If ever there were a socially acceptable time in the NFL to pick apart a player’s weaknesses, this is it. The draft is a week away. Little is off limits.
So on Tuesday, in his first comments to the media since the Ravens’ season-ending playoff loss, quarterback Lamar Jackson offered an evaluation. It was of himself: When he was inaccurate last season, he said, it was more often than not because he’d “get lazy” with his fundamentals. When one screw was loose, the whole enterprise wobbled.
“[I would] try to make things happen with just my arm, not following through with my leg,” Jackson said on the second day of the team's offseason workout program. “And it would show a lot.”
Over 16 games and seven starts last season, Jackson completed 58.2% of his passes. That was solid for a rookie — of the five quarterbacks taken in the first round last year, only the Cleveland Browns’ Baker Mayfield (63.8%) was more accurate — but not good enough for a run-heavy offense that needs a respectable passing game. Even Joe Flacco (61.2%) fared better.
Also concerning were Jackson’s throws to the sideline. He had the third-lowest passer rating (59.2) outside the numbers among the 38 quarterbacks with at least 150 regular-season pass attempts.
But now that he’s in the NFL, not auditioning for it, Jackson’s offseason has been different. Kind of. He’s still training with Joshua Harris, the Florida high school coach whom he worked with before the draft last season. He said there’s still few breaks in his schedule; he allows himself days off only when the weekend arrives.
But there was relief in having a normal-for-the-NFL winter and spring. Before explaining how “exhausting” the predraft process was Tuesday — the flights to unfamiliar cities, the interviews, the early wake-up calls — Jackson took a deep breath, as if to underscore how much of a pain in the butt it had been.
In February, first-year Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman noted that this would really be Jackson’s “first offseason,” one that Jackson said started after a short break in January. Then it was back to work on things like throwing from a wider base.
“I think fundamentally is where he needs to put most of his work into,” Roman said at his introductory news conference. “I think where to throw the ball, seeing guys open, those are the things he just naturally has. I do think those innate abilities have allowed him to get to where he’s been.
“Moving forward, the consistent fundamentals are really going to take him to the next level, because he has all the ability in the world. He has the right mindset — nothing fazes him, either. He has all those intrinsic things. I think he’s one heck of a natural leader, too. But time on task fundamentally is really what’s going to bring him to the next level.”
The Ravens don’t start organized team activities until May 20, but Jackson has already sought help. He asked running back Mark Ingram, a free-agent signing after eight seasons with the New Orleans Saints, about Drew Brees’ pass patterns and bases. “He’s always accurate with the ball,” Jackson explained.
As Jackson’s fundamentals evolve, so, too, will the offense around him. Ravens coaches said their system would be overhauled this offseason. Some cornerstones will surely remain, but Marty Mornhinweg is no longer on staff. Receivers John Brown and Michael Crabtree have moved on. Flacco’s strengths and weaknesses are not a consideration now that he’s with the Denver Broncos.
Jackson said he’s “got to rebuild myself as well,” but teammates say it matters that he can do so knowing that he’s now QB1.
“I think if you look at any player, if you were to study how they walk into the building as a rookie and how they walk into the building as a second-year player, you'll see a huge difference,” safety Tony Jefferson said. “Lamar's a quarterback. It's his team. We're following his lead. We know how big of a leader he can be and how special he can be on the football field. We're depending on him. We know he's putting in the work that's needed.”
Added right tackle Orlando Brown Jr.: “I feel like this year, you can just kind of tell that he knows what to expect going into the day, and he knows what to expect once we hit the field.”
The challenge for Jackson is that defenses will, too. Jackson said he wants to get “bigger, stronger, faster, everything” this offseason. Even if he does, defenses will be better prepared for the Ravens’ ground game. The Los Angeles Chargers ended the Ravens’ season by bottling up Jackson and throttling their rushing attack.
With his physical gifts, Jackson doesn’t need to be Brees. But he does need to be better.
“I don't feel like I'm the best I can be right now,” Jackson said. “I'll have to see when the season comes. Still working.”