In 2019, Lamar Jackson was, by near-universal decree, the NFL’s best player. He broke Ravens passing records and league rushing records. He confounded opposing defensive coordinators. He earned unanimous NFL Most Valuable Player honors.
Pro Football Focus’ judgment was less flattering. Jackson graded out as an elite player on the analytics site, but he was not the league’s highest-rated player, nor was he the highest-rated quarterback. The Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson, Tennessee Titans’ Ryan Tannehill and New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees finished the season with better offensive grades. Jackson (90.1 overall grade) was QB4.
“2019 was always a weird season,” Gordon McGuinness, PFF’s head of content, recalled in an interview Tuesday. He remembered seeing fans on X, formerly known as Twitter, asking that season whether this Lamar Jackson was the best version imaginable. McGuinness didn’t think it was, even if his production — 4,333 total yards, a combined 43 touchdowns — suggested otherwise. “The statistical season of 2019 is probably something that’s incredibly difficult to repeat.”
Jackson was only 22 that season. He seemed capable of even greater greatness. Four years later, that awesome potential is coming to life. Jackson enters the Ravens’ game Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals not as the NFL’s most productive quarterback but as PFF’s QB1 (90.8 overall grade). Only the Miami Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa has a higher passing grade, one of three primary facets PFF evaluates on offense, along with rushing and receiving.
“You’ve got to say it,” Ravens outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy said Wednesday. “He’s playing at an MVP level.”
Even after a starring performance in the Ravens’ 38-6 win Sunday over the Detroit Lions, Jackson does not profile, at least statistically, as an obvious MVP contender. Although he’s leading all NFL quarterbacks in rushing yards (363), he’s 13th in passing yards (1,610) and tied for 14th in passing touchdowns (eight). He’s also fumbled eight times.
But PFF, in its grading process, considers not only performance but context. On every play, players receive scores of minus-two to plus-two, measured in half-point increments, which are then aggregated and converted to a grade on a scale of zero to 100. PFF says its small army of senior analysts reviews each grade at least once using “every camera angle available.”
Quarterbacks are rewarded for making accurate throws and sound decisions. They’re punished for missing opportunities and creating trouble. Jackson has graded out so well this season, McGuiness said, in large part because of his strong play-to-play process. Even when Jackson’s results have lagged, it’s often been because of shortcomings elsewhere on the Ravens’ offense.
McGuiness pointed to the Ravens’ 17-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 5. It was Jackson’s highest-graded game this season, according to PFF, and also, statistically, his worst. He finished 22-for-38 (57.9%) — his only game with a completion rate below 70% this season — and had two turnovers.
But Ravens receivers dropped seven passes, according to PFF, two of which would’ve been caught in the end zone, another of which could’ve been raced in for another score. Even Jackson’s giveaways weren’t marked as grievous mistakes. McGuinness said wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. had an opportunity to contest the end-zone pass that Jackson threw for an interception. Steelers outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, meanwhile, needed less than three seconds for his blind-side strip-sack.
“The Pittsburgh game, by and large, it comes down to the drops, right?” McGuinness said, joking that it was a once-in-a-decade kind of performance. He added: “The Lions’ game this week is probably what happens in the Pittsburgh game if they don’t have those drops and mistakes early on.”
Jackson’s 357-yard, three-touchdown performance Sunday showcased his development as a passer. Over 16 games in 2019, PFF said Jackson had 20 “big-time throws,” which McGuinness said have a high value and high degree of difficulty, typically aimed downfield or into a tight window. In seven games this season, Jackson has 14 big-time throws, including four against Detroit. His big-time-throw rate is 6.5%, fourth in the NFL among regular starters and by far a career high.
Jackson also doesn’t have what PFF considers a “turnover-worthy play” on his 68 passes of at least 10 air yards this season, according to McGuinness. He had nine such throws in his MVP season.
“He is just throwing the ball probably better than he ever has over this seven-game stretch,” McGuinness said.
“I think he’s sensing people around him even outside the pocket and then seeing the receivers downfield,” coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “That combination probably showed up yesterday as much as it ever has in terms of the playmaking.”
The biggest drag on Jackson’s grade has been ball security. He has the third-worst fumbling grade among regular starters, a reflection of just how self-inflicted his woes have been. Jackson fumbled six times in the Ravens’ first four games, and a seventh was nullified because of a penalty.
“You can kind of see it a little bit in his by-game grades,” McGuiness said, noting that Jackson has finished his past three games with three of his best marks of the season. “A big part of that is that, as well as improving as a passer, he’s also not making those same mistakes as a fumbler, whereby it’s his fault.”
Jackson has gotten help, too. He’s playing behind an offensive line that PFF considers the fourth best in the NFL. He’s throwing to a much-improved receiving corps. He’s running an offense that, under first-year coordinator Todd Monken, has embraced more sophisticated passing concepts. (McGuinness said three or more receivers have gotten open on 33% of their passing plays this year, up from 23.9% last season under former coordinator Greg Roman.)
But there is room for improvement, just as there was in 2019. After Sunday’s win, Jackson seemed ambivalent about his performance, which on Wednesday was rewarded with AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors. He was frustrated by another fumble. He was reluctant to play up the significance of the blowout win. He seemed to be replaying what he did wrong, doing the math on his own internal PFF grade.
This week, he met with quarterbacks coach Tee Martin to review Sunday’s game film. There’s “really no praise or anything like that in the meeting room,” he said Wednesday. “It’s how you can get better from the film, and then from the past game, and on to the next.”