The Ravens rookies had just finished the team warmup stage of Saturday’s minicamp practice when quarterback Lamar Jackson and other offensive players lined up on the far side of the field.
There was no defense across from them and the practice had not progressed to full speed. Yet, when Jackson hit fellow first-round pick Hayden Hurst streaking down the middle of the field on the first play, it was natural for those who witnessed it to ponder the possibilities.
“It’s pretty cool having a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback throwing you the football,” Hurst said later. “He’s going to make plays. That’s what he does. I’m just excited to get open for him.”
This week’s minicamp is akin to college orientation. Rookies get their uniforms and playbooks. They practice, attend meetings and begin acclimation to the life of an NFL player. It’s an exhausting three-day crash course to a learning process that will play out for months.
The burden is heaviest on the quarterbacks, who have to know the plays, relay them properly to their teammates and make sure everybody is lined up in the right places. Then, they have be aware of the play clock, make the right decision with the ball and execute. Jackson did all that Saturday with eyes fixated on his every move. Such is life as a first-round quarterback and a player who has generated more buzz than any Ravens draft pick in years.
“The NFL is totally different from college,” Jackson said after Saturday’s practice. “It’s a lot faster. You have to work as a unit. … You’re entering a new system. It’s fun to learn and you’re doing something you love.”
Jackson, who threw for more than 9,000 yards, rushed for more than 4,000 yards and combined for 119 touchdowns in three seasons at Louisville, showed a little of everything Saturday. That included the expected struggles of a rookie quarterback in his first couple of practices.
On one play, he burst through the line of scrimmage and glided up the field, leaving defenders in his wake and fifth-round receiver Jordan Lasley hollering on the sideline. He made a nifty throw to hit Lasley on a deep out route and found third-round tight end Mark Andrews down the seam for a touchdown. A few of his long passes hung up, but Jackson showed a nice touch and accuracy with his deep ball, one of his strengths.
“Until you put your eyes on a guy on your practice field, it’s all just your imagination up until to that point,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “The thing that I was really impressed with, I thought he was accurate. You read the reports and stuff like that, but he’s a naturally talented thrower. He’s got natural arm talent. I think that’s something that people were questioning. To see him out there throwing the ball naturally and very accurately, I thought was a big plus.”
Jackson also, at times, played to the questions in his pre-draft scouting report. He threw several wobbly passes and overthrew intended receivers on some short or intermediate routes. After a few of his misses, he angrily clapped his hands together or pointed at himself to take blame for the incompletion.
Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said during the draft that the first order of business was teaching Jackson how to play quarterback within the team’s system. That, in itself, is an adjustment for Jackson, whose offense at Louisville was tailored to his unique skill-set.
“In college, we weren’t really under center like that in a certain situation,” Jackson said. “But now, I’m under it constantly. I’ve got to work on that a lot more.”
When Jackson wasn’t under center Saturday, he was frequently in conversation with Mornhinweg, Harbaugh or quarterbacks coach James Urban. The learning process for a rookie quarterback doesn’t stop, even for a second.
“It’s a different offense, a different verbiage than he’s been used to. Any rookie quarterback coming in, learning how to call the plays is probably the first thing,” Harbaugh said. “That’s really where it starts, getting guys lined up in the right spot. A quarterback has to be able to do all that.
“He’s picked it up very quickly. He’s very smart. He studies. Very sharp, has a nice presence on the field. I think we all feel like he handled himself very well out there.”
Harbaugh called Jackson’s intangibles “A-plus.”
“He’s got great demeanor.” Harbaugh said. “He’s smart. He studies real hard. I think it’s all good.”
Harbaugh called quarterback “the toughest position to play in sports” and rattled off myriad responsibilities that all NFL signal callers absorb. Neither the team nor the player have given a timetable for how long they expect it to take before Jackson is regular-season game ready. But the former Louisville star certainly should have time on his side.
The Ravens have made it clear that Joe Flacco is their starting quarterback going forward and they also signed Robert Griffin III this offseason. On Saturday, Jackson took most of his repetitions behind Josh Woodrum, who starred for the Ravens in the preseason last year and spent much of the season on the team’s practice squad.
Jackson said he looks forward to talking to Flacco and Griffin about “how they see things on the field, what made them learn the system even faster. Stuff like that.” To this point, Flacco and Jackson have not connected.
Flacco, who enters his 11th season as the team’s starter, declined to take questions from ESPN and Baltimore Sun reporters last week. He was making an appearance at a team draft event in the Inner Harbor two days after the Ravens selected Jackson. His agent, Joe Linta, told The Sun last week that Flacco knew the team would draft a quarterback and the quarterback “feels better than he has in a while and is really excited for the season.”
For his part, Jackson is focused on learning the playbook, studying the offense and getting to know his new teammates. Ravens rookies the past few days praised Jackson for how seamlessly he’s fit in and been one of the guys. For a player who won the Heisman Trophy in 2016, put up eye-popping numbers and was the star attraction on pretty much every field he played on his final two college seasons, the spotlight is nothing new. It just may get a little sharper.
On Saturday, the Ravens hosted some guests who won a draft contest put on by M&T Bank, a corporate partner of the organization. One of the men in the group had a Jackson No. 8 jersey draped over his shoulder. There was also a father wearing a Jackson jersey while his son wore Flacco’s No. 5.
Saturday’s minicamp practice brought out a camera and production crew from NFL Network and reporters from a few national publications. Jackson, of course, was the star attraction.
“I’ve always been a team player,” Jackson said. “I’ve always put my team first before anything. I don’t treat myself different and I don’t want to be treated different. I’m just here to play football, be a Raven and win games.”