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Lamar Jackson trying to stay ready in such unusual times

Posted on 21 April 2020 by Luke Jones

Under normal circumstances, Lamar Jackson and the Ravens would have been back in Owings Mills this week for the start of the offseason workout program.

We would have heard about the work he’s been doing with personal quarterback coach Joshua Harris, a partnership that resulted in a historic MVP campaign last season. His recent passing sessions with top wide receiver Marquise Brown — we’ll get to Antonio Brown’s presence in a moment — would have been praised rather than criticized for violating social distancing guidelines, measures unthinkable to us all before the coronavirus pandemic.

News of him being on the cover of the upcoming edition of Madden would have brought the same harmless debate about the video game’s alleged curse without the very real uncertainty of what the 2020 season might look like — or whether it will happen at all.

Instead, Jackson remains in South Florida, doing Pilates and working out by himself as we wait out a “new normal” that isn’t normal at all.

“I’m all business when it comes to football,” Jackson said in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday. “Everything else, I’m laid back. I don’t really do too much. I like to chill, so the quarantine is not really bothering me at all when it comes to just staying inside.”

The 23-year-old quarterback working out with the controversial Antonio Brown sparked much debate with general manager Eric DeCosta declining to comment earlier this month. While lamenting the timing and optics of conducting the workout in the midst of the pandemic, Jackson said it was the first time he’d met the seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver and cousin of Marquise Brown who’s been out of football since being released by New England last September.

Jackson downplayed the encounter beyond it being an opportunity to work on his craft, but he was asked about the possibility of the former Pittsburgh Steeler joining the Ravens.

“I’d be happy if they signed him,” Jackson said. “He’s a great player. He showed it each and every year when he was with the Steelers in the past, but it’s not my decision.”

With the draft set to begin on Thursday night and many clamoring for the Ravens to add more weapons to make a record-setting offense that much more dangerous in 2020, Jackson shared only one request that doesn’t come as a surprise after he gifted each of his offensive linemen a Rolex watch last Christmas.

He knows replacing eight-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda won’t be easy and is a greater priority than drafting another wide receiver, tight end, or running back. Jackson also wasn’t about to slight incumbent teammates who were part of the first offense in NFL history to average more than 200 yards rushing and 200 yards passing in a single season.

“Get the guys we need. We need a replacement for Marshal,” said Jackson about his draft wish list. “Marshal was that guy — first-ballot Hall of Famer. We need a guy for him. And whoever else we need, come in and help get us a championship.”

After piling up numerous team and league records in a franchise-best 14-2 season and becoming the second-youngest player in league history to win MVP, Jackson understands January success is the next step for both him and the Ravens, who have lost home playoff games in consecutive seasons. The disappointing defeat to Tennessee three months ago didn’t invalidate a fun and unforgettable year, but it left a cold truth for 2020.

It’s Super Bowl or bust.

“I need to win a playoff game before anything because I’m tired of that already,” said Jackson of the postseason criticism. “Once I get tired of something, I have to make it happen.”

Last year certainly showed how unwise it is to doubt Jackson, but that goal feels far away right now, much like so many other aspects of our lives.

In the meantime, the NFL’s most electrifying player is doing his best to stay ready in a sports world that’s been shut down indefinitely. And he’s trying not to dwell on the unknown.

“The world needs football,” said Jackson, even struggling with the possibility of playing games without fans in attendance this fall. “I think we’ll be playing football this year, so I’m not going to put that in my mind.”

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Jackson’s development headlines pronounced transition for Ravens

Posted on 17 April 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With former Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco practicing for the first time as a Denver Bronco more than 1,600 miles away this week, Lamar Jackson and the Ravens are in a much different place than they were a year ago.

Before taking over as the starting quarterback in the middle of the season and helping lead Baltimore to its first AFC North championship in six years, Jackson was just winding down the pre-draft process at this time last year, still unsure where his NFL journey would begin. The 22-year-old sighed in relief and laughed Tuesday as he was reminded of that “exhausting” time before former general manager Ozzie Newsome made him the 32nd overall pick of the 2018 draft.

Of course, Flacco’s departure is far from the only notable change for the Ravens, who have a new general manager in Eric DeCosta and bid farewell to former Pro Bowl selections C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle, and Terrell Suggs as well as 2018 sack leader Za’Darius Smith and two starting wide receivers this offseason. For an idea of just how stark the transition is, five of the six players made available to media for the start of the offseason program last year are no longer with the organization.

But all eyes are on Jackson, in terms of his development entering his second season and how that impacts the revamped Ravens’ chances of repeating as division champions after so many roster changes.

“If you were to study how [players] walk into the building as a rookie and then how they walk into the building as a second-year player, you’ll see a huge difference,” safety Tony Jefferson said. “I know it was for me [in Arizona], and I know it was for a lot of the rookies last year.

“Lamar is our quarterback. It’s his team. We’re following his lead. We know how big of a leader he can be and how special he can be on the football field. We’re dependent on him, and we know he’s putting in the work that’s needed.”

There was much intrigue about Jackson’s offseason as he worked with personal quarterback coach Joshua Harris in Florida for the second straight offseason. The 6-foot-2, 212-pound quaterback said he worked five days per week and threw to a group of wide receivers that included Ravens teammate and 2018 fifth-round pick Jordan Lasley and former Louisville teammate Jaylen Smith, who projects as a late-round pick in this year’s draft.

It’s no secret Jackson needs to improve his accuracy after completing just 58.2 percent of his passes as a rookie and 57 percent over his three seasons at Louisville. His offseason focus has been on maintaining a wide base in his legs — a point of emphasis with Ravens quarterbacks coach James Urban — and throwing more out-breaking routes after he showed much more accuracy with passes over the middle of the field to his tight ends and slot receiver Willie Snead.

Asked to play meaningful games for a contending team and operating out of an offense that wasn’t fully built around him, Jackson acknowledged the breakdown of his passing mechanics and footwork that would lead to off-target throws during his rookie season. Refining those mechanics will be key in maximizing the special speed and athleticism he displays at the quarterback position.

“It had a lot to do with it,” said Jackson of his fundamentals. “I would probably get lazy, try to make things happen with just my arm, not following through with my leg, and it showed a lot. I would throw an inaccurate ball.”

With the Ravens still a few weeks away from beginning organized team activities, it’s difficult to gauge how much progress Jackson has made as a passer from last year. After saying he was throwing “a lot better” this offseason, even Jackson acknowledged the test won’t begin until OTAs and beyond. He and his teammates will also be learning a new offense as coordinator Greg Roman has rebuilt the system “from the ground up” to best suit the young quarterback.

Still, teammates have observed a more confident Jackson seemingly at ease with the great responsibility of knowing he’s the starting quarterback from the first day of voluntary workouts. Perhaps the best indicator of that demeanor is the impression he’s made with new Ravens running back Mark Ingram, who played eight seasons with Drew Brees. Ingram said Jackson has already picked his brain about the future Hall of Fame quarterback as the two shared the same flight to Baltimore this week.

“He wants to get here early, get in the film room, study,” Ingram said. “He’s a hard worker, and he’s just a good dude. He’s fun to be around. He’s one of the guys. That’s very refreshing to be able to see that from him — that he’s young, but he still is mature. He’s mature, has his mind right, wants to study film, wants to be the best quarterback he can be and the best player he can be.

“I think the sky is the limit for him.”

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Twelve Ravens thoughts entering start of offseason workout program

Posted on 15 April 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens beginning their offseason workout program in preparations for the 2019 season this week, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The faux enthusiasm for players running and lifting weights dissipates quickly, but the start of the “voluntary” offseason program is a welcome checkpoint on the way to a new season. We’re less than five months away from kickoff for Week 1.

2. We know Lamar Jackson was again working with personal quarterback coach Joshua Harris and have seen some videos on social media, but I’m fascinated to hear him discuss his offseason and to see what he’s specifically focused on improving.

3. Until we see the terms of the one-year deal extension for Marshal Yanda, I’m not making too much out of it beyond the removal of any doubt about his status for 2019. The 34-year-old has to have many of the same questions we all do about a team in transition.

4. Yanda will have a compelling case for Canton, but I can’t help but remember the start of his career when he missed most of 2008 and moved between guard and tackle for four years. He didn’t make his first Pro Bowl until his fifth season, which won’t help his chances.

5. Count me among those believing Eric DeCosta would prefer trading back from 22nd overall to accumulate more picks, but you ultimately need to have a willing partner. If the draft’s value is truly on the second day and early in the third, other teams are aware of that as well.

6. Baltimore’s positional needs are clear, but don’t forget the 2015 draft if you’re more concerned about DeCosta checking those boxes than maximizing value. It looked great on paper to pick Breshad Perriman, Maxx Williams, and Carl Davis to “replace” Torrey Smith, Owen Daniels, and Haloti Ngata. Reality was different.

7. I enjoy the team projections put out by ESPN’s Mike Clay to gain a universal picture of where the league stands at this point in the offseason. Ravens fans won’t like seeing 7.6 projected wins, but I couldn’t strongly argue a bigger number at this point, illustrating how critical this draft will be.

8. Michael Pierce has deservedly received high praise and appears on his way to a good payday at some point in the next calendar year, but he’s played 400 snaps only once in his three seasons. How does a bigger workload translate if you’re considering giving him lucrative money?

9. With much conversation about the offensive line, James Hurst feels like a forgotten man after a back injury limited him to 10 games last year. He carries the roster’s 10th-highest cap number, so the pressure is on Hurst to show he’s fully recovered.

10. The Seth Roberts signing was a typical Ravens move and carries little risk, but the last former Oakland Raider with issues catching the football didn’t work out so well here. Roberts has dropped 23 of the 182 catchable passes in his career, according to Pro Football Focus.

11. The regular-season schedule should be released this week with the Ravens set to play five playoff teams from a year ago. It’ll be interesting to see how the league and its TV partners perceive Jackson and a run-heavy offense in terms of the number of scheduled prime-time games.

12. Strength and conditioning coach Steve Saunders isn’t a household name, but countless players have praised his work over the last couple offseasons. Luck is a greater variable than we admit, but the Ravens had only seven players finish last season on injured reserve.

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