Ravens draft pick Lamar Jackson, selected with the 32nd overall pick in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
Exactly 10 years after drafting quarterback Joe Flacco, a decision that contributed to one of the best stretches in franchise history and the organization's second Super Bowl championship, the Ravens hope they found his successor.
In leading his last draft as the Ravens general manager before he steps aside after the 2018 season, Ozzie Newsome made one of his boldest moves. After already picking tight end Hayden Hurst with the 25th pick, the Ravens traded back in the first round to select Louisville's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson, a decision that will eventually change the face of the team's offense and could facilitate Flacco's departure from the organization next year.
"It was masterful the way it came down in the draft room tonight," Newsome said. "It was unbelievable."
The Ravens hosted Jackson on a pre-draft visit and they have been linked to the quarterback for several weeks. Still, the decision to take the former Louisville star surprised many and quickly became one of the biggest storylines on the first day of the draft.
By getting him with the 32nd pick, the Ravens will have a fifth-year option on Jackson.
To get in position to take Jackson, the Ravens traded their second-round pick (52nd overall), a fourth-rounder (125th overall) and a 2019 second-rounder to the Eagles for the 32nd overall pick and another fourth-rounder (132).
It was less than three months ago when Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti was dismissive of a question about the urgency in finding Flacco's successor, saying the team had "bigger fish to fry" and was a ways away from having that concern. It's unclear whether Bisciotti was just trying to disguise the team's pursuit of a first-round quarterback or he had a change of heart in the weeks that followed.
The move certainly will add a jolt of excitement to a fan base that has grown disenchanted in recent years with the Ravens missing the playoffs in three consecutive seasons and the Flacco-led offense struggling.
Jackson, 21, was a human highlight reel in college and he was regarded as one of the top athletes in the draft. There are plenty of evaluators that question whether he'll be able to succeed in the NFL, given that he struggled at times as a passer with his decision making and accuracy. However, it's hard to dispute his numbers and pure talent.
In three seasons at Louisville, Jackson threw for 9,043 yards, 69 touchdown passes and 27 interceptions in 38 games. The fleet-footed quarterback rushed for 4,132 yards and 50 touchdowns. In his Heisman-winning sophomore season in 2016, Jackson accounted for 51 touchdowns and over 5,000 yards of total offense. He's the only player to rush for at least 1,500 yards and pass for at least 3,500 in a season in Football Bowl Subdivision history and he did that in both his sophomore and junior seasons.
Jackson is expected to back up Flacco this season. It isn't clear what the Jackson addition means for recently signed veteran Robert Griffin III. However, the Ravens figure to hand Jackson the keys to their offense and build around his strengths as a dual-threat performer.
Flacco, the team's starter for the past 10 years, still has four more seasons remaining on the six-year, $125 million deal he signed in 2016. Moving on from him now would create long-term salary cap problems. However, it becomes more manageable, albeit still costly, after the 2018 season. The Ravens would create $18.5 million from making Flacco a post-June 1 salary cap cut next year, but that money wouldn't become available until months after the start of free agency.
Perhaps the best case scenario would mirror what the Kansas City Chiefs did this offseason. After drafting quarterback Patrick Mahomes in 2017, the Chiefs paved the way for him to start by agreeing to a trade in January that sent veteran starter Alex Smith to the Washington Redskins for cornerback Kendall Fuller and a third-round pick.
Flacco, though, could force a change of plans by having a strong bounce-back year. The Most Valuable Player of the team's Super Bowl XLVII victory over the San Francisco 49ers after the 2012 regular season, Flacco has regressed steadily since the 2014 season. He tore his left knee in the second half of the 2015 season and he missed all of the preseason last year with a herniated disk in his back that affected him for much of the year.
The Ravens did little to hide the fact that they were in the quarterback market in this draft. Both Newsome and his heir apparent, assistant general manager Eric DeCosta, said the team would take a quarterback if he was the highest player on the board. Joe Hortiz, the Ravens director of college scouting, called Jackson "the type of guy you can build around."
It was widely believed, though, that the Ravens would look for one of the second-tier quarterbacks on either the second day or early on the third day of the draft. After all, the Ravens had selected just two quarterbacks in nine drafts since taking Flacco with the 18th overall pick in 2008. Both Tyrod Taylor (2011) and Keith Wenning (2014) were sixth-round picks. There is also the matter of the team being in win-now mode. Newsome will step aside after the 2018 season and coach John Harbaugh's job could be on the line this year if the team doesn't make the playoffs.
Did our experts like the Ravens' first-round picks? Read their instant analysis.
Apparently, they believed that Jackson, a Florida native, was just too tantalizing of a talent to pass up. It is a certainly a high-risk, high-reward move. Jackson enters the NFL as one of the most explosive and athletic quarterbacks since Michael Vick. He has a strong arm and can make all the throws and he also showed improvements during his college career with his decision-making and poise in the pocket. Still, he's most dangerous in run/pass option and play-action situations.
Jackson (6-foot-2 and 215 pounds) terrorized teams with his improvisation skills and his vision in the open field. He had 10 rushing touchdowns of over 40 yards or more in his college career.
Jackson will have to make significant improvements as a passer. He had a tendency to sail throws over the middle and showed a lack of touch at times on intermediate throws. He also was victimized by several tipped passes because of his low release point. Accuracy and decision-making issues led to a 57 percent career completion percentage and 27 interceptions.
But there is so much for new quarterbacks coach James Urban and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, who coached Vick In Philadelphia and New York, to work with, and Jackson will not be expected to start right away.