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Ravens positional review: Quarterback

Quarterback is generally the most scrutinized position for any NFL franchise. Even by that standard, 2018 was a doozy for the Ravens as they transitioned from longtime starter Joe Flacco to rookie Lamar Jackson. This year could be just as interesting, with the Ravens looking to trade Flacco, find a backup and most importantly, develop Jackson into a polished passer who can lead the team through its next decade.

2018 in review

The Ravens began with Flacco as their unquestioned starter for the 11th straight season. A back injury had hampered him early in the 2017 season, but he drew raves for the way he moved and threw last summer, and he jumped to one of the best starts of his career. Flacco threw eight touchdown passes against just two interceptions as the Ravens won three of their first four games, and he found immediate chemistry with his new receivers, especially deep threat John Brown, who averaged almost 20 yards per catch in the first half of the season.

Flacco’s production dipped as the Ravens entered the most difficult period of their schedule, but even so, the analytics site Football Outsiders rated the Ravens’ passing offense the 12th-most efficient in the league through nine games. Flacco injured his hip early in a Nov. 4 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. He finished that game, but never played another snap the rest of the season.

Jackson, the former Heisman Trophy winner and 2018 first-round draft pick, took over the offense when the Ravens returned from their bye week for a crucial Nov. 18 date with the Cincinnati Bengals. The change from Flacco was drastic. The Ravens ran for 267 yards, with Jackson contributing 119 of his own, and they would surpass 200 four more times in the following six games. The pass-happy NFL had not seen such a ground-heavy attack since the 1970s, and it worked as the Ravens won six of seven games to claim their first AFC North title since 2012.

Jackson’s speed and fluid moves earned him comparisons to the greatest running quarterbacks in league history, from Michael Vick to Randall Cunningham. Teammates embraced him for his enthusiasm, humility and resilience.

But there were less positive signs as well. Jackson’s passing accuracy remained inconsistent, and he struggled to find the team’s wide receivers on outside routes. He fumbled 13 times in eight starts (including the postseason). And when the Los Angeles Chargers used seven defensive backs to match his speed at the line of scrimmage in the first round of the playoffs, Jackson could not adjust until the game was too far out of reach. His rookie season was a success by any measure, but he left it with a lengthy to-do list of skills he must refine.

The Ravens also took the unusual step of keeping a third quarterback, Robert Griffin III, on their 53-man roster for the entire season. Coaches were pleased with Griffin’s work as a day-to-day mentor to Jackson and also with his ability to mimic the rookie’s skills when he served as the backup while Flacco was injured. After spending the entire 2017 season out of the league, the former Offensive Rookie of the Year did not see the field often for the Ravens, but he did re-establish himself as a viable NFL player.

2019 outlook

There’s no quarterback controversy this time around as the Ravens and coach John Harbaugh have made it clear they will build their offense around Jackson going forward. The Ravens promoted Greg Roman to replace Marty Mornhinweg as offensive coordinator because of his proven acumen for designing creative running attacks.

Harbaugh didn’t offer many details on Jackson’s training plans at his postseason news conference, but he did say the second-year starter will go through rigorous independent workouts designed to polish his all-around skills. Harbaugh also said the Ravens will rebuild their offense from the ground up with an emphasis on creating play-action passing opportunities — and eventually more drop-back sets — for Jackson.

The Chargers gave the league a blueprint for adjusting to Jackson’s rare running skills. Now, the Ravens will have to prove they can adjust to the adjustment. They also need to find receivers who pair well with Jackson. His biggest throws went to rookie tight end Mark Andrews, and he also showed an affinity for slot specialist Willie Snead IV. But the Ravens will likely draft or sign several new pass catchers, and it will be intriguing to see which traits they prize.

Meanwhile, they will try to trade Flacco, and if no market develops for him, they will likely cut the former Super Bowl MVP and greatest quarterback in franchise history. Flacco wants to start again, and given his performance in 2018 and the plethora of unsettled quarterback situations around the league, he’ll probably find an opportunity.

Harbaugh and general manager Eric DeCosta both said finding the right backup for Jackson will be an offseason priority. Griffin is a free agent and will survey the landscape for potential starting chances, but he said he would not mind returning to the Ravens as Jackson’s backup. He made a good impression in 2018, and if Jackson were to suffer an injury, Griffin has the run-pass skills to slot in relatively seamlessly.

Harbaugh mentioned former Ravens backup Tyrod Taylor as another attractive option if Taylor can’t find a starting job somewhere else. Whether it’s Griffin, Taylor or someone else, the Ravens seem determined to find a player who could run the offense they plan to build around Jackson’s unusual skills.

Free-agent options

The Ravens won’t be looking for a starting candidate but will likely sign a veteran free agent to back up Jackson. That list starts with Griffin and Taylor, who would have to take a substantial pay cut from the $16 million he earned as the Cleveland Browns’ starter entering the 2018 season.

Other quarterbacks set to hit the market as backup targets include Ryan Fitzpatrick, Josh McCown, Trevor Siemian, Brett Hundley and Brock Osweiler. But none of them fit the Ravens’ needs as well as Griffin or Taylor.

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