out, the guy has the potential to be a real, once-in-a-generation-type player in the NFL. I really do. He put up video game numbers against some of the best teams in all of college football, and I know I’m not the only guy on the blog currently singing his praises.

He’d be able to sit behind Rivers for at least two years and inherit a battle-tested team set up to dominate for years to come.His unique talent would be utilized to the utmost degree, blending Whisenhunt’s penchant for a West Coast offense with Anthony Lynn’s love for a dynamic run game, and his star couldn’t be greater or more exciting than in the City of Angels.

In the end, if I could nab any prospect in the draft, would I side with Jackson? Probably not. He may not even be my favorite quarterback, as I’m still torn between him and one Baker Mayfield. But as alluded to before, with the way the draft board is shaping up, the amount the Chargers would need to give up in order to presumably pick Mayfield would be too great, and Jackson could very well be sitting pretty come #17.

Besides, I love Phil as much as the next guy, but c’mon, this is his last shot to prove he’s that Hall of Fame, Super-Bowl-caliber quarterback we all believe him to be. Should the team draft Jackson, it could signal to their veteran stalwart that they’re preparing for the transition, which might lead to a sticky situation. On the flip side, it could light a fire under Rivers’ ass, like the Chiefs’ selection of Pat Mahomes did to Alex Smith. And, in all honesty, an angry, pissed-off Philip Rivers who knows the end is near—along with one of the most talented teams he’s ever quarterbacked—might be the one to push the 2018 Chargers over the edge.