Mission Impossible: Cleveland Browns Blake Jackson, former QB, challenges WRs

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 23: Josh Cribbs #16 of the Cleveland Browns returns a punt against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on December 23, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. The Broncos defeated the Browns 34-12. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 23: Josh Cribbs #16 of the Cleveland Browns returns a punt against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on December 23, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. The Broncos defeated the Browns 34-12. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images) /

Blake Jackson is trying to make the Cleveland Browns as a wide receiver after failing to make it in the NFL as a quarterback.

Blake Jackson is trying to make the Cleveland Browns as a wide receiver after failing to make the pros as a quarterback. In that sense, he’s trying to follow in the large footsteps of Josh Cribbs, the former quarterback from the Kent State Golden Flashes, who had a very good career as a special teams specialist and wide receiver.

That’s the guy you see wearing #12 catching footballs these days, rather than the infamous Josh Gordon. Jackson’s task is almost impossible given the depth of talent on the roster now, and it could well be that he will get cut any day now. Still, you have to like an underdog, especially when he is a former quarterback. Let us not ask him to be the next Josh Cribbs, which is too tall an order for anyone to fill, but perhaps he could make at least make the team.

Quickly now, which player on the current Browns roster quarterbacked his team to a National Championship? If you answered Baker Mayfield, you are close but wrong. Mayfield led his Oklahoma Sooners to a third-place ranking in 2017 and also came close in 2015 and 2016.

But believe it or not, the Browns’ Blake Jackson was a star quarterback for the Division III National Champions, the University of Mary Hardin–Baylor (UMHB) in Texas. It is a far cry from NCAA Division I, but it is still a championship that Jackson will be able to brag about to his future grandkids.

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If you’re curious about the name, the University used to be the women’s counterpart to Baylor University which for a while in the 1800s was an all-male university. Later, UMHB became fully co-educational in the 1970s. Jackson came to UMHB in 2014 after transferring from Southeast Missouri State, where he had been redshirted.

Although not related to Lamar Jackson, his modus operandi was similar. He put up numbers throwing the ball and also running it. In 2016, his senior year, he threw for 3,282 yards and rushed for 904 more. He led the UMHB Cru (short for Crusaders) to a 15-0 record and the Division III National Championship. In that game, Jackson threw for 171 yards and ran for 119 yards and a TD in a hard fought 10-7 slugfest over Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

He was named Most Outstanding Player in that game. Incidentally, he was also an Academic All-Conference selection, which is a very impressive honor when you think about it. The academic level of Division III is probably much higher than Division I, even if the athletic level is not. We can assume that Mr. Jackson is a smart football man, and he had ample opportunity to practice running to daylight in the college ranks even if it was not the highest level of competition.

Jackson had hoped for a shot in the NFL as a quarterback, but the scouts were unanimous that he didn’t have the arm talent to make it as a quarterback. The Calgary Stampeders offered him a tryout in the Canadian Football League, but he was cut in training camp. That was a low point in Jackson’s career. When you are a running quarterback and the Calgary Stampeders cut you, that is perhaps a signal to re-evaluate your career.

Jackson wouldn’t give up, but he did make a sharp left turn, deciding that he would become a wide receiver candidate. The Browns were sufficiently impressed with his athleticism and decision making (if not his throwing ability), that they signed him to the practice squad last year and he eventually earned a promotion to the active roster at the end of the season.

This is a guy who would probably not have gotten a shot from previous Browns front offices, which were more concerned about analytics. In the past, the Browns liked players who put up big numbers, even at smaller schools, or else guys with fantastic Combine workout numbers. But Jackson doesn’t have any stats as a wide receiver, and he was not a workout warrior. At a Pro Day workout, he measured 5-11 and 205 pounds and ran a 4.72 40-yard dash, which is borderline for an NFL wide receiver. Frankly there are a lot of guys in semipro ball that can run 4.72, and in fact, there are glaciers in Alaska that move faster than that.

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The signing of Blake Jackson rests on the eyeballs and judgment of the Browns scouting department. They have looked past the numbers, and believe that this kid can be a football player, that he has the smarts and the moxie to play football even if he does not have the ability to be a track star or weightlifter. But playing football is more than how fast you can move in a straight line. On occasion receivers with slow 40-yard dash times can make it in the NFL. Jerry Rice famously turned in a 4.71, and more recently Anquan Boldin was timed at 4.77. It might be added that nobody believes that they were really that slow.

Steve Largent was a guy who would have flunked a sobriety test because he had trouble walking in a straight line, but he was pretty good at running in three different directions at once. If you watch youtube on Largent running a pass pattern, you can see what we are talking about. He looks ridiculous bobbing and weaving right off the line of scrimmage, but he made the catches.  A lot of them, in fact.

This Cleveland Browns front office is willing to give a shot to players that do not look that good on paper but do have the potential to be good players, and perhaps that is the greatest takeaway on what the Blake Jackson means for the Browns and their fans. Here is a guy who was scouted for his guts, heart, and mind over and above his 40-yard dash time and stat sheet.

To make it with the Browns, Jackson needs to have a lights out showing on special teams. He had better be prepared to tackle like the devil himself, and it wouldn’t hurt trying to run back a few punt returns in summer camp as well. Josh Cribbs had a pretty fair career on special teams, not only as a return man but also as the gunner on punt and kickoff coverage. There’s usually room for a player if he can truly excel on special teams.

As a potential backup for slot receiver Jarvis Landry, Jackson would have to cause the Browns to drop other backups in order to force his way onto the 53 player roster. Currently, the starters project to be Odell Beckham, Jr., Landry and Rashard Higgins, with Antonio Callaway also an important player. That’s four receivers.  the fifth and possibly sixth slots are up for grabs with Duke Johnson (who also doubles as a running back), Derrick Willies, and Damion Ratley. However, if Jackson is not able to beat out those players to start the season, he is eligible to return to the Practice Squad for another year.

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Still, even if he fails, even if nobody wants a slow, recycled Division III quarterback, Blake Jackson already made it to the NFL for a game last year, an amazing accomplishment. Perhaps the book is not yet closed on this young man.