Over six months ago, the Ravens left Indianapolis with a 20-19 preseason win over the Colts and rookie Lamar Jackson lamenting his incompletions. The first-round pick had been drafted to be their quarterback of the future. It seemed impossible then that it would be the near future.
Coming on in the second quarter, Jackson led dud drive after dud drive. He missed his first four throws. He entered halftime 3-for-10 for 31 passing yards, with a near fumble on an ill-advised scramble. He finished with a 76.8 passer rating, the worst of the three Ravens quarterbacks who took the field. But he also threw the go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter.
“He’s confident and he’s going to keep competing,” coach John Harbuagh said afterward. “He’s always going to believe that he could make the play to turn the game. He did a great job of doing that. We’ll just keep working, keep getting better in all the little areas. There’s no question in my mind that he’s got a great future.”
The fate of a franchise changes quickly. So can the face of a franchise. Ravens officials arrived in Indianapolis this week for the NFL scouting combine to meet with two important groups: agents representing players who made up the core of the league’s top-ranked defense, and prospects who could one day play alongside Jackson, their new starting quarterback.
While the future of standouts like inside linebacker C.J. Mosley and cornerback Jimmy Smith will be determined in the weeks to come, the process of evaluating potential co-stars in the Ravens offense has already begun. Teams began meeting with the 300-plus draft prospects in Indianapolis on Tuesday night.
General manager Eric DeCosta said the team will not consult with Jackson about his preference for draft prospects — “I think he's got a lot of things to focus on” this offseason — but the offense’s needs would’ve been apparent to even the Ravens’ late-to-the-bandwagon fans.
In helping to lead the team to its first playoff appearance since 2014, Jackson flashed his promise as a passer, but he needs wide receivers who can make his life easier. The former Heisman Trophy winner was a dynamic running threat, but he needs interior linemen who can clear a path for him. He might even need another running back who can follow those paths and catch his passes.
"We’re going to try to build the best offense we can around our quarterback, which you always do,” Harbaugh said.
Jackson is “on his own right now,” Harbaugh said, working to develop into a more well-rounded quarterback. The Ravens don’t have “all the details” on his offseason plan, according to Harbaugh, because they’re not allowed to oversee much. But they know he’s working in Florida with a quarterbacks coach, and they’re counting down the days until the team’s offseason workout program begins.
The Ravens have kept busy since their season ended last month. The team’s coaching staff has spent the offseason trying to construct offensive schemes that can protect and amplify Jackson’s talents. The front office has been busy targeting parts of last season’s roster for teardowns; Joe Flacco’s pending trade to the Denver Broncos and the release of wide receiver Michael Crabtree cleared important salary cap space.
Decisions must be made on the money (and roster spots) freed up. At wide receiver, DeCosta said the Ravens “love” pending free agent John Brown. But if he doesn’t re-sign, the team would have only Willie Snead IV as a proven NFL option at the receiver position.
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“We’d love to bring in some young guys and have them develop a relationship with Lamar Jackson moving forward,” DeCosta said. “We drafted a couple of guys last year. We’re excited about those guys moving forward. We think a good offseason is going to really pay dividends with both Jaleel [Scott], and also [Jordan] Lasley. We’ve got to add playmakers … guys that can work with Lamar, take some of the burden off of Lamar and make plays in critical situations. That will always be a priority for us, I think, going forward and something we hope to do this year.”
Several wide receivers have been linked to the Ravens’ No. 22 pick, but Harbaugh said the team could also add a contributor through free agency. Many of the top players available are slot receivers, like Snead, but Tyrell Williams (653 receiving yards in 2018), Devin Funchess (549) and Randall Cobb (383) are also set to hit the open market.
“Over the years, we’ve been very successful with that,” Harbaugh said. “You go back, for me, you go back to Derrick Mason, and you can work your way right on through with Anquan Boldin, Steve Smith [Sr.]. We were pretty successful with those-level guys, top-level-type players. That’s one way to do it.”
Harbaugh said Gus Edwards, who paired with Jackson late last year to help produce the Ravens’ league-best rushing offense, remains the team’s starter at running back. But Baltimore could also be a landing spot for Alabama running back Josh Jacobs, widely viewed as the draft’s top prospect at the position.
Matt Skura led all centers in snaps last season, and the Ravens last offseason signed James Hurst, now the team’s left guard, to a four-year, $17.5 million deal. But DeCosta and first-year offensive coordinator Greg Roman have stressed the need for the team’s front five to embody the team’s smashmouth ethos. Both players could see new names on the depth chart this offseason.
The Ravens have an idea of the player Jackson can be. Now they’ll have to judge the future of possible teammates and evaluate their worth. There’s only so much a quarterback can do in the offseason.
“We believe he’s a great football player, a great quarterback. How great remains to be seen,” Harbaugh said. “That’s up to him and us, so we’re looking forward to seeing what we can get done.”