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Ravens position review: QB Lamar Jackson enters a pivotal offseason, and backup job is up for grabs

After Lamar Jackon’s record-breaking 2019, an encore performance was always going to be difficult.

But if the Ravens’ superstar quarterback showed anything in 2020, it’s that even a disappointing season can still be pretty good. Despite struggles on and off the field, Jackson helped lead the Ravens to a playoff berth and an AFC wild-card-round win over the Tennessee Titans. Now he’ll enter an offseason that could shape not only his 2021 season but also his future in Baltimore.

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In the first of a series of position reviews, The Baltimore Sun will examine the team’s quarterback situation. Next up is running back.

2020 in review

Four quarterbacks played for the Ravens this past season, as injuries and an infection destabilized what had been one of the team’s most reliable positions. Jackson tested positive for the coronavirus before Week 12, cramped up in Week 14 and suffered a concussion in a season-ending AFC divisional-round loss to the Buffalo Bills. Backup Robert Griffin III hurt his hamstring. A knee injury sidelined third-stringer Trace McSorley. Only Tyler Huntley emerged from 2020 unscathed.

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Jackson, the NFL’s reigning Most Valuable Player, was voted the team’s MVP, but he fell short of his 2019 mastery. In 15 games, he passed for 2,757 yards, 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions with 64.4% accuracy. He also rushed for 1,005 yards, seven touchdowns and 6.3 yards per carry. Jackson finished seventh in the NFL in QBR.

Depth chart

Lamar Jackson

Skinny: Jackson started the season as one of the NFL’s most productive quarterbacks. Then he started to struggle — with his accuracy, with an inconsistent running game, with the COVID-19 infection. Ultimately, he ended a wild year with another 1,000-yard rushing season, another postseason appearance and another disappointing playoff exit.

Contract status: Jackson is entering the fourth year of a four-year rookie contract, with a 2021 salary cap hit of $3 million. The Ravens are expected to start negotiating a long-term extension this offseason, one that would make the 24-year-old one of the NFL’s highest-paid players. Depending on how quickly the contract talks progress, the Ravens might not have to exercise his fifth-year option for 2022.

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Trace McSorley

Skinny: Despite an uneven training camp, McSorley made the roster as the team’s third quarterback. He was active for just two games, and appeared in both: a Week 12 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers (2-for-6 for 77 yards and a touchdown) and a Week 14 win over the Cleveland Browns (1-for-4 for 13 yards) in which he suffered a minor knee sprain.

Contract status: McSorley is entering the third year of a four-year rookie contract. He has a base salary of $850,000.

Tyler Huntley

Skinny: The former Utah star and undrafted free agent started his rookie season on the practice squad and ended it as Jackson’s backup after injuries to Griffin and McSorley. In three appearances, including the playoffs, he went 8-for-18 for 75 yards and rushed 13 times for 55 yards.

Contract status: Huntley signed a reserve/future deal in January and has a base salary of $780,000.

Offseason questions

1. Will the Ravens sign Jackson to an extension, and for how much?

Harbaugh indicated that it’s only a matter of time before Jackson signs a new deal. It could happen this offseason, the first year he’s been eligible for an extension. It could happen next offseason, when the salary cap is set to expand once more. DeCosta said Monday that the front office wouldn’t wait long before engaging him on the topic.

There are a number of variables in play — Jackson’s an atypical quarterback who’s not represented by an agent — but the length and value of the Ravens’ contract offers are most important. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the NFL’s most talented player, signed a 10-year, $450 million extension in July. Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, another prototypical dual-threat passer, got a four-year, $156 million extension in September.

Whatever Jackson might get, and whenever he might get it, his contract is expected to be the most expensive in franchise history. It would also be the Ravens’ most important deal of this era; just look at how Joe Flacco’s NFL-record deal affected the team years after their Super Bowl XLVII triumph. DeCosta and his front office can’t offer what they estimate Jackson’s been worth to the organization. They have to account for his projected value in three, five, maybe even 10 years.

2. How much can a normal offseason help Jackson?

Jackson entered 2020 wanting to prove he could put the ball anywhere. He’d left no doubt about his accuracy over the middle. But on downfield shots and sideline throws, there was room for improvement.

A year later, there still is. According to Sports Info Solutions, Jackson was 16-for-44 (36.4%) on deep passes (throws of at least 20 yards past the line of scrimmage) this past season, a slight improvement on his 16-for-46 mark in 2019 (34.8%). He also showed a reluctance at times to throw outside the numbers, which cost him in the Ravens’ playoff loss to the Bills.

Coach John Harbaugh said last week that Jackson has only just begun to develop into “the quarterback that he’s going to peak at going forward.” Entering the Ravens’ 2019 offseason program as the starter prepared him for a breakout season. Then the coronavirus pandemic wrecked last year’s offseason, setting him back. If Jackson gets the practice time he needs this spring and summer — not to mention a fortified offensive line — his growth as a passer could be significant.

3. Who has the edge in the backup competition?

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With Griffin’s release, there’s a two-man battle for QB2. Neither set the world on fire this past season; McSorley’s lone highlight was a 70-yard catch-and-run touchdown by wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, while Huntley’s was a fourth-quarter playoff drive that stalled out in the red zone.

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Huntley outplayed McSorley for much of training camp last season, and his passing ability could give him the edge again this summer. McSorley’s delivery is smoother, but he struggled to make sideline throws in camp. Huntley’s arm strength is an asset, and he ended his college career with Utah’s single-season record for completion percentage (73.1%).

Ultimately, both might make the team in September. The Ravens have kept three quarterbacks on their season-opening 53-man roster for three straight seasons, and Harbaugh seems to prefer having an emergency option available. If the coronavirus is still a concern next season, it’d make sense for teams to err on the side of caution.

Possible additions

With McSorley and Huntley set to battle for the backup job, the Ravens don’t need to invest much in the position this offseason. The draft could offer one or two interesting late-round, dual-threat options, however, including Texas’ Sam Ehlinger.

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