A year ago, the Ravens had an idea of what quarterback Lamar Jackson might become. Beyond that, uncertainty at the position abounded.
Now they know not only how exceptional Jackson is but also how he’s best utilized (plus, who can back him up). No NFL player had a better 2019 than Jackson, who on Saturday was named league Most Valuable Player by a unanimous vote. And as the Ravens regroup from a shocking playoff exit, no position on offense or defense is in better shape this offseason than Jackson’s.
In the first of a series of position reviews, The Baltimore Sun will examine the team’s quarterback situation. Next up is running back.
2019 in review
Before the Ravens unleashed Jackson on NFL defenses, they first had to figure out what to do with the rest of their quarterback room. Last February, longtime starter Joe Flacco was traded to the Denver Broncos for a fourth-round pick that eventually became running back Justice Hill. The Ravens took a $16 million salary cap hit by dealing Flacco, but the move freed them of one of the league’s worst contracts.
There was no quarterback controversy in 2019, however. Jackson posted a perfect passer rating in Week 1, repeated the feat in Week 10, broke idol Michael Vick’s rushing record in Week 15 and powered an offense that finished first in the NFL in Football Outsiders’ passing and rushing efficiency metrics. Over 15 starts, he completed 66.1% of his passes for 3,127 yards, an NFL-high 36 touchdowns and six interceptions and had 176 carries for 1,206 yards and seven touchdowns.
Jackson became the first player in league history to post 3,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a single season, a testament to his growth and the unique offense catered to his skill set. Under coordinator Greg Roman, the Ravens ran the ball nearly 57% of the time, by far the NFL’s highest such rate. With a strong offensive line, deep tight end group and talented stable of running backs, Jackson proved as capable of beating teams through the air as on the ground.
Maybe his worst performance of the season came in the Ravens’ AFC divisional-round loss to the Tennessee Titans, his second playoff defeat in as many appearances. Jackson accounted for 508 yards of total offense but threw two interceptions and lost a fumble. Afterward, he blamed himself for “a lot of mistakes.”
“We’ve just got to do better next time," he said. “But [now it’s] moving forward, get ready for this offseason, get ready for next year.”
Skinny: Jackson set the franchise record for passing touchdowns and the NFL record for rushing yards by a quarterback in a single season. To quote the man himself: Not bad for a running back.
Contract status: Jackson is entering the third year of a four-year rookie contract, which has a $2.6 million salary cap hit in 2020. Jackson’s deal has a fifth-year team option, but he’s also eligible for a contract extension after next season.
Robert Griffin III
Skinny: Griffin was one of the NFL’s more active backup quarterbacks, appearing in seven games and going 23-for-38 for 225 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. His greatest contributions in 2019 might have come as a chameleonic scout team quarterback.
Contract status: Griffin is signed through the 2020 season, with a $2 million base salary and $500,000 guaranteed.
Skinny: The former Penn State star had one of the Ravens’ most impressive preseasons ever for a rookie quarterback, but appeared in just one regular-season game: a one-snap cameo against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 17. He rushed for 1 yard.
Contract status: McSorley is entering the second year of a four-year rookie contract. He has a base salary of $585,000.
1. Where does Jackson go from here?
Jackson improved every facet of his game after his rookie year, from his pocket presence to his throwing mechanics to his ball-handling. After one of the most impressive seasons by a quarterback in NFL history, finding things to nitpick becomes a chore.
But no quarterback is perfect, and Jackson will tell you as much. He struggled occasionally on sideline throws last season, preferring to target his talented tight ends over the middle. He sometimes overthrew receivers on deep routes. His unusual arm angles sometimes sacrificed accuracy.
Jackson’s biggest strides in the coming months will likely be mental, not mechanical. He turned 23 only a month ago, after all. Last season was his first in Roman’s offense, and the comfort between coordinator and quarterback should grow. Maybe Jackson will enter the 2020 season with more presnap freedom — or at least the comfort to check out of plays more often.
2. Does Griffin’s health matter more than his age?
There are only so many quarterbacks who can run and throw like Jackson. Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson and Kyler Murray are the closest approximations, and they’re all franchise quarterbacks.
For as long as Roman’s offense is in place, the Ravens’ roster-building challenge will be finding someone who can do a passable imitation of Jackson whenever called upon. Griffin has been the answer the past two seasons, and a relatively cheap one, but he turns 30 next week.
Griffin might not be the dynamo he was as a Washington Redskins rookie, but he still moves well enough in the open field. If he remains healthy — and that’s always a big if with Griffin — it’s hard to imagine a young quarterback unseating him from his backup role in the near future. Griffin could also chase a starting job elsewhere after next season, but that won’t be easy, either.
3. Is McSorley’s future in Baltimore tied to his special teams value?
When the Ravens took McSorley in the sixth round last year, coach John Harbaugh compared his potential fit to that of Saints quarterback Taysom Hill, a Swiss Army knife for New Orleans’ offense and special teams. McSorley was not just an accomplished college quarterback but also an athletic one, running the fastest 40-yard dash at the 2019 scouting combine among players at the position.
But after his anonymous rookie season, no one could mistake the two. McSorley started every open practice last season with the special teams unit, but he didn’t get a single in-game snap there, not even in the regular-season finale. The Saints’ Hill appeared in just five games his rookie season, and while he finished with just one offensive snap, he averaged 14 special teams snaps per game.
If Jackson and Griffin are entrenched as the Ravens’ top two quarterbacks next season, McSorley’s path to the 53-man roster might be as a special teams standout. It’s unlikely the Ravens will want to carry a third nonrookie quarterback for a full season again.
The Ravens will likely bring in another quarterback as a training camp arm. Until signing journeyman Joe Callahan, the team was down to just Jackson and McSorley after Griffin suffered a thumb injury early in camp.
Given the team’s more pressing roster needs, the Ravens don’t need to invest a draft pick in a quarterback. A dual-threat star such as Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts could be a fascinating weapon to line up next to Jackson, but he’s unlikely to last past the second round.