It was Week 10 of the 2019 season, and the Ravens were blasting the Bengals in the fourth quarter of an eventual 49-13 victory. Lamar Jackson was already sitting on the bench, his MVP work finished for the day with four total touchdowns when he was approached by Baltimore coach John Harbaugh.
Harbaugh sat down next to Jackson, and their conversation was caught on camera and tweeted out by the Ravens. Harbaugh was clearly amazed with Jackson completing 15-of-17 passes for 223 yards and three touchdowns, as well as rushing seven times for 65 yards and a touchdown. For fun, when you're done reading this story, go check out the rushing score Jackson had in that game against Cincinnati. It looks like a video game is coming to life.
"Most quarterbacks worry about their stats, but you're a leader," Harbaugh told Jackson. "I love the way you play. You don't flinch, you just attack. All you do is attack."
"It's all I know," Jackson responded.
"You changed the game, man," Harbaugh said.
"And we're going to keep it going," Jackson said.
Both men were right with their statements there. Jackson did keep it going, leading the Ravens to the No. 1 seed in the AFC in a 14-2 campaign. While Baltimore fell short in the playoffs, losing to Tennessee 28-12 in the Divisional Round, the Ravens had a memorable year. They won 12 games in a row to close out the regular season, and Jackson was the NFL MVP.
Harbaugh was also correct to say Jackson changed the game. He passed for 3,127 yards and rushed for 1,206 yards, becoming the only quarterback in NFL history with 3,000-plus passing yards and 1,000-plus rushing yards in the same season.
His rushing yards are the most ever for a quarterback, surpassing Michael Vick's 1,039 yards in 2006. And he's the first-ever quarterback with 1,000 rushing yards and 30-plus touchdown passes after he led the NFL with 36 passing touchdowns in 2019. He also added seven rushing touchdowns and had just eight total turnovers (six interceptions and two lost fumbles).
Jackson was easily the No. 1 Fantasy quarterback last season — by a wide margin. He scored 90 more Fantasy points than No. 2 quarterback Dak Prescott and averaged over seven more Fantasy points per game than anyone else. His 32.47 Fantasy points per game was better than Patrick Mahomes' 32.25 from 2018, when Mahomes passed for more than 5,000 yards and scored 52 total touchdowns.
Jackson was a cheat code. I suggested last year that he was a sleeper given that his Average Draft Position was outside of the top 12 quarterbacks — he was at No. 18 and being selected at No. 99.8 overall on average, if you can believe that -- but he far exceeded anyone's expectations with his performance. Well, maybe not the expectations of his teammates.
Ravens running back Mark Ingram came to Baltimore last year as a free agent. He heard the criticism of Jackson after his rookie season that he was a bad passer and wasn't a quarterback to build around. Ingram had a much different view of Jackson immediately during OTA workouts.
"Everyone was knocking him saying he couldn't throw, and I was seeing him deliver all these passes in OTAs against a good (Ravens) defense," Ingram told CBS Sports. "For me to see him go through his progressions to hit his fourth read, him delivering touch passes, him delivering darts — I'm like, 'this kid is special.'
"Obviously, he has the running ability, but he has the ability to make all the throws as well. When I saw him do that in OTAs, it just really opened my eyes to realize this guy is special. He has everything you need in a franchise quarterback."
Ingram spent the first part of his career with Drew Brees in New Orleans and said that while their playing styles are obviously different, Jackson and Brees both possess the qualities you look for in an elite quarterback in the NFL.
"They both want to be great," Ingram said. "Their work ethic. The way the team gravitates behind you. Being a quarterback, you want your team to follow you. You want your organization to believe in you. The fact that Lamar brings that same type of energy with guys gravitating toward him, that's where their similarities are at — their leadership, their work ethic, the drive to want to be the best, the drive to want to be champions. That's where they're at."
Humility is also part of Jackson's skill set
I asked Jackson about his performance in 2019 during practice for the Pro Bowl in January. He said all the things a humble 23-year-old is supposed to say.
What can you improve on?
"Everything," Jackson said. "I want to get better at everything. There's always room for improvement. I'm not perfect. There's always a way to get better."
Do you feel like you're the best player in the NFL right now?
"I'm not the best," he said. "I'm not the greatest. I'm trying to get somewhere. I'm trying to win the Super Bowl."
How would you defend yourself as a defensive coordinator?
"I'd be scared if I was playing against myself," Jackson responded. "I don't know. I'd be kind of nervous. 'He can do it all.'"
He can do it all. But can he do it all again this season? It's hard for a quarterback to repeat as the No. 1 Fantasy quarterback in consecutive years. The last time it happened was with Brees in 2011-12.
That's part of the reason I have Jackson labeled as a bust this year. He's probably going to be drafted too soon, likely in Round 1, and you never want to chase past production.
Part of the reason quarterbacks don't repeat as the No. 1 player at their position is injuries. Andrew Luck missed nine games in 2015 after finishing as the No. 1 quarterback in 2014. Aaron Rodgers also missed nine games in 2017 after being the best Fantasy passer in 2016. And Mahomes missed two games last year.
Now, Mahomes did finish as the No. 6 quarterback in 2019, so he didn't crush your Fantasy season. But he was drafted with pick No. 13.9 overall on average, and he didn't deliver on those lofty expectations.
You also have to be concerned about Jackson's rushing stats coming down. Since 2010, there have been 24 times where a quarterback has rushed for at least 500 yards in a season. Three of those happened in 2019 with Jackson, Kyler Murray and Josh Allen. Of the other 21 times, only six times has the quarterback rushed for more yards the following season, including Jackson last year after he had 669 rushing yards in 2018.
We don't know how Vick would have done after his record-breaking performance in 2006 because he went to federal prison in 2007 for his involvement in a dog fighting ring. And it's hard to expect Jackson's rushing totals to improve after his dominance on the ground last year.
He said in April he plans to run less, which lowers his Fantasy appeal, and he had 176 attempts last season. That was 67 more carries than any other quarterback, but any decline in his rushing prowess hurts his Fantasy outlook. And you also have to worry about other teams figuring him out after studying him all offseason.
Becoming a focus for all opposing defenses
I asked Steelers standout pass rusher T.J. Watt about Jackson at the Pro Bowl, and he said Jackson is "tough. A hell of a player. He'll make you miss in a phone booth. Tough guy to go against for sure." He also said his job is to stop Jackson in 2020.
Watt's Steelers were actually the only team to hold Jackson under 20 Fantasy points last year. He scored 13 points at Pittsburgh in Week 5 when he had 161 yards passing, one touchdown and three interceptions on 19-of-28 completions. And he ran for 70 yards. Jackson did not play the Steelers in Week 17 at home when he was resting for the playoffs.
"A lot of us and coaches and other players are trying to figure it out this offseason," Watt said. "That's the special thing about the Baltimore Ravens game is that not a lot of teams have figured out the offense. That will be a point of emphasis this offseason. He had a great year."
Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2019, said it's tough to repeat past performances in the NFL. Gilmore said eventually, everyone gets figured out by defenses, to a certain degree.
"It starts over every year," Gilmore said. "You have to earn it every year. That's how it goes."
Ingram said good luck trying to slow down Jackson this season.
"I don't know how you defend him," Ingram said. "He can throw it, he can run it. I guess you try to bend but don't break. You know he's going to make his plays, but I guess you just try to limit those."
Adding even more weapons to a scary offense
The Ravens realize they can't be stagnant on offense and just rely on what they did in 2019 and hope to do it again. Baltimore added several playmakers in the NFL Draft, including running back J.K. Dobbins in Round 2 from Ohio State and receivers Devin Duvernay from Texas in the third round and James Proche from SMU in the sixth round.
Baltimore hopes to get an improved sophomore campaign from receiver Marquise Brown, who battled through a foot injury as a rookie, but gave us a glimpse of his upside in the playoff loss against the Titans. He had seven catches for 126 yards on 11 targets in that game, and he's a breakout candidate this year. I would draft Brown as early as Round 6 in all leagues.
Mark Andrews is one of the top tight ends in the NFL and in Fantasy, and he's worth drafting in Round 4. And Ingram is still the leader of this backfield, and he's worth a pick in Round 4 in non-PPR leagues and Round 5 in PPR. Dobbins, for now, is just a handcuff to Ingram with a mid- to late-round pick.
It's not the best group of skill players in the NFL, but there is plenty of potential. And the offensive line is still one of best in the league, even after standout right guard Marshall Yanda's retirement.
But Jackson is the key to it all. And he could be the key to your Fantasy roster if you draft him with an early-round selection. Even if he doesn't get selected in Round 1, it's doubtful he's making it out of Round 2 in one-quarterback leagues (he's an obvious pick in Round 1 of two-quarterback and Superflex formats).
If he stays healthy, Jackson should continue to post eye-popping stats and make plenty of highlight-reel plays like he did that day in November against the Bengals. Harbaugh had one more thing to say to Jackson during their conversation on the bench.
"Do you know how many little kids in this country are going to be wearing No. 8 playing quarterback for the next 20 years?" Harbaugh asked.
"I can't wait to see it when I get older," Jackson said. "But right now, I gotta get to the Super Bowl."
That's Jackson's goal for this season. He has yet to win a playoff game in two trips to the postseason, but he wouldn't mind following in the footsteps of Mahomes this year. After winning the NFL MVP award in 2018, Mahomes was the Super Bowl MVP for the Chiefs in 2019.
"I'd love to follow that path from the MVP to the Super Bowl," Jackson said. "That would be a great path to follow that guy. I hope it happens."
Fantasy managers are hoping for more of the same from Jackson this season. They are hoping for 3,000-plus passing yards, 1,000-plus rushing yards and 40-plus total touchdowns again.
Once you get a taste of that kind of greatness, you covet it. And now we'll find out if Jackson can do it again in 2020.
So what Fantasy football sleepers should you snatch in your draft? And which WR1 candidate can you wait on until late? Visit SportsLine now to get Fantasy Football cheat sheets from the model that was all over Derrick Henry's huge season, and find out.