For almost a year ahead of the 2018 NFL Draft, certain onlookers called for Heisman QB Lamar Jackson to switch to receiver. This article was written even before Jackson became the Ravens’ starter, but we can refer back to it the next time somebody tells a potential first-round QB to switch positions.
At the core of the discussion is a racial connotation. Across all sports, minority players often get moved to less-central positions. In football, it means QBs getting moved to running back, defensive back, or wide receiver at a disproportionate rate vs. their white counterparts.
But shunting minority players to WR, where athleticism is seen as more important than intelligence, also maligns the mental capacity it takes to succeed at wideout.
You’re running a route with a defined number of steps. It must be timed so that when the QB moves through his progression, you’re where he needs you. Some philosophies force receivers to read a defense mid-route, too.
And your routes always have to be good, no matter how far away from the action, so the defense doesn’t glean tendencies. It takes focus and determination to be technically excellent.
But let’s look at history. Whenever this debate bubbles up, someone lists college QBs who played WR in the NFL as if it’s a really simple switch.
If it worked for those guys, why not someone else? It’s kind of a common thing, so it’s not that insulting, right?
OK. Let’s list them all out. Richard also talked to a couple in more detail. We think you’ll agree all speedy college QBs aren’t the same kind of player and that just because some guys played college QB and NFL WR, that doesn’t necessarily make it a fit for the next guy.
QBs who’d caught passes before, unlike Jackson
Hines Ward, Georgia, third round
Erroneously cited as an example of a successful NFL conversion — he played way more receiver than QB in college. Other stars like Anquan Boldin, Curtis Conway, and Peter Warrick converted even earlier, so we’re not even counting them.
Braxton Miller, Ohio State, third round
“I knew it was the best decision for me,” the former QB, who lost his job amid injury, told Richard. “Because I knew I had the athletic ability to play the position, and I knew as long as I kept focusing on putting in the work, I could do anything I set my mind to.”
Patterning his game after Wes Welker and Jerry Rice, Miller says he was comfortable the first time he stepped on the field and hit a spin move.
“I had to understand and recognize that the ball wasn’t going to be in my hands every play. It was a brand new concept to me. I never played any other position aside from quarterback,” said Miller, who eventually caught 34 balls in the NFL. “I was overly focused on doing whatever it took to help the team win. Not having the ball in my hands every play was definitely the toughest adjustment.”
Randall Cobb, Kentucky, second round
In high school and college, the Packers Pro Bowler lined up everywhere. He threw only 23 passes in his final two college seasons. (He’s also 5’10. NFL QBs average 6’2, Jackson’s height, so I’ll note the sub-6’ guys.)
Joe Webb, UAB, sixth round
Started half his sophomore season as a WR and caught passes at his pro day. In the NFL, he cycled between kick returner, backup QB, receiver, and wildcat specialist.
Blake Bell, Oklahoma, fourth round
Played some actual QB at OU, but spent most of three years as a situational runner, then played his NFL position, tight end, as a senior.
Michael Robinson, Penn State, fourth round
Lined up all over in college, with 505 passes, 369 carries, 52 catches, and two punt returns. In the NFL, he made the Pro Bowl as a fullback in year six.
Greg Ward Jr., Houston, undrafted
Caught 25 passes in college, starred in the AAF, and has had minor stints with the Eagles.
Matt Jones, Arkansas, first round
Threw 16.4 passes per game in college, compared to Jackson’s 28.6. Played some receiver in high school and was listed by recruiting services as an “athlete.” Started 15 NFL games.
QBs who showed a transition to WR isn’t exactly an overnight thing
Armanti Edwards, Appalachian State, third round
You might remember the QB’s most famous performance. The final score: Appalachian State 34, Michigan 32, one of the most famous upsets in the history of the sport. But it became clear to the 5’11 QB that he should switch back to one of his high school positions.
“I was informed by my agent: just basically work out as an athlete,” Edwards told Richard. “So I trained to be a quarterback, and I trained to be a receiver and occasionally, whenever the JUGS machine was available, I trained to catch punts, to train as a returner. So I was juggling three different positions and two of them that I’ve never played, all at the same time.”
Even the reason Edwards was advised to move — his speed — became something he had to work on.
“Everything that I thought I knew about football goes out the window because I’m looking at it from a different perspective now,” Edwards said. “I’ve got to learn how to get off the jam. I’ve got to learn how to run one route multiple different ways. And I’m running without the football. The only time I ran as a quarterback is if I had the ball down in my hand or if I’m jogging after I get a first down.”
Add in the nuances of how a WR fits into the run game, reading blitzes and rush paths of perimeter defenders, and handling linebackers who can be much bigger than you, all “fresh frustrations.”
“You have to run as fast as you can, controlling your speed in order to stop on a dime and come out the break before the defender comes out of his break. People don’t really look at it that way, and that’s the way you have to,” Edwards said.
Edwards didn’t catch a ball in the NFL until his third season, with the bulk of his production coming from the return game. He wound up sticking in the CFL.
Julian Edelman, Kent State, seventh round
The MAC’s best passers have barely any chance of being NFL starting QBs, and the 5’10 Edelman was far from the MAC’s best passer. The Patriots loved his agility, planning to figure out what to do with him later. He appeared all over for four years, then became a true starting WR.
Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State, third round
One of college football’s best athletes and a solid passer, he mostly played QB until his fifth NFL season, when his WR side hustle took off for one season, as he was almost literally Cleveland’s only option. (It’s not entirely true that he excelled immediately. He dabbled at WR and wildcat for several years.)
Ronald Curry, North Carolina, seventh round
Went into the NFL as a QB a year later than high school rival Michael Vick, then converted to WR. Didn’t start more than four games in a season until his sixth pro year.
Brad Smith, Missouri, fourth round
Jets coach Eric Mangini declared Smith a “bona fide quarterback,” practiced him exclusively at WR, then plopped him at QB during a preseason game. Smith had an eight-year career, mostly as a special teamer, with a few starts per year at WR.
Josh Cribbs, Kent State, undrafted
The other dual-threat Kent State legend, he ran more than he passed in college. In only one of his 10 NFL seasons did he start more than half a season at WR. He’s best known as a Pro Bowl kick returner.
QBs who were more run-heavy than Jackson and/or didn’t pass as well as him
Eric Crouch, Nebraska, third round
The Heisman winner had more option carries than throws and made a half-hearted attempt at converting to WR before trying out at DB. In college, his career TDs-to-INTs ratio was 29-to-25, compared to Jackson’s 69-to-27.
Also, Scott Frost — Crouch’s Nebraska QB predecessor — was drafted by the Jets as a safety.
Brian Mitchell, UL Lafayette, fifth round
Set the college record for QB career rushing TDs, but ranked No. 68 in completion percentage as a 5’11 senior. He became the second greatest NFL return man ever, word to Devin Hester.
Antwaan Randle El, Indiana, second round
Indiana’s “whole offense,” as Joe Paterno put it, the 5’10 NFL WR completed fewer than half his college passes and had a nearly even TD-to-INT ratio.
Woody Dantzler, Clemson, undrafted
Ran more than he passed for all four college years. Eventually caught on as a 5’10 special teamer and later a wildcat-style QB for the Falcons.
B.J. Daniels, USF, seventh round
The 5’11, 11teen-year senior finished with lots of modest passing numbers, then bounced around practice squads at various positions.
Denard Robinson, Michigan, fifth round
Not to dwell on a simplistic stat like TD-to-INT, but it keeps jumping out as a glaring difference between Jackson and these other players. Denard’s was 9-to-9 as a senior. Four years after Robinson was offered scholarships as a DB, WR, and whatever else, the Jags drafted him to play “weapon.”
Jerick McKinnon, Georgia Southern, third round
He’s a do-it-all RB instead of a WR, but he ran a college triple option at 5’9, so we can’t compare him to Lamar anyway.
Bert Emanuel, Rice, second round
At 5’10, he ran an option offense in college, then played WR from day one in the NFL.
Quinton Flowers, USF, 2018 draft
Lagged a bit behind Jackson’s numbers despite having more of a relative team talent advantage in the AAC than Jackson did in the ACC. He’s also two inches shorter. He converted to RB and punt returner for the NFL.
Freddie Solomon, Tampa, second round
After he set the college record for rushing yards by a QB while putting up mediocre passing numbers, he had an 11-year career as a 5’11 receiver and returner.
Marlin Briscoe, Nebraska-Omaha, 14th round
A College Football Hall of Fame QB, albeit at 5’11 and from an FCS-equivalent school. The NFL’s first black starting QB, he had a promising rookie season, but the Broncos traded him to Buffalo, where he became a WR for installed QB Jack Kemp. Kemp retired a year later, but Briscoe made a Pro Bowl at his new position.
Not a bad comp, in one way. A good passer and electric runner at Colorado who hadn’t played receiver before and never truly converted (he was a Pro Bowl QB who only twice caught 20 or more passes in a year). But Jackson started out higher on the QB depth chart (second and eventually first as a rookie) than Stewart did (fourth), meaning much less need to add roles.
That time Josh McCown played wide receiver in the NFL
The Jets’ ageless wonder played three games at slot in a lost season for Detroit because Mike Martz was pissed at a receiver who caused an interception. McCown had a great 2002 Combine, so this is upsold as “coaches wanted to get this stud on the field,” but he caught all of two passes.
And then there’s Tim Tebow
Both Heisman winners had huge dual-threat numbers, both were talked about as non-QBs, and neither was in danger of lasting until Day 3 of the draft as a QB.
A few differences:
- Both played as freshmen, but Tebow was a short-yardage bulldozer, while Jackson threw 247 times and ran only 135, mostly on dropback scrambles or designed read options.
- That means Tebow had long teased the position people wanted him to play: H-back. Compare that to Jackson’s experience playing WR [long pause]. Tebow had more experience playing baseball than Jackson did playing WR. Tebow is now a baseball player.
- Tebow played with Percy Harvin, plenty of other pros, and a few of the country’s best defenses. Jackson’s teammates were known for blowing blocks, dropping catches, stepping out of bounds despite a chance to beat the eventual national champ, and playing bad 2017 defense. This is just to note Jackson’s job was often harder than Tebow’s.
- In college, Jackson ran a modern-ish spread version of Bobby Petrino’s literal NFL offense. Tebow did not.
- While Jackson’s throwing motion needed tinkering, Tebow’s overhaul had years of scrapped reboots, jump scares, twist endings, side quests, and cinematic universes.
- Despite completing fewer than half his passes, Tebow got two years and change as a Jets QB and then auditions for QB spots in New England and Philly. Jackson always deserved at least as much patience as a QB.
- THERE’S NO REASON TO ASSUME H-BACK TEBOW WOULD’VE GOTTEN NFL LOOKS THROUGH 2015. And if Tebow had converted before the 2010 draft, he would’ve lost up-front money. Can you imagine a novice TE still being picked No. 25 overall, 17 spots ahead of actual TE Gronk? So where would an even less experienced have Jackson landed?
Based on all this ...
... if you’re gonna have a QB play WR, make sure he’s played WR before. Or be prepared to wait.
And if you’re a QB with any prayer of the first round, stay at QB.
And if you’re gonna tell a black QB to switch to WR, you better be really sure he wouldn’t have had a chance to be drafted as a QB.