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Since entering the league as a first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson has been under fire. From the start, Jackson has been dismissed thanks to his speed, athleticism, and play style not matching with traditional norms. Some wondered if he should change positions to wide receiver, others called him a glorified running back. Yet, Jackson took everything in stride en route to a unanimous MVP award last season.

But even with his name engraved on the NFL’s MVP award, some have been too quick to point to a hypothetical end to Jackson’s dominance thanks to his play style. Often, critics have used former Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton as an example of how a run-first quarterback can’t survive in the hard-hitting world of professional football.

On the surface, it’s an argument that has some merit. Quarterbacks aren’t built to take that level of punishment. For that matter, most running backs — who do have the body frame, muscle, and experience to handle a bigger load as a ball carrier — can’t manage to stay healthy and in their prime for more than a few years. With examples galore, there seems no way the 6-foot-2, 212-pound Jackson could possibly handle too many seasons where he runs the ball more than a few times a game, much less 176 times a year like in 2019.

But that argument doesn’t come without pretty major asterisks as well.

Jackson, while a mobile quarterback, isn’t used the same way many previously were. The Ravens don’t ask Jackson to power up the middle like the Panthers often did with Newton. Baltimore has also done an excellent job protecting their quarterback, something Newton rarely had while in Carolina. Jackson had the fourth-lowest percentage of times sacked among all quarterbacks who started at least 15 games, and the 12th-lowest among the 58 quarterbacks who started at least once last season.

Where Jackson isn’t built to be a power runner, and isn’t asked to do that often, there are very few in NFL history to have his speed and agility — his record-breaking stats help prove that point. You only need to see a few of Jackson’s highlights to question just how often and hard he actually gets hit. It’s an idea Baltimore offensive coordinator Greg Roman posited last year, saying mobile quarterbacks are often safer because “they’re out in space” and “driving the car.”

With that philosophy in mind, I wanted to see just how many hits Jackson actually took. Going through each game from last season, I counted how many times Jackson ran out of bounds and how often he took a knee and counted them against his total rushing attempts and sacks. Even without counting quarterback slides and touchdown runs where he wasn’t hit at all, Jackson avoided hits 36.18% of the time, running out of bounds or kneeling the ball 72 of 199 touches.

Runs Sacks Out of bounds Kneels 176 23 54 18

Even more impressive was just how consistent Jackson was at this. His lowest percentage of avoided hits came in Week 1 against the Miami Dolphins, where his one kneel down went against his three runs and one sack for a 25% avoidance rate. His highest was in Week 15 against the New York Jets where he ran out of bounds six times, avoiding hits 66.67% of the time.

Week Avoided hits 1 25.00% 2 38.89% 3 36.36% 4 30.77% 5 31.58% 6 40.00% 7 26.67% 9 35.29% 10 28.57% 11 30.00% 12 40.00% 13 35.29% 14 50.00% 15 66.67% 16 29.41%

Even if we were to ignore other plays where Jackson wasn’t tackled (touchdown runs and slides) or the idea his athleticism allowed him to take less damage on hits than other quarterbacks, it would still mean he only got tackled 127 times last season. Compare that to Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who took 48 sacks and ran the ball 75 times (123 total plays). Or to the four other quarterbacks who had a minimum of 40 sacks and 54 rushing attempts last season (minimum 94 total plays).

While it’s clear Jackson does take more hits than the average quarterback and far more than the old-school pocket passer, he’s not that far off from the league’s star quarterbacks either. Wilson hasn’t been shy running the football and he hasn’t had the greatest offensive lines protecting him, yet he’s started all 128 games over his eight seasons in the NFL. The flip side is quarterbacks like Alex Smith, Dan Marino and Peyton Manning, who suffered season-ending injuries from hits they took inside the pocket.

Anyone who plays in the NFL is bound to get injured at some point, it’s a nearly unavoidable part of the game. But for all the talk about the risks Jackson takes as a mobile quarterback, he does a much better job protecting himself than you’d think. With more experience, Jackson will likely continue to cut down on the number of meaningful hits he takes without fully ignoring his physical gifts as a runner.


Best photos from Lamar Jackson’s MVP season

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