OWINGS MILLS, Md. — First-round pick Lamar Jackson remains a work in progress at quarterback, but it’s becoming increasingly clear the Ravens still want the talented rookie on the field this fall.
As Baltimore conducts its mandatory minicamp this week, the former Heisman Trophy winner continues to line up at different positions in addition to taking extensive reps as a more conventional quarterback working with the second and third offenses. There’s hardly a quarterback controversy brewing with the start of the season now less than three months away — veteran starter Joe Flacco has been head and shoulders above the rest of the quarterback group this spring — but the Ravens are walking the line between trying to win now after missing the playoffs in four of the last five years and preparing for the future.
“If we put two quarterbacks on the field at once, what options does it create for our offense?” head coach John Harbaugh. “That’s what we try to figure out, so [Jackson’s] back there throwing the ball, he’s back there doing other things. Then, Joe has to do some other things, too, if he’s throwing the ball.
“It gets to be — I don’t want to say challenging — but it gets the creative juices flowing for our offensive coaches, and they’ve worked hard at it.”
It’s an unconventional strategy with few modern examples from which to draw. However, hearing players continue to marvel at Jackson’s combination of special athleticism and arm strength makes you understand why offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and assistant head coach Greg Roman have embraced the challenge.
An offense that’s lacked play-makers for years should be exhausting every avenue for an edge, and even his defensive teammates have taken notice of Jackson’s skills.
“Once he gets out of the pocket, it’s like watching a young Michael Vick. It’s amazing to watch,” inside linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “When you’re defending him, you just have to act like you’re tagging off. You don’t want to be on the highlight reel. It’s fun to watch him.”
The experiment doesn’t come without risk.
The league’s 29th-ranked passing offense from a year ago is already trying to assimilate three new veteran wide receivers atop the depth chart as well as two rookie tight ends expected to play significant roles. When an offense tries to extend itself with too much change and innovation, it runs the risk of mastering too little, leaving the unit incomplete and unproductive. Striking a balance between a more traditional offense with one quarterback on the field and implementing a Jackson package of plays over the course of a game requires strong feel as a play-caller, a trait Mornhinweg hasn’t always been credited with having during his time as Baltimore’s offense coordinator.
Perhaps even worse than the potential drawbacks to the 2018 offense could be the impact of Jackson’s usage as a hybrid player on his overall development. The Ravens clearly have designs of Jackson being their quarterback of the future — whenever that time might come — but his uneven play from the pocket this spring reflects the need to improve his footwork and accuracy in addition to the general challenges any young quarterback faces entering the NFL.
Part of that process for a mobile quarterback is learning how to be judicious using his legs in an effort to keep himself healthy as much as being a successful passer for the long haul. Might that learning curve be stunted by asking Jackson to focus too much on going all out as a runner or even a receiver in more of a non-quarterback role right now?
“This is a little unique; you have the ability to put two quarterbacks on the field at one time,” Harbaugh said. “There are a lot of considerations that go into that, and everybody has an opinion. I’ve read a few that people might have, and there are a lot of ways to look at it, and we’re aware of that. You want to find a way to get the most out of all your guys.”
Bridging the gap between the present and future on offense will continue to be one of the biggest story lines going into the 2018 season, but the Ravens are embracing the creativity and the risk that comes with it.