Preston: Ravens rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson has come so far and has so far to go

Rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson threw for more than 200 yards and finished with a rating of 101.3 on Saturday night in the Ravens’ 22-10 upset win over the Los Angeles Chargers.

Some people acted as if these were great milestones for the first-round draft pick out of Louisville, but Jackson still has a lot to learn before he will become a top NFL quarterback.

But he has already come far.

The bottom line is that Jackson is 5-1 in the six straight games he has started, but his success so far is a matter of more than just his record. Few fans saw him in his first workouts in the spring shortly after he was drafted, and it wasn’t pretty.

His footwork was poor. His mechanics were bad. He had very little accuracy. At times you wondered what the Ravens saw in him to make a first-round pick.

Now, with one game left in the regular season and the team on the verge of possibly obtaining their first playoff berth for the first time since 2014, a more accomplished Jackson is on display.

There are still doubts about his ability, but at least the upside is greater.

“Great player, I’ve been saying it all week,” Chargers rookie safety Derwin James after the game. “I know what type of player he is. He’s a great player. He did enough to get the win.”

And that’s exactly what we’re seeing with Jackson now. He has completed 85 of 146 passes for 1,022 yards, with six touchdown throws and three interceptions. Forget the numbers because he is a game manager, and that’s basically what the Ravens will need if their defense continues to play at a high level.

The national pundits have called for the Ravens to allow Jackson to throw more and expand on the playbook, but the preference at this time is to keep him restricted.

It’s no different from what former Ravens coach Brian Billick did with Kyle Boller and former Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron did with Joe Flacco when they were rookies.

Like both of them, Jackson isn’t allowed to throw to the far side of the field. The Ravens don’t ask him to make tight throws over the middle to receivers inside the red zone. He throws safe stuff like slants-ins or short- to mid-distance crossing routes over the middle.

These are high-percentage passes and allow a quarterback’s confidence to grow. The Ravens play to Jackson’s strength by allowing him to run option plays and rollouts, which pressure perimeter defenders.

“We just watch him run around and keep the chains moving,” Ravens inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor said. “Every time I see Lamar, I just tell him, ‘Swag, Swag.’ He goes out there and has the swag. He makes plays.”

That’s what the Ravens want at this time. Their formula for success seems to be getting a couple of big plays from Jackson, some field goals from Justin Tucker and a lot of great defense.

Eventually, though, Jackson is going to have to evolve as a quarterback who can win both in and outside the pocket. Accuracy is a problem, and the prevailing theory is that you can’t teach accuracy because a quarterback either has it or he doesn’t.

Jackson can do things to improve. He needs to learn how to plant his back foot and drive the ball with a complete follow-through motion. He also has problems with his grip, which can be rectified.

There are times during rollouts when he needs to set his feet and times when he needs to turn his shoulders in the direction of the receiver instead of throwing while drifting to the sideline.

His eight fumbles this season are unacceptable. Most of those are caused by a lack of discipline in securing the football when running.

Jackson seems like the type of player who is willing to work and will put in the time to get better. In recent weeks he has shown better touch on passes. The 68-yard touchdown pass to tight end Mark Andrews Saturday was a beauty, perfectly thrown.

Jackson has shown good awareness and patience in the pocket, and maybe that’s a result of his ability to scramble and get out of trouble. In every game except the narrow loss to the Kansas City Chiefs he has shown the ability to lead comeback drives once the Ravens fall behind.

There are few players in the NFL who can turn the corner and pull away from defenders the way Jackson can. Maybe the most impressive thing about him is the way he freezes defenders.

They don’t know how to react because of his elusiveness and speed. Even on simple plays like screens, linebackers and secondary players can’t decide whether to squeeze down or attack Jackson. They get paralyzed.

Now imagine if everything comes together for him …

That’s down the road, years into the future. The Ravens are already adding to the Jackson playbook,  installing more of the two-tight end offense and allowing him to throw more often.

But right now the emphasis is on doing whatever it takes to win. He isn’t a finished product, but he’s already better than the quarterback who stepped onto the field in the spring.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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