OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After months of discussing and practicing ways to incorporate explosive rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson in the flow of the offense, the Ravens are suddenly tight-lipped.
It’s hardly surprising since this is what NFL coaches do the week of a game that actually counts, but the decision to keep Robert Griffin III — giving Baltimore three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster to begin a season for the first time since 2009 — has led many to wonder what the game-day plan will be at the position behind starter Joe Flacco. Teams may activate only 46 players for each game.
“We’ll see,” offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. “We’ll see how that goes.”
Carrying three quarterbacks is far from a novel approach despite the Ravens’ near-decade-long trend of keeping just two, but teams rarely activate all three for games as each active spot is valuable when accounting for the many reserves and special-teams players who contribute to winning games. For one example, Pittsburgh kept three quarterbacks on its 53-man roster all last season, but only two were active for each game.
There were only two instances last season in which the Ravens activated a player and didn’t use him other than sole backup quarterback Ryan Mallett, speaking to how extensively they use backups and special-teams players. In Week 11, offensive tackle Andrew Donnal was active as left tackle Ronnie Stanley missed the game with a concussion, but he was only going to play in an emergency after being claimed off waivers just days earlier. In Week 16, running back Terrance West was activated after a long layoff due to injury, but he was only an insurance policy after starter Alex Collins was banged up in the previous week’s game.
The Ravens leaving themselves vulnerable in another area to devote a third game-day spot to a quarterback unlikely to play would be surprising.
So, if only two quarterbacks are active, do they go with Jackson or Griffin behind Flacco?
The organization certainly values Griffin’s presence to step in should something happen to Flacco that would force him out of action for a few games, but the immediate appeal of drafting Jackson was to utilize his unique skills in creative ways, adding a play-making element to this offense that’s sorely needed. Deactivating Jackson in favor of Griffin might put the Ravens in a slightly better position in the event of an in-game injury to Flacco, but it would also stunt the offense’s potential upside and strip the rookie of experience. We don’t know whether Jackson will become a successful franchise quarterback in the future, but there’s no doubting his ability to contribute in certain situations right away.
The truth is backups receive very few practice reps with the starting offense over the course of the week, inevitably throwing any team into some degree of panic when the starter goes down in the middle of a game. Should that happen to the Ravens with Jackson as the only backup, they should just embrace that chaos by breaking out gadget plays, relying on their rushing attack, and leaning on their stout defense to get them through the game. Of course, if Flacco were to miss the following week’s game as well, Baltimore would turn to Griffin as the starter with Jackson remaining in his same game-day backup and hybrid role. Such an arrangement would seem to be the logical balance between optimizing the use of game-day roster spots and taking advantage of Jackson’s explosive athleticism.
“We’ll do whatever is best for our team,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “Any given Sunday, we’ll have the 46 guys up that give us the best chance to be successful, and we’ll just see what that is every week.”
Starting right tackle decided — for now
Mornhinweg confirmed veteran James Hurst will begin the season as the starting right tackle after the summer competition with rookie Orlando Brown.
It looked like the third-round pick might win the job as Hurst worked exclusively at right guard filling in for Marshal Yanda over the first few weeks of training camp and in preseason games, but Hurst began practicing at right tackle with the first-team line upon Yanda’s return to practice in August. Hurst has started 32 games in his career, but previous stints were all the result of injuries including left guard Alex Lewis’ season-ending shoulder injury last summer that led to Hurst starting all 16 games in 2017.
“Last year was kind of an injury circumstance with Alex,” Hurst said. “That was a goal. All preseason, I knew that I wanted to be a starter; I wanted to earn that starting spot and have that faith from the coaches. It’s very exciting for me, but it’s a stepping stone. You’ve got to build off that.”
The Ravens have frequently deferred to veterans in position battles in the past, but that doesn’t mean Brown won’t be able to unseat Hurst in the near future, especially if the veteran struggles on the outside as he did in past stints at both tackle spots.
“Orlando is coming. Orlando had just an outstanding preseason and training camp,” Mornhinweg said. “Orlando is ready to go. Now, that preparation is going to be key for him. James is a heck of a player, and Orlando’s on the come up.”
The decision to release longtime reserve linebacker Albert McClellan may have been the Ravens’ most difficult last weekend.
Harbaugh has acknowledged the possibility of McClellan returning at some point, but special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg expressed his gratitude for the veteran’s contributions over the years.
“Albert made the meeting easy; he was amazing like you might expect him to be I guess,” Rosburg said. “Hopefully, I heard it mentioned that perhaps this is not over. I hope that’s the case, but we’ll see what goes on down the road. I know I owe a great deal to him personally. He’s been a big part of my life, and I know our club has been better for him being here, both as a player and a person.”
One of McClellan’s final acts was helping out the rookie who took his place on the 53-man roster. Chris Board, an undrafted free agent from North Dakota State, is expected to serve as a special-teams contributor and backup inside linebacker.
“He definitely taught me a lot, especially as far as special teams,” Board said. “He was kind of my mentor throughout this whole process [with] me being a rookie not knowing what to expect. I definitely have some really big shoes to fill.”
Thursday’s injury report
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: DT Willie Henry (abdomen), TE Hayden Hurst (foot)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: CB Maurice Canady (thigh)
FULL PARTICIPATION: LB Kenny Young (knee)
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Lorenzo Alexander (non-injury), WR Ray-Ray McCloud (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: LB Julian Stanford (nose)