Ravens' Lamar Jackson 'way ahead of the curve,' but rookie still has a ways to go

Lamar Jackson is new to the NFL, still just three days into his first training camp, but the Ravens’ first-round draft pick already seems to understand, at least implicitly, the old adage about the backup quarterback being the most popular guy in town.

On Sunday afternoon, in his first media availability since camp opened Thursday, Jackson was asked about his rapport with Ravens fans, who have fallen fast and hard for the former Heisman Trophy winner, if only out of the hope that he will supplant quarterback Joe Flacco this season. It has been hard, after all, to be a Joe Flacco fan for several seasons now.

This was not a hard question for a rookie to answer, and Jackson’s response was ripped straight from the lesson plan of PR 101: “I love the Baltimore fans,” he said, before offering something of an explanation as to why.

They are, well, a little easy to please.

“You can just catch an out route — like, one of the players will catch, I would say, a ‘go’ ball,” he said, referring to two of the game’s simpler routes. “They're cheering for you like you're in the game or something like that. So it's all love for the fans. We appreciate it.”

Less than two weeks from the Ravens’ preseason opener, an Aug. 2 matchup with the Chicago Bears in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, it’s unclear whether Jackson is any closer to being in the game as the team’s primary option under center.

Flacco has so far been the team’s top quarterback, his experience and grasp of NFL defenses sometimes throwing Jackson’s lack thereof into stark relief. While Jackson has impressed with his ability to pass on the run, it seemed appropriate that perhaps the biggest cheer he earned Sunday came on a play in which he lined up in a two-quarterback formation with Flacco.

Five years ago, Flacco derisively said the Ravens’ now-defunct “Wildcat” formation, featuring backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor, made them look like a “high school offense.” Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg was noncommittal Sunday about the Ravens’ commitment to using Jackson as a trick-play weapon — “We’ll see,” he said three times in one 13-word span — but otherwise praised the No. 32 overall draft pick’s development.

“Well, I'll tell you what: Lamar's done just an outstanding job. Everybody in this league has some uncommon tools, and he certainly does. As far as his accuracy and all that, he's really, really worked hard, and ... you can see on the practice field, it's coming now.

“He's getting better every day, and there will be a time where he takes a step back to kind of take two steps forward and all that. So we'll anticipate all of that, but he's done an outstanding job up to date. He’s way ahead of the curve now. This guy's a hard, hard worker.”

His schedule has demanded it. After playing the last game of his Louisville career on New Year’s Eve, Jackson has seldom had time to reflect on anything but those areas marked for improvement: his footwork, his understanding of NFL defenses, his willingness to be more of a pocket passer. He went from preparing for the NFL scouting combine to participating in it. He interviewed with teams across the league for the chance to be taken in the first round, then had to wait until the opening night’s final pick to hear his name called.

After rookie minicamp and organized team activities, after interviews and film study sessions, Jackson was grateful to have some time off before camp. He tried to relax. “We’ve been grinding a lot these past couple of months,” he said.

The Ravens’ extra week of practice time this preseason should help slow the game’s furious pace for a player accustomed to being the fastest on the field. (At the Under Armour Performance Center, he still might be.) And with Flacco’s veteran privileges affording him an early exit from practice last week, Jackson earned more repetitions against NFL-level talent. As if channeling Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” the rookie pointed out matter-of-factly Sunday: “You know, not [in] college or high school anymore.”

It’s difficult to forget what he was capable of just one season ago. Indeed, Jackson’s dual-threat pyrotechnics at Louisville — 27 passing touchdowns, 18 rushing touchdowns — and Flacco’s underwhelming 2017 — 18 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, 5.7 yards per pass attempt — have bulwarked many fans’ campaigns for a change atop the depth chart.

But wide receiver Michael Crabtree acknowledged Thursday that Jackson, while being “a baller,” is still trying to learn the offense, understand coverages and continue on his way to “getting there.” Jackson said Sunday that he’s learning from Flacco and veteran Robert Griffin III. Anything specific? “Everything,” he said.

Less than a week into one of the more interesting training camps in coach John Harbaugh’s tenure, the highlights of the Ravens’ quarterback competition have played out mostly behind microphones. On Friday, Flacco said he would put questions about Jackson behind him by winning. On Sunday, Jackson brushed off a question about whether he was looking forward to game action. He said he was looking forward to preseason.

“I have to show them my talent in the preseason games,” Jackson said, “and we’ll go from there.”

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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