The new era is about to begin with the great experiment.
When training camp opens Thursday, the Ravens need to find out if their athletic, second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson is the franchise player of the future or a potential first-round bust who could set the team back for years.
The time is ticking on Jackson, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner at Louisville. He had a one-season reprieve as a rookie, and even though he helped the Ravens win six of their last seven regular-season games and reach the playoffs for the first time since 2014, he basically has two years to prove he can win consistently in the NFL.
If he doesn’t, he won’t remain a Raven for long, and there is a good chance coach John Harbaugh will be headed out of town with him. They are now forever linked in this new era of Ravens football.
The Ravens have been selling their new beginning theme all over town. They got rid of veterans such as quarterback Joe Flacco, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and safety Eric Weddle during the offseason. They also failed to bring back leading tackler and middle linebacker C.J. Mosley, who signed with the New York Jets.
They have plenty of other questions surrounding their young players. Can Kenny Young and Patrick Onwuasor start as inside linebackers? Will Tim Williams and Tyus Bowser make major contributions on the outside? Will Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews become integral parts of the two tight end offense and become dominant players?
Is cornerback Marlon Humphrey ready for a breakout season? How much has right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. improved during the offseason?
But all those stories pale in comparison with Jackson because he could become the face of the franchise. Ideally, the Ravens hope he can become another Russell Wilson, but that’s a dream for the future. For now, they just want him to make moderate improvement from a year ago, when he completed 99 of 170 passes for 1,201 yards and six touchdowns. Jackson also rushed 147 times for 695 yards and five touchdowns and had a completion rate of 58.2%.
The last category is where the Ravens want to see the most improvement.
The Ravens like Jackson’s athleticism and ability to improvise. They like his big-play capabilities, especially when he is able to get to the edge and square his shoulder pads at the line of scrimmage. But for the Ravens to go deep into the postseason, Jackson has to become a stronger thrower with better accuracy.
There is an old theory around the NFL that a quarterback can’t be taught accuracy. He either has it or he doesn’t. That’s been the case with the Ravens. Former starting quarterback Kyle Boller had a strong arm but wasn’t precise.
Even Flacco, who won Super Bowl XLVII, struggled with accuracy and touch. That’s why the development of Jackson is so intriguing. Is he the next Wilson or Patrick Mahomes, or the next Robert Griffin III or Tim Tebow?
The Ravens have done a good job in preparing Jackson for this season. They’ve talked to him about being a team leader. They’ve worked with him as far as his delivery in news conferences and how to be more direct and appropriate in answering questions. They’ve explained the advantages of being available for public appearances and what it means to be a role model on an NFL team.
They’ve gone back to teaching the most simple and basic fundamentals of being a quarterback, which were on display during various minicamps. Jackson has invested more personal time in offseason workouts, both away from the team and at the Owings Mills training facility.
He doesn’t just want to be good, he wants to be great. The desire is there, but none of these developments change the bottom line.
Can he become a quality passer?
The Ravens signed David Culley as their receivers coach and passing game coordinator during the offseason, and he has worked with other quarterbacks who have had a skill set similar to Jackson’s. The Ravens also drafted wide receivers Marquise Brown of Oklahoma in the first round and Miles Boykin of Notre Dame in the third in April. They added Oklahoma State running back Justice Hill in the fourth to get more speed and a threat out of the backfield as a receiver.
There are some critics who will say the Ravens never supplied Flacco with enough weapons during his 11 seasons in Baltimore, but the Ravens made a mistake in 2013 when they re-signed Flacco to a six-year contract worth $120 million.
Those kinds of contracts are given to quarterbacks who can carry a team, such as Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. Flacco was never in that class, and his salary limited the Ravens in signing other top-notch free-agent offensive players.
Jackson’s rookie salary doesn’t cause those types of problems. He doesn’t have Flacco’s arm strength, but Flacco didn’t have his athleticism. Flacco was always a polarizing force in Baltimore, and Jackson will be the same.
For the Ravens players and front office, they don’t care or have the time to worry about outside concerns. They want to develop a quarterback during the next two years who can win, hopefully sooner than later.
Latest Mike Preston
A new era has started.