Lamar Jackson Is a Fantastic Passer, and His Play-Action Data Proves It
If you've talked football with me at any length you know two things: I love Lamar Jackson and I love play-action passing.
The Baltimore Ravens quarterback won the 2019 NFL MVP award in large part due to his rushing ability, but his passing efficiency was at the top of the NFL, as well.
With his electric rushing and polarizing passing profile, it may seem obvious that his play-action numbers were off the charts.
But that wasn't the case.
Play-Action in 2019
I can also let you know, by doing a bit of leg work with Pro Football Reference's advanced passing data, Jackson ran play-action on 41% of his passing plays, the highest such figure among passers with at least 200 attempts. This would seem like a dream come true, but here's the thing, Jackson was actually kind of bad at play-action passing.
On play-action pass attempts, Jackson averaged just 5.5 yards per attempt against 10.2 yards per attempt on standard drop backs (actually a league-best in that metric). The league as a whole averaged 7.7 yards per attempt on play-action and 7.0 yards per attempt on standard drop backs.
So something's up here, but a couple of caveats should be granted before moving any further. First, Pro Football Reference only began tracking this data in 2019, so we've only got a one year sample to draw from. But Jackson did complete 72.7% of play-action passes in 2018 before seeing it fall to 66.7%, according to PlayerProfiler.
Regardless, from what studies have been done on play-action, it would seem that play-action efficiency isn't a particularly sticky stat.
Used @PFF data to see whether play action performance relative to non play action performance (as measured by the difference in Y/A) is sticky.
1) It's not. Being good at play action is in general not something inherent to the QB or the system he is playing in. pic.twitter.com/Duog2ZW7dS
— Moo (@PFF_Moo) November 15, 2018
Taken at face value, this means we should expect, wait for it, positive regression to Jackson's per-play passing efficiency, at least in terms of yards per attempt. However, going from Patrick Mahomes-like efficiency to Devlin Hodges-esque on what should ostensibly improve quarterback play likely goes beyond normal variance.
While it's generally true that play-action passing is more efficient than standard passing, it's not universally true. Among quarterbacks who fared worse on play-action than standard drop backs were: Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Carson Wentz, and Kyler Murray. If you're noticing a theme here, there's some intuitive logic behind mobile quarterbacks being worse at play-action.
As Josh Hermsmeyer wrote for FiveThirtyEight, play-action's effectiveness is largely due to its impact on opposing linebackers. You may recognize this as something the Baltimore Ravens' signal caller does with or without play-action because of the threat he poses as a runner.
Does this make Jackson inherently worse at play-action passing? We'll need more data to figure that one out, but it is a distinct possibility.
There's also a question of whether or not the analytics-friendly Ravens have noticed Jackson's bizarre play-action splits. While we're not in concrete conclusion territory, educated guesses are more realistic.
My educated guess: Jackson doesn't benefit from play-action the way most quarterbacks do, but he also isn't as bad at it as 2019 would suggest. As for the Ravens, I believe they continue to run play-action at a high rate, but maybe at only 30% of passing plays as opposed to their 2019 rate. The key takeaway here, though, is that Jackson excels at the more predictable stats, and that can only mean good things going forward.
Application for Fantasy Football
Much has been made of the regression likely to occur for Jackson's passing touchdown total, as well as a possibility of fewer rushing attempts and rushing yards.
Both of those are indisputable, and while the above paragraphs indicate we can expect good things in terms of raw yardage passing efficiency, that won't outweigh the rushing and touchdown regression, which are much more fantasy relevant categories.
Jackson remains the top fantasy quarterback, but his price makes him someone to avoid.
Application for Sports Betting
While betting overs is often an exercise in misplaced optimism, Jackson seems a very good bet to hit the over on his over of 3199.5 passing yards prop on FanDuel Sportsbook.
Assuming Jackson holds or improves his per-pass efficiency, this prop is very achievable even accounting for low volume. Plus, the volume may not be as low as it was a year ago.
We project Jackson for 500 passing attempts on the dot in 2020, which equates to a projection of 3,556 passing yards. That means Jackson can comfortably hit his prop even if he sits out Week 17 again.
Debunking Common Knowledge
The most interesting takeaway from all of this is how much it goes against popular narratives.
Many still insist Jackson is a poor passer, when the data suggest he's one of the best passers. There are also narratives that suggest Jackson is a product of the Baltimore scheme. To be clear, the Ravens do run an innovative scheme, but this data suggest he may also be an independently talented passer.
Regardless, this trend is something to keep an eye on in 2020.