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'We added a lot of speed': With Lamar Jackson as pacesetter, Ravens use draft to build breakneck offense

Everything about the Ravens’ transfer of power at quarterback last season happened fast. The schematic transition from a pass-heavy attack to a run-reliant offense, the turnaround of a season going nowhere, the ascent of a rookie who’d struggled throughout the preseason, Lamar Jackson’s legs themselves — they were all a blur.

The offense around the quarterback, though? That was perhaps not up to speed.

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As the Ravens set out during this weekend’s NFL draft to give Jackson weapons, their methodology on offense became clear over six rounds and eight selections: They were not just trying to build the team around Jackson. They were trying to build something like a track team for him, too.

There is no one right way to build an offense in the modern NFL. Fast players can play slow. Plodding players can be big-play weapons. But if the Ravens envision Jackson as their pacesetter for 2019 and beyond, it could be an era of breakneck action.

“We played a lot of teams, really good offenses this year,” Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said Saturday. “I had a chance to sit up in the press box and watch some of these offenses, and one of the main common denominators is speed. It makes it tough as a defense. As good as our defense has been, it’s a challenge for a team to face speed when you have multiple guys on the field at the same time who can run and make explosive plays. It’s challenging.”

The high-octane acquisitions started last year, shortly before Jackson was even drafted, when Joe Flacco was still the quarterback in Baltimore. Top overall pick Hayden Hurst was the third-fastest tight end at the NFL scouting combine (4.67-second 40-yard dash); Mark Andrews, taken two rounds later, was exactly as fast. Free-agent signing John Brown was no slowpoke at wide receiver, either.

In the first round Thursday, the Ravens took Oklahoma wide receiver Marquise Brown, who had been clocked unofficially with sub-4.4 speed. A Lisfranc injury in his foot sidelined him during offseason testing this spring, but the 5-foot-9, 166-pound speed demon said at the combine that he'd hoped to eclipse Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver John Ross' 4.22-second mark from 2017. "I was going to aim for the record, for sure," Brown said.

The wide receiver the Ravens took after him is slower, but then, so is most of the NFL. Notre Dame’s Miles Boykin, 7 inches and 54 pounds heavier than Brown, ran the 40 in 4.42 seconds. Not quite D.K. Metcalf-level fast, but certainly more agile: He had the best time among wide receivers in the three-cone drill and finished third in the 20-yard shuttle, both measures of change of direction and fluidity.

The Ravens did not wait long Saturday to keep up the pace. With their first of three fourth-round picks, they chose Oklahoma State running back Justice Hill, who had the fastest 40 time at the combine for the position.

“It’s a chance to add more speed to this offense, and that’s what he does,” Ravens director of college scouting Joe Hortiz said Saturday of the the 5-10, 198-pound Hill. “He is an athletic kid who flies, hits the hole hard, and he can finish runs both inside and outside — just a lot of fun to watch. He’s so quick and sudden.”

The Ravens need more of that on offense. Much of their success in 2019 hinges on the development of Jackson, who struggled with bouts of inconsistency last season. For all that he offered as a runner in the open field, for all the headaches he caused linebackers on read-option plays, he was prone to fundamental breakdowns.

With little top-end talent at their skill positions, the Ravens had to make do with what they could. (Their No. 1 defense helped.) After a half-season of Flacco and of Jackson, they ranked No. 25 in the NFL and last in the AFC North in yards per play. They finished 25th and 24th, respectively, in number of passes of 20- and 40-plus yards and, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, ranked among the league’s worst in passing touchdowns of longer than 10 yards.

Even in the running game, the Ravens had just one carry of 40-plus yards all season, tied for second fewest in the NFL.

The Ravens appear committed to putting speed on the field, even if it’s through nontraditional means. With their final pick Saturday, they used a sixth-round selection on Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley, who — you guessed it — was the fastest quarterback at the combine.

The 6-foot McSorley said he expects to compete as a quarterback in Baltimore; he set Penn State records for completions, passing yards and touchdown passes as a three-year starter. But he had success with run-pass-option schemes at Penn State and finished his career with nearly 1,700 rushing yards and 30 rushing touchdowns.

DeCosta called him the team's "sleeper pick," someone with the potential to "do some other things." Maybe the kind of things that the New Orleans Saints’ Swiss Army knife, quarterback Taysom Hill, does on offense and special teams.

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“You saw what the Saints have done down there,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “That’s something that we’ll have a chance to do, too, with Trace. He’s going to play some special teams as well. The more you can do. You want players with roles, and he’s a guy that has a chance to have a big role for us.”

Of course, the Ravens have been a franchise built more so on substance than on flash, and they did not forsake those principles on day three. With their remaining picks in the fourth round, they took Oklahoma guard Ben Powers and Southern California cornerback Iman Marshall. Powers will compete for the starting job at left guard, and Marshall should provide depth in the secondary and could grow into a safety.

In the fifth round, they drafted Texas A&M defensive lineman Daylon Mack, a burly and space-eating potential nose tackle who started to realize his potential as a senior. Inside linebacker was not addressed during the draft — “The right player has to be there at the right time,” DeCosta said — but the team will add undrafted free agents over the next few days. Other unsigned free agents could also be headed to Baltimore.

They'd better get there fast.

“We got a lot accomplished over the last couple of days,” DeCosta said. “We added a lot of speed. We had some playmakers, we had some big guys, and I think we helped our football team quite a bit.”

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