OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Whether forcefully directing a teammate where to line up or offering a few words to the second-team offensive line after a rash of pre-snap penalties, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson looks in charge over the early days of training camp.
After leading Baltimore to a 6-1 finish and its first AFC North championship since 2012 last season, the 22-year-old isn’t deferring to anyone in his first full year as a starter. Despite a personality devoid of bravado or focus on individual accolades, this is his team now after last season’s soft opening that resulted in Jackson becoming the youngest quarterback in NFL history to start a playoff game.
“I wouldn’t say he didn’t know what he was doing, but it was his first couple of games in the NFL. Everything was just coming at him full speed,” wide receiver Willie Snead said. “A year later, he’s comfortable. He’s comfortable with the guys around him. He has command of the huddle, and we believe in him. I think that’s all that matters at this point. We just have to continue to grow with each other.”
Of course, the bulk of the attention will continue to be on the speedy Jackson’s development as a passer, the biggest key to his long-term success as a professional quarterback. Learning offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s new system built around his unique skill set this spring, Jackson’s passing was a mixed bag in the handful of practices open to reporters with periods of success offset by head-scratching inaccuracy on even the most basic throws. That pattern carried over to the first full-squad workout last Thursday with an ugly first 90 minutes followed by a more respectable finish to the day.
But after knocking off that rust — it was his first full-team practice in six weeks after all — Jackson has looked as steady as we’ve seen him throw the ball over the last three days. That’s not to say you’d confuse him with a 5,000-yard, 40-touchdown passer, but growth is evident while reminding ourselves it’s still July, a time of year that can serve as a great fooler around the league.
Practicing against arguably the best secondary in the league, Jackson hasn’t thrown an interception since the first practice when an errant throw on a rollout was picked off by reserve safety Chuck Clark. To suggest he’s picked apart the Ravens defense would be hyperbole, but he’s taking what’s there and giving his receivers chances to make plays, which is exactly what the coaching staff wants to see from its young quarterback.
“It’s consistency. Not just with production, but also with fundamentals, techniques, footwork, release,” said head coach John Harbaugh about the evaluation process. “I want to see a good release. Fewer and fewer of the not good releases — we all know what they look like — and more of the solid releases. We’re really seeing that.”
Asked Friday to describe how he’s evolved the most as a quarterback since his rookie season, Jackson was reluctant to delve into too many specifics, recognizing he has a long way to go. He did, however, acknowledge hearing his many critics this offseason and expressed the desire to “make them eat their words” by winning games and continuing to improve.
“Play-calling, timing,” Jackson said. “I’m just trying to get better right now. I don’t want to talk too much.”
His early practices have done the talking as his chemistry with Mark Andrews continues to grow with the second-year tight end making plays down the middle and easily looking like Baltimore’s best pass catcher. With first-round wide receiver Marquise Brown still not practicing, fellow rookie Miles Boykin has shown good speed and reliable hands while making plays — even some long ones — against starting members of the Ravens secondary. Jackson’s passing strength remains the middle of the field, but he’s even showing some improvement outside the numbers with much more work to be done there.
Yes, it’s very early, but the early success is better than the alternative for Jackson and his developing weapons.
Even his spiral — or lack thereof as doubters would scoff — looks better early on. Though he’s unlikely to ever spin the ball as seamlessly as Joe Flacco in his prime, the “ducks” — Jackson’s own description of his “horrible” passing last year — have been fewer and farther between. His passing remains a work in progress, of course, but the key is there being growth while understanding development isn’t always linear.
“We work on [his spiral] a lot, and it has improved dramatically,” quarterbacks coach James Urban said. “Some of it was adjusting to an NFL ball. Some of it was footwork and getting the body all connected, and that’s a continual process. I think that’s a continual process for many young quarterbacks.
“We would like the nice, tight, pretty spiral, but I don’t get overly concerned as long as it’s on time and in rhythm and an accurate throw. That’s way more important than how it looks.”
In a controlled practice setting where no one is allowed to touch the quarterback, you almost forget about Jackson’s special athleticism until he suddenly takes off and even a speed linebacker like Patrick Onwuasor can only shake his head and give the quarterback a fist bump after he effortlessly turns the corner to move the chains. That scrambling ability could easily become a crutch that could hinder his development if Jackson didn’t appear so focused on improving his throwing.
But that’s where we approach the fine line the Ravens and Jackson must navigate between trying to become a better passer — protecting himself in the process — and not shying away too much from what makes him special as a quarterback. Even owner Steve Bisciotti said this spring that Jackson would no longer be running 20 times per game, but Baltimore is sensibly going to do what it takes to win without any self-imposed quota of rushing attempts.
Ultimately, Jackson needs to be himself for the Ravens to thrive.
“My thing for him is I just don’t want him to get caught up in, ‘You have to be a pocket passer. You have to do this,'” said six-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas, who noted that Jackson has been “dropping dimes” early in camp. “You be who you are. You be special. If you have to take off, take off. Make the defense work. When you make a defense tired like that, then the game opens up, play-action opens up, the run game opens up. Everything opens up.”
This is when we once again remind ourselves that it’s early. Roman describes the first nine days of training camp as “a big period of pouring concrete” with the offense still being installed. There are sure to be setbacks with Jackson only a series of inaccurate “ducks” or a few interceptions away from his critics saying, “I told you so,” but that’s the crucible of the NFL, especially for anyone breaking the norm.
Opinions are widespread about his ability and overall ceiling, but the prevailing sense within the organization is that Jackson will become as good as he’s capable of being. From his work ethic to his on-field maturity, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner is described as wanting to be great by countless people inside the building.
That drive and his vivacious personality are what have made teammates — and coaches — gravitate to him so quickly.
“I look back at being 22 years old and could only have hoped to have Lamar Jackson’s poise and balance, sense of proportion,” Harbaugh said. “He just is who he is, and he doesn’t get flustered, doesn’t get fazed. It’s never too big for him. He keeps it about what’s important.
“I’m kind of blown away by that part of it with him.”