Lamar Jackson's performance Thursday, during the last of three mandatory minicamp practices, was a heartening end to a month of up-and-down play.
Willie Snead IV has called Lamar Jackson a “rep guy,” someone who needs to throw every day, a quarterback who will only get better the more he drops back. Jackson is the Ravens’ starting quarterback now, and for the near future. Record-breaking running skills aside, he will be throwing a lot more this season.
His passing Thursday, during the last of three mandatory-minicamp practices, was a testament to Snead’s belief, a heartening high reached at the end of a month of expectedly up-and-down performances. In noncontact seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 play, without Marquise “Hollywood” Brown playing or Miles Boykin fully healthy, he completed about 60% of his passes, never more accurate than during a final red-zone drill.
The day before, Jackson had been wasteful in the same scenario, throwing two of his three interceptions. His first pass from the 5-yard line Thursday was to wide receiver Seth Roberts, who, with close coverage from cornerback Marlon Humphrey, dropped it in the end zone. Then Jackson found running back Gus Edwards short of the goal line on a dump-off. Four of his next five passes were touchdowns: to tight end Mark Andrews, to Roberts, to tight end Hayden Hurst and finally to Snead, a pinpoint laser threaded to the wide receiver at the the back of the end zone.
“He's a much better player than he was a year ago, for sure, just like anybody you would expect,” coach John Harbaugh said. “And he'll be a much better player at the end of training camp than he is right now. One percent better every single day, try to find that, work for that. It's hard to achieve, especially the better you get. I think that we have a lot of room to grow, though, because as we build this offense, we're building it out new, and if everybody gets a little better every day, we get a lot better as a group. And he's definitely doing his part.”
As if Jackson and the Ravens needed a reminder that he is far from a finished product, his final throw ended in the hands of cornerback Jimmy Smith, his lone interception of the morning coming on what was either a very bad throw or a very obvious miscommunication.
But Thursday, Jackson acknowledged, was “pretty outstanding,” even if he didn’t readily agree that it was his best performance of minicamp. He at least seemed to acknowledge that such a display would not have been possible last June. He was just 21 then, a rookie getting through organized team activities and learning NFL defenses and fighting for snaps behind longtime starter Joe Flacco.
“Last year, I would say I was kind of startled just being in the league, growing up hearing all the things about, 'When you go in the league, this and that is going to happen,' or, 'The game is totally different. It's a lot faster than playing youth football, high school,’ stuff like that,” he said. “Right now, it's pretty calm to me. Just playing those seven games [as a starter last season] and being around my teammates, it's been pretty good fun for me.”
Teammates new and old have noticed growth, too. Safety Earl Thomas, who spent the past seven seasons in Seattle opposite Seahawks dual-threat quarterback Russell Wilson, called Jackson a “star in the making.” Guard Marshal Yanda said Jackson has settled in as a vocal leader, now managing the huddle “with a little more confidence.” Outside linebacker Matthew Judon acknowledged that while he doesn’t know much about quarterback play, Jackson has “taken the step of doing the right thing that it’s going to take for us to win a lot of games.”
What comes next will be just as important as any stretch of Jackson’s career. Last year, because of their involvement in the Hall of Fame Game, the Ravens had five preseason games and the longest training camp in the NFL. This summer, they’ll have five weeks off before training camp begins, as it normally does, in late July.
From now until then, Jackson’s mechanical improvements cannot backslide. Wide receiver Chris Moore said last week that Jackson "wants to be a perfectionist"; on Thursday, Jackson, as if on cue, said his fundamentals have improved — a wider base on drop-backs, a better hip drive on throws — but “I’m not perfect.”
His self-improvement schedule during the Ravens’ hiatus is filling up fast. He said he’ll “probably” continue to work with his personal quarterbacks coach, Joshua Harris. He “might” enlist the help of quarterback guru Tom House, a former Major League Baseball pitcher who has become well known for his work with top NFL quarterbacks. Workouts with Ravens wide receivers and running backs, either in the Baltimore area or back home in Florida, are in the early planning stages. “We're just going to try to get better,” Jackson said.
“I want him to keep working, just like all the guys,” Harbaugh said. “I told them, everybody's got something they need to do or a number of things they need to do, but it's all different for each player, each coach to be ready once we come back. Because once we come back, we're 100% going forward. So his specific things, which are quarterback related, are the things that he needs to continue to work on, and I know he will.”
Harbaugh has mostly resisted underlining the importance of certain players’ development this offseason, preferring a more diplomatic handling of positional battles. Quarterback is different. A team is built around its players, Harbaugh said Thursday, “and nobody more so than your quarterback.” It was a midseason switch to Jackson that kick-started the Ravens’ run to their first AFC North title since 2012. It was Jackson’s potential that convinced team officials to part with Flacco, the highest-paid player in franchise history.
Now the Ravens must hope that their refrains about Jackson remain true, even while away: that he gets a little bit better each day.
“He’s working hard,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said Wednesday. “I think every day is a step forward for him. … He’s doing a great job of progressing, staying on schedule. [These are] great learning opportunities. I’m not looking to win the practices. I’m looking to get ready for the training camp and get ready for the season. Every opportunity, whether a good result or a bad result on a play, this time of year is a great thing, because it gives us an opportunity to grow from it.”