OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Lamar Jackson needed just a few minutes during his second NFL practice to show why the Baltimore Ravens – a team already possessing a Super Bowl-winning quarterback – just had to have him.
With a flick of the wrist, the 6-2, 216-pound Heisman Trophy quarterback delivered tight spirals.
With sprinter’s speed – as defenders overwhelmed the offensive line and crashed in on Jackson during one play – he darted up the middle of the line untouched, slipped through traffic and into the open field. Jackson wore a black non-contact jersey bearing a purple No. 8, but it didn’t matter. None of the defenders were catching him anyway.
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With great patience later, Jackson scanned the end zone, cocked to throw, but found his primary target covered. He slid to his left, pumped. Second target covered, too. Spotting running room and just one linebacker to beat, Jackson burst forward, then stopped. The linebacker hesitated, as had the defensive back covering a third target across the back of the end zone. Opening created. Jackson fired the ball and put it right on the hands of the receiver, who bobbled and then dropped the pass.
“Until you put your eyes on a guy on your practice field, it’s all just your imagination up until that point,” Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said when asked about initial impressions of Jackson, whom Baltimore traded up 20 spots in the NFL draft to select 32nd overall two weeks ago.
“The thing that I was really impressed with was, I thought he was accurate. You read the reports and stuff like that, but he’s a naturally talented thrower. He has natural arm talent. That’s something that people were questioning. So, to see him out here throwing the ball naturally, very accurately, I thought was a big plus.”
In Jackson, the Ravens have an elite-level athlete and potentially an elite-level passer. If enacted correctly, their plan for developing Jackson will ensure a smooth transition from Joe Flacco, a 10-year veteran and the MVP of Super Bowl XLVII, to a player capable of delivering the franchise – largely stagnant since that 2012 championship season – to greater heights.
It’s unclear when that will take place. The Ravens insist Flacco remains the starter.
Much of the succession plan depends on how well Flacco continues to play. (He has another three seasons remaining on his contract after this 2018 season. However, none of the remaining annual salaries include guaranteed money).
The rest of the decision hinges on how quickly Jackson develops.
“Well, the NFL is totally different from college,” Jackson admitted after Saturday’s rookie minicamp practice concluded. “It’s a lot faster. You’ve got to work as a unit. It’s fun out here, though. I’m having fun. So yeah, it’s cool.”
The play where Jackson slipped free of the collapsing pocket, and raced more than half the length of the field toward pay dirt was reminiscent of Robert Griffin III’s 76-yard touchdown run during his electrifying rookie season with the Washington Redskins. Like Griffin – another Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback and, coincidentally, one of Jackson’s new teammates – Jackson has the chance to impact the league as only a few have.
As Griffin’s rookie season showed, a quarterback boasting the threat of his legs and athleticism along with his arm can represent the ultimate weapon.
But as history shows, long-term success as a dual threat hinges on more than athleticism. It requires proper development of pocket awareness, decision-making, understanding of defenses, balance and the honing of that internal clock — and lastly, durability.
It all takes time.
The Ravens aim to groom Jackson according to a timeline that most completely teaches him those nuances.
The 33-year-old Flacco’s presence affords Harbaugh, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and quarterbacks coach James Urban (both of whom worked with Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick in Philadelphia) the luxury of patience. They’re not under pressure to rush Jackson onto the field armed with a scaled-back playbook that could limit the rest of the team. Instead, they can continue building on Mornhinweg’s three previous seasons of running the offense with Flacco while Jackson learns.
“There’s a long list of things. … It’s the toughest position to play in sports – I really believe that,” Harbaugh explained. “You watch practice out here. From the play clock, to the formation, to enunciating the play, to taking the snap, to the fundamentals of what they have to do, to executing under stress: ‘Oh, I have to handle a blitz,’ ‘Oh, there’s a change of play.’ Those guys have so much on their plate, and the constant waves hitting the shore of the play clock is always pressure that they feel. All those things he’ll have to work on.”
But Jackson still will likely have a chance to help the Ravens even as a rookie. Mornhinweg is expanding the playbook.
At various points during Saturday’s practice, the Ravens ran plays where Jackson lined up at alternate positions – reminiscent of Kordell Stewart’s “Slash” days in Pittsburgh – while Josh Woodrum (playing the role of Flacco) lined up under center.
“We do it in the laboratory,” Harbaugh smiled. “Obviously, we’ve had coaches who have had a lot of experience with that, so that’s helpful to us. We do it on the practice field. We ran a lot of stuff out here today you guys probably saw. We’re going to always try to get our players making plays for us, and Lamar is a guy that can help us win games.”
The sprinkling of Jackson into the offense along with Flacco could create an intriguing, but possibly tense, dynamic. Flacco traditionally eschews such schemes.
In 2013, Baltimore utilized “wildcat” plays that featured former backup Tyrod Taylor and Flacco on the field at the same time. Flacco didn’t hide his distaste as he lined up at wide receiver: He kept his hands folded at his waist, slumping his shoulders and did not move off the line as the ball was snapped. In interviews after, he criticized the play calls.
The Ravens’ coaches believe Jackson’s inclusion will not divide but instead fortify the franchise — immediately and in the future.
Every step of the plan will unfold with great calculation. And if it proceeds as they envision, the evolution of Lamar Jackson could yield a remarkable payoff.