Offensive Player Rankings, Week 9: What's behind Lamar Jackson's struggles?

Lamar Jackson’s struggles this season could be a sign of history repeating itself. Let me refresh your memory as I make this comparison …

Almost a decade before taking over the Baltimore Ravens’ offense in 2019, Greg Roman was developing Colin Kaepernick — then a raw but extremely athletic passer — with the San Francisco 49ers in his first stint as an NFL offensive coordinator. Halfway through his second season, Kaepernick replaced Alex Smith as the team’s QB1 and dazzled with his extraordinary dual-threat ability, shredding defenses in a system that featured run-pass options and designed runs.

Sound familiar?

Roman has done similar work with Jackson in Baltimore over the last couple years by utilizing the QB’s video-game-like rushing ability to make him one of the most dangerous weapons in football despite his limitations as a passer. Both Kaepernick and Jackson took the league by storm under Roman, with Kaepernick helping lead the 49ers to an NFC title in his second season and Jackson winning the MVP award in Year 2.

However, after nearly winning a championship, the 49ers started to alter their offense and turned Kaepernick into more of a dropback passer as a means of protecting him from big hits. With a guy as dynamic as Kap, I understand why a franchise would want to shield him from wear and tear, but by limiting him from fully utilizing his greatest asset, a decline in production seemed likely to follow. Sure enough, Kaepernick’s passer rating and average yards per pass attempt decreased in each of the two seasons that followed his peak 2012 campaign. Roman left San Francisco after the 2014 season and Kaepernick lost the starting job a couple years later.

A look at Jackson’s production in 2020 has me wondering if the Ravens are falling into the same trap. It sure feels that way. In the Ravens’ Divisional Round loss last season, Tennessee built a lead and took Baltimore out of its game, forcing Jackson to throw a career-high 59 times. This season, with the Ravens focused on trying to avoid a repeat of the same fate, Jackson’s completion percentage is down nearly three points from where it was at this time last year and he’s not being utilized as a runner at the same rate:

Through seven games in 2019: 83 att., 576 yds, 3 TDs, 6.9 rush ypc, 82.3 rush ypg* Through seven games in 2020:* 66 att., 411 yds, 2 TDs, 6.2 rush ypc, 58.7 rush ypg

Now, Baltimore’s offensive line has taken its lumps, losing eight-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda to retirement in the offseason and All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley to a season-ending ankle injury on Sunday. But Roman must dial up creative play-calling to help Jackson be more effective as a runner. The reigning MVP strikes fear into defenders as a ball-carrier in space, but we haven’t seen the wide array of explosive plays we did a season ago. Jackson has averaged fewer than 5.0 yards per carry in three of the Ravens’ seven games this season after having three such games in all of 2019.

In addition, Jackson’s turnovers have hampered the Ravens this season, especially against the Steelers on Sunday. After turning the ball over just eight times in his MVP season, Jackson already has seven giveaways in 2020. He looked far from his usual form on Sunday, throwing a pair of picks and fumbling the ball three times (losing two). His most glaring error was the throw directly to Pittsburgh linebacker Robert Spillane that turned into a Steelers’ pick-six on the Ravens’ opening drive. With the Steelers in a base defense, Jackson went through his progressions before coming back to his first option and threw the ball late. That kind of poor decision-making in the pocket can’t happen.

I certainly understand why Roman would be making a greater effort to protect Jackson from hits and help him improve as a passer, but I believe the way to do the latter is to keep Jackson comfortable with designed runs, RPOs, screens, bootlegs, etc. The Ravens need their QB1 to get back to his MVP form if they want to hang with the top dogs in the AFC. It’s a fine line Roman walks as the offensive coordinator, but right now, he’s falling on the wrong side of it.

Top 15 Offensive Players

Each week in the 2020 campaign, former No. 1 overall pick and NFL Network analyst David Carr will take a look at all offensive players and rank his top 15. Rankings are based solely on this season’s efforts. Now, let’s get to it — the Week 9 pecking order is below.

NOTE: Arrows reflect changes from last week’s rankings.

After suffering their first loss of the season in Week 7 to the Arizona Cardinals, it was important for the Seahawks to get back on track against a confident San Francisco 49ers team. That’s exactly what Seattle did. Russell Wilson threw four more touchdowns in the 37-27 victory and looked particularly sharp when using play-action, completing all 13 of his play-action passes for 101 yards and a pair of scores, according to Next Gen Stats. His 26 passing touchdowns this season are the second-most all-time through the first seven games of a season. Tom Brady holds the record, with 27 in 2007. That’s the year the New England Patriots were undefeated before losing in the Super Bowl.

I don’t think many were surprised to see Patrick Mahomes dominate the New York Jets’ defense on Sunday. He had a season-high 416 passing yards and five passing TDs while completing 73.8 percent of his throws. Mahomes continues to be a premier downfield passer as he threw three TDs of 30-plus yards (two to Tyreek Hill and one to Mecole Hardman) on Sunday, bringing his total to a league-high 24 such passes since 2018. 

Alvin Kamara should be receiving strong consideration for Offensive Player of the Year, as he continues to carry an offense that’s missing Michael Thomas and at the mercy of Drew Brees’ waning arm. Kamara logged 163 scrimmage yards in Sunday’s overtime win at Chicago and now has three games with at least 150 scrimmage yards this season (most in the NFL). In addition, he has accounted for 35.6 percent of the Saints’ scrimmage yards in 2020, the highest percentage of any player in the league.

The Aaron Rodgers-Davante Adams connection continues to be the standard as the pair hooked up for three more TDs against the Minnesota Vikings. Adams is tied for the league lead in receiving TDs (seven) despite playing at least two fewer games than the other five wideouts with seven scores (Adam Thielen, Tyler Lockett, DK Metcalf, Mike Evans and Tyreek Hill).

Derrick Henry logged his fourth 100-yard rushing game of the season against a Cincinnati Bengals defense that ranked 28th against the run coming into Sunday’s contest. His 112-yard, one-TD performance wasn’t enough to to overcome a red-zone INT by Ryan Tannehill and the Titans’ defensive deficiencies in this contest, though.

I went into depth above about Jackson’s struggles but to sum it up in one sentence: Four turnovers ain’t gonna cut it.

The Cardinals have a tough stretch ahead with home games against the gritty Dolphins and Bills before traveling to Seattle. In his two career games against the Dolphins (both with the Texans), DeAndre Hopkins averaged 9.5 targets, six receptions and 66 receiving yards along with one TD. With the way he’s playing in Kliff Kingsbury’s system, he’ll likely blow past those numbers in Week 9.

Despite throwing for 291 yards and three TDs, Rodgers and the Packers scored 10.8 fewer points in Sunday’s loss to Minnesota than their season average entering the game (32.8). They especially struggled in the second half, converting just 33.3 percent of the time on both third and fourth down and scoring just eight points. After being stunned by the Vikings, I expect the Packers to come out firing in a Thursday Night Football matchup with the 49ers, who absolutely decimated the Packers’ offense twice last season.

The Buccaneers’ offense failed to find the end zone in the first half against the Giants. However, it didn’t come as a surprise to see Tampa Bay score a pair of TDs over the final two quarters with one of the best players at making adjustments under center. Brady was far from perfect but his focus and ability to keep his teammates zeroed in when their backs were against the wall kept the Bucs from falling to a one-win Giants team.

Derek Carr performed well in the cold, windy conditions in Cleveland, outplaying Baker Mayfield and leading the Raiders to a road win in a low-scoring affair to improve to 4-3. Both teams struggled to generate any offense consistently, but I thought Derek did a nice job getting the ball out when he needed to and the offensive line, which was without a couple of starters, did its job by holding Myles Garrett without a sack and paving the way for Josh Jacobs and the rushing attack. It wasn’t always pretty but the Raiders got the job done.

There wasn’t much the Chiefs’ offense couldn’t do in its 35-9 rout of the Jets. Travis Kelce registered a season-high 109 receiving yards and added his sixth touchdown of the season. This team’s confidence is second to none at midseason.

DK Metcalf is coming off a HUGE performance that saw him post career highs in both receptions (12) and receiving yards (161). He also tied his career high in receiving TDs (two). Metcalf and teammate Tyler Lockett each have seven receiving TDs this season, but it’s the young, athletic wideout who’s really boosted the Seahawks’ offense. He’s a mismatch even against big cornerbacks due to his sheer size and physicality.

If anyone was still questioning Dalvin Cook’s value to the Vikings’ offense, they should stop now. He single-handedly beat the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field with 226 scrimmage yards and four scrimmage TDs. With 11 total touchdowns in six games this season, Cook had the Vikings hanging with Aaron Rodgers and Packers through the first half before pulling away in the second half. It was the best Minnesota has looked offensively all season.

The Buffalo Bills eked out a victory over the New England Patriots with a run-heavy approach (190 rush yards, 149 pass yards). Though the emphasis was on the ground attack, Stefon Diggs accounted for more than half of Buffalo’s yards through the air with six receptions and a game-high 92 yards.

Allen Robinson is in the same realm as DeAndre Hopkins when it comes to catch radius, as a reliable receiver for whichever quarterback the Bears have under center. He leads the Bears with 77 targets (28 more than the next-closest pass catcher), 50 receptions (21 more than the next-closest) and 631 receiving yards (more than 300 more than the next-closest). Without Robinson, this bad Bears offense would be much, much worse. 

DROPPED OUT: George Kittle, TE, 49ers (previously No. 5 — Kittle is expected to miss extended time with a small fracture in his foot, per NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport); Darren Waller, TE, Raiders (No. 14); Ryan Tannehill, QB, Titans (No. 15).

Follow David Carr on Twitter @DCarr8

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