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.”