If there’s going to be an NFL season this year, it’ll have to start in training camp.
After an offseason upended by the coronavirus pandemic, the Ravens are scheduled to report to Owings Mills on July 28 for their first team workout of 2020. Beyond that, little is known about the lead-up to their Sept. 13 season opener. How many players will the Ravens have on their camp roster? How many preseason games, if any, will they play? How could positive COVID-19 tests affect the team?
The NFL and the Ravens still have to figure it all out. But as practice nears, The Baltimore Sun will take a position-by-position look at the Ravens’ roster. Today, the team’s quarterback situation is analyzed.
Lamar Jackson: After the greatest season ever by a Ravens quarterback, what will the NFL’s Most Valuable Player do for an encore? The team’s stunning playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans could be a turning point in his career.
Robert Griffin III: The former NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year is entering his third season in Baltimore and the final year of his contract. Griffin feels he still has starter-level talent, but he’ll first need to lock down the Ravens’ backup job.
Trace McSorley: The former Penn State star and sixth-round pick got just one offensive snap in his rookie season and couldn’t find a role on special teams. To make the team this year, McSorley will need to show his growth as a passer or his potential as a Taysom Hill-esque weapon.
Tyler Huntley: The undrafted rookie from Utah has the dual-threat ability to help the Ravens’ ground game. Huntley also has the accuracy to hang around in the NFL, having finished second in the Football Bowl Subdivision in completion percentage (.731) last season.
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Until Jackson and the Ravens win a playoff game, the narrative around the 23-year-old will be unfairly reductive. Jackson will be a victim of his own regular-season success. He could turn in another All-Pro season, lead the Ravens to a third straight AFC North title, defy both the “Madden curse” and the “Drake curse” — if you believe in curses, that is — and still, analysts and fans and players would point to his 0-2 postseason record.
For now, all Jackson can do is work on himself. As a passer and even a runner, he’s improved by leaps and bounds over his first two seasons. His next step, according to coaches, is making the kind of throws defenses will give him: outs, comebacks, deep curls and deep stop routes, among others.
Jackson was an elite passer last season in part because he heavily targeted receivers over the middle, the most efficient area of the field for quarterbacks. If defenses commit to clogging it up, there will be more space near the sideline.
“These are all types of routes that we have time to throw, a lot of times,” coach John Harbaugh said last month. “If we can, really, [we want to] more and more hurt people. And we hurt them a lot of times last year. Lamar has good numbers throwing the ball like this, but that’s an area that we want to really see if we can make people defend those parts of the field, even more than they have in the past.”
Even if Jackson improves, it’s likely his numbers won’t. He became the first NFL quarterback to pass for 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 yards in a single season. He threw one touchdown for every 11.1 passes he attempted, finishing with a league-high 36 overall, and one interception for every 56.7 attempts. He smashed record after record despite starting just 15 games. There will be some regression.
But only so much of his ability can be held in check. The Ravens led the NFL in both rushing efficiency and passing efficiency last season, according to Football Outsiders, a remarkable achievement. With Jackson’s cheap rookie contract and gravitational pull on defenses, offensive coordinator Greg Roman has one of the NFL’s most powerful forces. The fun this season will be in seeing what else Jackson can do.
While Ravens running backs have talked about breaking the NFL’s single-season rushing record — again — the team’s aerial attack has never had more potential since Jackson took over.
The Ravens have invested heavily in young wide receivers over the past two years, drafting Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, Miles Boykin, Devin Duvernay and James Proche. Tight end Mark Andrews made the Pro Bowl in his second year. Running backs Mark Ingram II, J.K. Dobbins and Justice Hill are solid options out of the backfield. Pro Bowl offensive tackles Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. should help keep Jackson upright.
The minor miracle of the Ravens’ historic 2019 offense wasn’t how often they ran the ball but how efficiently. For offenses in the modern NFL, pass plays are the coins of the realm. According to Pro Football Focus, only 28 teams in the 14 previous years had ever finished with a positive Expected Points Added — a statistic that measures a play’s impact on the score of a game — on run plays over a full season.
A more balanced run-pass ratio could be the next step forward in Baltimore.
From 2009 to 2017, the Ravens entered every season with two quarterbacks on their 53-man roster. For the past two, they’ve gone with three. This year, Jackson will be one. Griffin seems likely to be his backup again.
The pandemic could force the Ravens’ hand on keeping a third. If positive tests persist throughout August, why not have a third-string safety net on the roster? No NFL team would dare enter a game with one healthy quarterback.
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If the Ravens don’t have space or the need for three, they could try to keep McSorley or Huntley (or both) on their practice squad. There’s now space for 12 players on the squad, with maybe more flexibility to come.