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Louisville Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) warms up before the start of the TaxSlayer Bowl NCAA college football game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs, Saturday, Dec. 30, 2017, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

Lamar Jackson has been a fifth wheel throughout the buildup to the 2018 NFL draft. 

He's been left out of the group of four quarterback prospects likely to be selected in the first 10 picks—or possibly even the first five. Jackson is in a tier below Josh Allen, Josh Rosen, Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold, and his ceiling seems to be the mid-to-late first round.

The latest and final round of mock drafts have the Arizona Cardinals as a popular destination at No. 15. Half of the mocks at CBSSports.com have him projected there. At NFL.com, he's included in three of the six first-round mocks from draft experts, with two putting him in the middle of the round.

The evidence Jackson is destined to be a mid-to-late first-round pick goes beyond the educated guessing of mock drafts, too. The strongest sign is recent interest from the New England Patriots, a team that holds the 23rd and 31st picks and will be looking to draft a successor for Tom Brady.

The Patriots recently hosted Jackson for a predraft visit and came away from it "intrigued and impressed," according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. Jackson would be an ideal fit in New England as a quarterback who's oozing with athletic potential and can develop while sitting and learning for a year or two behind Brady.

The Patriots could either select him with one of those first-round picks—if he's available—or trade up and get ahead of the Cardinals by using their four picks in the first two rounds.

If they take him, they will walk away with the steal of the 2018 draft.

Tom Brady will enter his age-41 season in 2018.Tom Brady will enter his age-41 season in 2018.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Soon, Jackson's strange draft journey will reach its conclusion. A passer only one season removed from winning the Heisman Trophy will no longer have to bizarrely justify his status as a quarterback.

And if it ends with his being selected at least 10 picks behind the top four quarterbacks in the 2018 draft, the chances of us being able to look back with both confusion and amusement will increase dramatically.

The common criticism of Jackson centers around his accuracy. By extension, critics are worried that he may need too much time to become comfortable in the pocket.

Lance Zierlein, the draft analyst who writes scouting reports at NFL.com, compared Jackson to Michael Vick while noting his pocket awareness needs to improve along with his throwing mechanics that led to a completion percentage of 57.0 throughout the 21-year-old's collegiate career.

But Jackson has the foundation to overcome these weaknesses quickly. In 2017, he posted a completion percentage of 59.1, a single-season high in his three years at Louisville. More importantly, while Jackson might miss at times on short-to-intermediate throws, his ball placement on attempts with a high degree of difficult is excellent.

Pro Football Focus charted his route tree and discovered that Jackson's passer rating soared above the NCAA average in the deep areas of the field:

PFF Draft @PFF_College

Lamar Jackson's full route tree from 2017 https://t.co/jYxk8dCQvk

The only staple routes that caused him problems were the comeback and out, which both often ask the quarterback to release the ball quickly to the far side of the field. But there's reason to have faith those issues can be corrected given his accuracy up the middle, where chaos often lurks and throwing windows are tight.

Jackson is about to graduate to a league featuring more passing than ever before. A league that featured three quarterbacks with 4,900-plus passing yards in the not-so-distant past (2016) and whose leading passer in each of the last five years has averaged 5,017 yards.

A premium has been placed on being able to consistently fire off accurate throws into the far reaches of the field. Jackson has done that at a high level, and it doesn't take a deep dive into his game film to find video evidence:

ACC Digital Network @theACCDN

WE know Lamar Jackson (@Lj_era8) can make all the throws. #NFLDraft #L1C4 https://t.co/LUp4Anr27n

That's a perfect throw that had to sail about 41 yards through the air on a line—and clear the fingertips of one defender and fall in front of a second—all while hitting the receiver in stride.

Jackson threw that ball as two pass-rushers closed in, which was another frequent sight in 2017. As PFF also noted, Jackson finished the season with the lowest interception rate when pressured against Power Five opponents among draft-eligible quarterbacks (0.9 percent of 112 attempts).

He has calmness and poise in the pocket that he's displayed in clutch situations, including 3rd-and-longs. Jackson has shown he can be trusted during those critical chain-moving passing downs, as Benjamin Solak of NDTScouting observed:

Benjamin Solak @BenjaminSolak

Fun fact: Lamar Jackson had THE HIGHEST Adjusted Conversion Rate on 3rd and 5+ among Draft-eligible QBs in 2017. Lamar Jackson: 52.2% (!) Mason Rudolph: 48.8% Baker Mayfield: 45.8% Josh Rosen: 40.0% Sam Darnold: 37.2% Josh Allen: 35.9% https://t.co/amdPxcub3h

Of course, he gained some of those first downs because of his running ability. But as Solak added, when scrambles are removed, Jackson still leads the draft class with an adjusted conversation percentage on 3rd-and-5 or longer of 46.6.

He's a precise thrower to deep, tight areas and can convert tough third downs reliably. And he'll also generate explosive plays with his running ability that led to 4,132 rushing yards and 50 touchdowns on the ground for Louisville. Why, then, is he solidly a rung below four quarterbacks?

Because NFL front offices are still largely populated by conservative thinkers who fear risk. Which is understandable since most general managers' jobs are insecure. A first-round misstep on a quarterback is a fine way to be pink-slipped while sending your franchise into a deep pit of despair.

But any urge to be safe should be cast aside the moment Jackson gets out of the top 10. At that point, the teams either looking to select him or trade up for him would put Jackson in situations where his flaws can be smoothed over with patient development. All of the likely mid-to-late-round destinations have veteran, short-term solutions in place: Brady with the Patriots, Sam Bradford with the Cardinals, Joe Flacco with the Baltimore Ravens and Drew Brees with the New Orleans Saints.

The risk is then mitigated—or nearly eliminated. And the reward for drafting a dynamic athlete and skilled thrower long after the early-first-round-quarterback-feeding frenzy? That can come in the form of shiny rings and brightly colored banners.

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Source : http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2772026-lamar-jackson-could-be-the-best-bargain-of-the-2018-nfl-draft

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