It was supposed to be at least a temporary pause to the Colts QB carousel that had been spinning since Andrew Luck’s shocking retirement. Matt Ryan was brought to Indianapolis around this time last year with the assurances he’d be the Quarterback for at least the next two seasons. Although Irsay spoke of 3-4 years if things went well.
In news you already knew, things did not go well. Far from stopping the carousel stopping, it spun faster than ever as Ryan, Ehlinger, and Foles all started games last year. Now, Ryan has been cut after a year where he was let down by his supporting cast, but on top of that, clearly showed signs of significant physical decline.
Indianapolis has the opportunity to draft their franchise Quarterback with the 4th overall pick in the 2023 draft. That pick could secure the services of CJ Stroud, Bryce Young, Anthony Richardson, or Will Levis. Although at this stage Richardson seems like the most likely, with Stroud and Young probably already off the board.
However, the Colts also have an opportunity to get Lamar Jackson, following the Ravens’ decision to place the non-exclusive franchise tag on Jackson for this year. That means Jackson is free to negotiate with the Colts and other teams across the NFL. Should the Colts reach an equitable agreement with Jackson, Baltimore would have the opportunity to match that offer. If they didn’t match it, the Colts could get Jackson and Baltimore would get the Colts’ next two first-round picks in return.
That would mean Indianapolis giving up their 4th overall pick this year and their 2024 first-round pick for Jackson. Crucially, teams need to possess their original 2023 and 2024 first-round draft picks to be able to negotiate with Jackson. Were Jackson to still be with the Ravens on the franchise tag after the draft, he would then cost a team’s 2024 and 2025 first-round picks. However, I’m going to assume that if the Colts do get Jackson, it’ll be before the draft.
As an undoubtedly QB-needy team, the Colts have naturally been discussed as a natural candidate for a deal with Jackson. But should Indianapolis be trying to get Lamar Jackson?
— The Blue Stable (@TheBlue_Stable) March 16, 2023
Let’s start with the case for trading for Jackson. Put simply, he’s a 26-year-old former league MVP with a 45-16 win/loss record. He’s the kind of talent that you rarely get the chance to acquire unless you draft them. To put it simply, he’s a franchise QB. He’s much younger than Russell Wilson was when the Broncos traded for him last year and has none of the serious allegations leveled against DeShaun Watson when Cleveland traded for him.
Jackson is an electric running Quarterback but is a much better passing QB than many give him credit for. I suspect Colts fans appreciate Jackson’s arm more than most as we can remember the way he almost singlehandedly won Baltimore the game against the Colts in 2021. You would like to see Jackson get more methodical in deciding when he bails on a passing play and uses his legs, but I suspect that is still coachable.
And what Head Coach could be better for Jackson than Shane Steichen? A rookie head coach yes, but one who is fresh from taking Jalen Hurts to the brink of winning regular season and Super Bowl MVP honors as his Offensive Coordinator. Steichen would be the perfect head coach to utilize Jackson’s dual-threat ability, as seen with Hurts in Philly. His scheme would help him to run the ball according to the plays that are called, rather than just vibes.
Everyone in Indianapolis, from Jim Irsay to us humble fans is sick of treading water at QB as the franchise has been doing since Luck’s retirement. Lamar Jackson would decisively put an end to that. There’s much more certainty around his level of play than with a rookie Quarterback. Even the best QB prospects are high-risk, and none of the QBs in this class are complete prospects like Burrow or Lawrence. You get Lamar Jackson, you get one of the best players at the most important position in football.
Yes, two first-round picks are a high price, but it’s not unreasonable given the hauls involved in the Wilson or Watson trades. Or even the compensation involved in the Jalen Ramsey (to the Rams) and Jamal Adams trades. Yes, his salary is likely to be expensive, but the nature of the QB market is that the price for a great QB keeps going up. Even if the QB in question is someone like Murray or Prescott who isn’t truly elite.
That then is the case for the Colts trading for Lamar Jackson. But what is the argument against it?
Whilst there is no doubting Lamar Jackson’s talent, perhaps we do need to pump the brakes slightly on just how elite he is. Jackson’s 2019 season was incredible, but it was an outlier in his career; just as it was an outlier season for Quarterbacks generally.
The three seasons since have seen Jackson play at a very high level, but he hasn’t been close to the level Mahomes, who sets an almost impossible standard for other QBs to meet. But Jackson has far less playoff success than Joe Burrow, having won only one playoff game. Jackson has also been far surpassed by Jalen Hurts as the best dual-threat Quarterback.
For my money, Mahomes, Burrow, and Hurts are the three best Quarterbacks in the NFL right now. So it’s no great insult to say Jackson isn’t as good as those three. However, and it may be due to recency bias, Jackson feels a long way behind them at the moment, which matters when you want to be paid like the best QB in the league.
The biggest knock against Jackson is his recent injury history. Jackson has suffered season-ending injuries in both of the last two years, causing promising Baltimore seasons to end in mediocrity and disappointment. If the Colts are going to trade for Jackson, they’ll be doing it to win playoff games and hopefully win a Super Bowl. You can’t do that if you’re injured at the end of the regular season.
It’s also important to note that the decision to trade for Jackson can’t be viewed in isolation. It isn’t really about whether or not the Colts trade for Jackson. It’s whether the Colts trade for Jackson or if they draft a rookie with their first-round pick and keep their 2024 first-round pick (projected to be another Top 5 selection).
At this stage, I’d expect Indianapolis to draft Anthony Richardson with the 4th overall pick, with Carolina already drafted CJ Stroud and Houston taking Bryce Young. It is of course always hard to predict how the QBs will fall in the draft. The way Zach Wilson and Trey Lance rose up draft boards late means that Richardson absolutely could be one of the first two players taken this year. But he currently seems the most likely QB prospect for the Colts to draft this year.
Richardson is an interesting alternative to Jackson. He’s less polished than Jackson and was far less productive in College. However, Richardson is even more athletic than Jackson was heading into the draft and would be an incredible talent for Steichen and his team to try to mold into an elite Quarterback.
Richardson has the arm to be the next Mahomes, the legs to be the next Jackson and the coach to be the next Hurts. However, he’ll need to significantly improve his accuracy before he can even begin to be mentioned in the same conversations as those three as an NFL Quarterback. Richardson is high reward, but he is high risk as well and even if he does become great, he’ll need time to do so.
Whichever QB would be available for the Colts to draft at 4, one of the main arguments in favor of them instead of Jackson will be the rookie contract they’d be playing under. That cheap contract would give the Colts a lot of options, that is if the QB they draft turns out to be the right one.
A rookie QB contract allows a team to get aggressive in free agency in years 3, 4, and 5 once they know they have the right Quarterback. A team can get aggressive and pay big money for an edge rusher or wide receiver because they’re not yet paying a QB big money. That can be invaluable in surrounding a Quarterback with the maximum possible talent.
That’s a big difference from having Jackson, which would probably require Indianapolis to find significant cap savings from their current roster. This is a roster that clearly isn’t good enough to compete as it stands. Adding Jackson to it would be a big boost of course, but is Jackson and a worse roster really going to be enough to challenge the top teams in the NFL?
I also think that while it would be welcoming to have Jackson make this Colts team competitive again, far quicker than any rookie QB could, that isn’t a priority. Whether it’s Jackson or a rookie QB, this Colts roster is going to take some rebuilding. If that takes a few years, so be it. The important thing is that this team is where it needs to be in 2 or 3 years time. If he’s not the right option, don’t try and cut corners by getting Jackson instead of a rookie (i.e., what has happened in every offseason since Luck’s unforeseen retirement).
And you know what would really help rebuild this Colts roster? Having a first-round pick next year. Which is something that Indianapolis would have to give up in order to get Jackson. Those who aren’t Colts fans perhaps won’t understand why Colts fans are so emotionally invested in keeping their 2024 first-round pick.
That reason goes by the name of Marvin Harrison Jr. It’s no exaggeration to say that Colts fans would be more excited to draft Harrison Jr. next year than any QB this year, even if we all appreciate that getting the right QB is much more important. Colts fans, or at least the majority, understand that the team isn’t going to suddenly be far better next year with a rookie Quarterback. That has the advantage of meaning Indianapolis could have a real chance of drafting Harrison Jr. next year.
It’s incredibly difficult at this stage to predict how the 2024 draft board will fall, but we strongly suspect that Caleb Williams and Drake Maye will go 1 and 2. If there are some strong edge rusher and left tackle prospects, which tend to dominate the early picks of drafts alongside QBs, Harrison Jr. could be in play for the Colts even if they end up picking in that 10th pick range.
Of course, Indianapolis shouldn’t base this year’s QB decision on the possibility of a specific WR being available next year, but Harrison Jr is a good illustration of a wider point. It’s not just a case of Jackson vs a rookie QB. It’s Jackson with limited weapons and a supporting cast vs a rookie QB with perhaps better weapons, a better offensive line, or a better defense.
I don’t know what Ballard would do with next year’s first-round pick (I’m sure he doesn’t know yet either) or with more cap space in the years to come. But the Colts would have the opportunity to surround a rookie QB with so much more talent with that first-round pick and extra cap space.
With all that considered, we come to the verdict. It’s not an easy decision, but ultimately I would draft a rookie QB instead of pursuing Lamar Jackson. Although I should note that my opinion is based on the expectation Anthony Richardson will be available, or if he isn’t, that one of CJ Stroud or Bryce Young will be. If Will Levis is the best QB available, I’d probably lean toward pursuing Jackson.
I know getting Jackson would be different from getting Rivers, Wentz, or Ryan, but it would still mean the Colts choosing free agency to find their new Quarterback. Ultimately, I think the Colts are going to have to back themselves and try to find their franchise QB by drafting one. I think this year is the time for Ballard to draft his QB after years of turning to free agency.
Drafting a Quarterback is difficult and uncertain, but at a certain point, Ballard and his team need to trust themselves and take a swing. Drafting a QB doesn’t have a great success rate, but the vast majority of the best QBs in recent years were drafted by the team they’ve had so much success with.
Lamar Jackson is an incredible player, but his injury history and lack of playoff success makes me reluctant to give up that draft capital and that contract to get him, especially if Baltimore could match the Colts’ offer anyway. I suspect that a rookie QB, their 2024 first-round pick, and all the cap space of a rookie QB contract is the best option for Indianapolis in the long run.
If the Colts were to get Lamar Jackson, of course, I’d be excited. I’d be delighted to have Jackson on my team. I’m just not convinced he’s the golden ticket to solving the Colts’ Quarterback woes that some think he is.