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Three questions for Ravens OTAs: Why everyone’s watching Lamar Jackson’s return to practice

The Ravens’ roster construction might not be complete, but the team started building its bridge to mandatory minicamp this week.

Quarterback Lamar Jackson led a deep group of Ravens veterans who practiced Tuesday in Owings Mills, the first of 10 workouts allotted as part of the team’s organized team activities. With the Ravens’ three-day minicamp scheduled to start June 15, the team’s rookies and veterans have three weeks to get ready. Under Phase 3 of the NFL’s offseason program, teams can finally gather for practice, in-person meetings and classroom instruction.

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On Wednesday, the Ravens will hold their first of three OTA sessions open to media ahead of minicamp. No live contact at practice is permitted, but the Ravens are expected to conduct full-team drills, as they did at rookie minicamp earlier this month. With training camp creeping ever closer, here’s a handful of the biggest story lines to watch.

1. Who’s missing?

There are two types of players who don’t show up for on-field OTAs: those who’d rather not, and those who can’t.

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These are voluntary workouts, and without workout bonuses, Ravens officials have only so much leverage in compelling veterans to appear. It’s up to the players (and their health) to decide. When the team last gathered for its first set of OTAs, in 2019, 13 players missed the open practice, including injured rookies like wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, established veterans like guard Marshal Yanda and even splashy free-agent safety signing Earl Thomas III.

In April, the Ravens announced a statement through the NFL Players Association saying they’d decided to “exercise our CBA [collective bargaining agreement] right not to attend in-person voluntary offseason workouts.” But at Tuesday’s workout, a handful of the team’s young standouts — Jackson, Brown, running back J.K. Dobbins and inside linebacker Patrick Queen — were present. So was running back Gus Edwards, who has yet to sign a restricted-free-agent tender ahead of his fourth and possibly final year in Baltimore.

Cornerback Marlon Humphrey, eight months removed from a lucrative five-year contract extension, was back in Owings Mills. Defensive back-linebacker Anthony Levine Sr., 34, and inside linebacker L.J. Fort, 31, both on one-year deals, showed up, too.

Not seen were the Ravens still mired in injury rehabilitation. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley is recovering from a serious ankle injury, while cornerback Tavon Young and tight end Nick Boyle are working their way back from season-ending knee injuries. Coach John Harbaugh said in March that all three are “on track for at least training camp,” and wouldn’t rule out OTAs.

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2. How does Lamar Jackson look — and what does he say?

It’s been a while since Jackson threw a pass in front of cameras and reporters. It’s been even longer since he had a Zoom news conference. Both should happen Wednesday.

There’ll be a lot to take in. In the months since Jackson watched the Ravens’ season end with a painful, disappointing playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills — before suffering a concussion late in the third quarter, he was 14-for-24 for 162 yards and an interception — team officials gave their quarterback more receiving talent than he’s ever had. They also traded away Pro Bowl tackle Orlando Brown Jr., a big-name departure softened by the addition of three potential starters up front.

The team’s offseason revamping should only benefit Jackson, who struggled at times last season to recapture his NFL Most Valuable Player form. He dealt with leaky pass protection and an inconsistent receiving corps, minor injuries and a COVID-19 diagnosis. Year 3 was almost never easy for a player who made it look so simple in his second season.

Now, in Sammy Watkins, Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace, Jackson has three talented new receivers. The offensive line, once it’s finally healthy and set in stone, should be closer to the 2019 model than last year’s up-and-down version. And after gritting through a pandemic-shortened offseason last year, Jackson will have a more normal ramp-up to training camp, valuable practice days to work on his outside-the-numbers accuracy and hone his footwork and mesh with new teammates.

And yet his quotes Wednesday might be more picked over than his passes. Jackson could make headlines for any number of questions he’ll likely hear: What went wrong in the loss to Buffalo? How bad were his concussion symptoms? How much faith does he have in offensive coordinator Greg Roman? What does he think of the new receivers — and potentially adding disgruntled Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones?

Maybe no topic will be more scrutinized than the state of his contract negotiations. General manager Eric DeCosta has said little about how far along the two sides are, but he’s expressed hope in hammering out a deal, calling Jackson “the kind of guy you’d be very proud to have as a son.” Jackson’s fifth-year option in 2022 is worth $23 million, and an extension would be the richest deal in Ravens history. What does he think of all the attention? Someone will probably ask.

3. Who lines up where?

One day of practice isn’t enough to make depth chart predictions. But it can help with predicting which depth charts certain players might land on.

With solid attendance expected again Wednesday, the Ravens can get a head start on their 2021 planning. Some of it could be revealing. Some of it probably won’t be.

Take the offensive line, for example. If the Ravens are committed to moving Bradley Bozeman to center, he could spend most, if not all, of his repetitions there this week, kick-starting the competition to fill his post at left guard. Tyre Phillips’ time-share could be interesting, too; he started as a rookie at both guard and tackle, but Harbaugh said earlier this month that the second-year lineman is a tackle “as it stands.”

Phillips’ primary competition at right tackle figures to be free-agent signing Alejandro Villanueva. But with Stanley sidelined, the longtime Pittsburgh Steelers left tackle will likely have to step in as Jackson’s blind-side protector, keeping Villanueva from practicing the footwork he’ll have to master by Week 1.

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At wide receiver, the Ravens will get a chance to experiment with different alignments. Of their projected contributors, only Sammy Watkins and Miles Boykin, at outside receiver, seem locked into their roles. The arrival of Bateman could lead the Ravens to lean more on Brown in the slot. Or it could push him away from the role. And where would that leave Devin Duvernay, James Proche II, Wallace and the rest of the players at the position?

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Expect similar tinkering in the secondary, where the Ravens will try to suss out third-round pick Brandon Stephens’s best fit. With Young still on the mend and Marlon Humphrey expected to move back to his preferred outside spot, fifth-round pick Shaun Wade should get good experience in his return to the slot. He starred as a nickel cornerback in 2019 for Ohio State before moving out wide for a disappointing, injury-plagued 2020.

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