Not Knowing Why Hurt
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Not Knowing Why Hurt, Lamar Jackson’s Determined to ‘Make ‘Em Pay’

April 29, 2020

On Day 2 of the NFL Draft, Lamar Jackson was getting texts from league coaches saying things like “Stay ready.” On Day 3, he was told multiple times “Today’s the day.” The former Nebraska cornerback watched the opening round of the draft with no assumption he’d hear his name—the first round is set in stone, he acknowledged.

He watched the second round feeling like it would be a long shot, but as the second day moved along, he got a little more locked in.

“Once the third round concluded Friday, I pretty much had the feeling like, ‘OK, I know I’m getting drafted tomorrow,’” Jackson told Hail Varsity this week. “I went to sleep Friday night really positive, still patient, still good, just waiting. ‘Tomorrow’s the day, I’m gonna find out tomorrow.’”

He would find out Saturday how his NFL career would start, but it wouldn’t be the news he wanted to hear.

When it was all said and done, Lamar Jackson started 36 of the final 37 games he played in at Nebraska. He was the only member of the 2017 secondary to start all 12 games, and a full-time starter his senior season. Jackson was benched for a game against Purdue during his junior season in 2018, but immediately regained his starting spot right after.

In 2019, he was an All-Big Ten second-teamer. He produced a career highs of 40 tackles, four tackles for loss, a sack, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, three interceptions and 12 pass breakups. As a team, Nebraska allowed its fewest passing yards per game (200.8) since the 2012 season. Jackson was a big reason why; no one in the Big Ten defended more passes than Jackson. Not Jeff Okudah, a top-five selection. Not Damon Arnette, a first-rounder. Not Michael Ojemudia, a surprise third-rounder.

In total, 26 cornerbacks were drafted. Six of them came from the Big Ten. Okudah’s selection over names like Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons and Auburn’s Derrick Brown serves to show how willing teams are to snap up elite-level corners. The sheer volume of guys drafted serves to show how necessary it is to have depth there.

The toughest part of the last week for Lamar Jackson has been not understanding the why of things.

“That’s one of the things I’m going to have the live with: just not knowing,” he said. “That’s the worst feeling of it all. When you know what you put in, you’re confident in what you offer, you’re confident in your abilities and what you’ve got, that’s what’s hard. It’s not hard being undrafted or having to take that route. I don’t see that as the issue. The one thing that’s going to bug me is the ‘why.’ We will never know why, and it’s not just me. I can’t even play the victim because it happens to me, Darrion (Daniels), it happens to guys like us every year.”

Daniels, last season’s starting defensive tackle for the Huskers, is on his way to San Francisco after signing a UDFA deal with the 49ers. Jackson is heading to the New York Jets on a similar deal that will also pay him guaranteed money.

Their situations now are similar. Jackson said he and his agent selected the Jets after looking at the secondary. New York took a corner in the fifth round, and he might be in play for one of the top four spots on the depth chart. The Jets don’t have a star. Jackson could fight his way into the mix.

Daniels can do the same on the defensive line in San Francisco, though that’s about where the situational similarities end.

Daniels’ draft-watching process was much less stressful than Jackson’s. The former didn’t expect much. The latter was a mid-round grade across the board.

“After the fourth went by I pretty much left,” Jackson said. “My agent got to texting me and asked me how I was doing, (said) hang in there and stuff like that. I told him this was pretty much one of the sickest things I’ve gone through just when it comes to the emotions and the anxiety, it was just stressing me out. Me really stressing after the end of round four, that was the beginning. Then I’m looking at it like, ‘OK, five, six and seven? There’s no way I’m falling out of this draft.’”

Jackson went for a walk outside, just to sort through his thoughts and emotions. When he came back, he watched the first handful of selections of the fifth round, but again decided to step away. His mind was trying to put a plan in place for how to move forward. His heart was just hurting.

“By the time the fifth, sixth went by, (my agent and I) are locked in, we’re accepting free agency calls, he’s telling me who’s been calling and it’s really pissing me off because it’s like, the draft is still on, why are you calling and talking about free agency?” Jackson wondered. “If I slip? Go ahead and use one of them picks. You’re calling, use one of those picks.”

His agent wanted a break-in-case-of-emergency plan that he knew Jackson didn’t want to broach, but Jackson also knew it would be better to have something lined up for right after the draft ends than to spend any more time waiting around worrying and wondering.

“It’s a stressful three days,” he said. “I felt like I truly lost my mind and found it again through the process, through the draft. When it’s tough like that and you really feel like you put a lot in and you’ve got a lot of good things going for you, you just feel like you deserve that, you deserve to have your name called.”

Feeling that, and then going through a full seven rounds of nothing? That hit him different.

“I grew up in the moment, literally,” Jackson said.

Now, though, both eyes are fixed forward.

The plan is to make the Jets’ 53-man roster, whatever is required to do that will be done. Jackson said he wants to use this in-between period to get in the best shape of his life. Fatigue, he says, has been a problem. He’d get tired and take plays off. That film is out there, and Jackson has made it a point to be real about his ups and downs with anyone who asks.

“I don’t want to take plays off, I want to be able to go out there on every special team and show my ass every play and get every rep I can,” he said.

“At the end of the day, I’m going to make the best out of this and they’re going to have to pay me on the backend. … It’s just going to make the story that much sweeter when it’s all said and done. I’m not going to keep dwelling on it, it is what it is, now it’s time to make ‘em pay.”

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