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Lamar Jackson Is an NFL Quarterback, but He's Nowhere Near a Great One Yet

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterAugust 2, 2018

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson throws a pass during an NFL football training camp practice at the team's headquarters in Owings Mills, Md., Thursday, July 19, 2018. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
B/R

Lamar Jackson's pass clangs off a support girder, and the echo resonates through the Ravens' indoor practice facility.

It's a routine red-zone drill post-pattern toss to a fourth-string tight end, with no defenders involved. It's Pop Warner pitch-and-catch stuff. Yet the pass wobbles off target, and the gong ensures no one can politely ignore it.

Coaches correct Jackson and direct him to throw another rep to the same tight end. This time, the pass is crisp and accurate.

It wasn't Jackson's worst throw of that rainy-day practice session last week—not by a long shot. Nor was it his first repeated rep. Jackson threw multiple interceptions in team drills. Many passes sailed beyond the reach of his targets. It was just a day of July football practice, but it was not a great day.

"There's a lot going on," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said when asked about the errant throws after practice. "He did make some overthrows, but he also made some really good throws, too.

"With a young player, I don't think you expect perfection. But he looks pretty good out there to me."

A few days later, the Ravens listed Jackson as their third-string quarterback on the official camp depth chart, behind both Joe Flacco and Robert Griffin III. "Pretty good," at least for now, is not good enough.

It's early in training camp—though not quite so early for the Ravens, who opened camp a week before most other teams and kick off the 2018 season in the Hall of Fame Game against the Bears on Thursday night—but one thing is clear: Jackson may be a great quarterback someday. But today is not that day. And the season opener September 9 won't be, either.

        

Two Steps Forward, a Step Back

Flacco is the best quarterback on the Baltimore Ravens roster. Jackson isn't even close right now.

That's not hidebound NFL conservatism doing the talking, or some socio-political agenda at work, or spin control to protect the starter's fragile ego, or an effort to throw a bucket of either sand or gasoline on a national conversation. It's the only conclusion anyone who watches even a few minutes of Ravens practice can draw.

Joe Flacco
Joe FlaccoGail Burton/Associated Press

Make all the Flacco jokes you like. Cite all the statistics you want. Unspool Jackson's collegiate highlight in an eternal Twitter thread if you wish. None of it matters when Flacco is completing touch passes up the sideline and rifling throws into tight windows while Jackson is still bouncing slippery passes off the grass in rainy-day sessions and chiming footballs off structural supports.

Not that Ravens coaches or players are worried about Jackson, a first-round pick and eventual successor to Flacco.

"As far as his accuracy and all of that: He has really, really worked hard," offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. "You can see on the practice field—it's coming now. He's getting better every day."

"Now, there'll be a time where he takes a step back to take two steps forward ... but he's done an outstanding job up to date. He's way ahead of the curve now. This guy's a hard, hard worker. Tough-minded guy."

The Ravens, like any team that's massaging a multiple-quarterback situation so it does not inflame into a controversy, are committed to staying on message: Flacco is the starter; Jackson is learning and working hard. You hear variations of that message whenever a coach or veteran is asked about the rookie.

"Lamar's a baller, man," wide receiver Michael Crabtree said. "He's out there right now working, trying to learn the offense, learn the coverages, the reads, and I feel like he's getting there."

"He's a very exciting young talent," linebacker Terrell Suggs said.

"Lamar is doing great," tackle Ronnie Stanley said. "It was definitely hard for him at first, but you can tell that he's improving, and he wants to improve more."

You get the idea.

Lamar Jackson
Lamar JacksonJoe Robbins/Getty Images

Jackson himself has remained on message.

"I'm still learning," he said, when asked what he's picking up from Flacco and Griffin. "Everything they do, I'm trying to mimic."

Jackson, who isn't loquacious, is also candid about his flaws and his need to improve.

"I've grown a lot more from my OTAs, my rookie minicamp," Jackson added. "I was tired at rookie minicamp—I wasn't looking forward to running around that fast early. But it kind of slowed down for me, and I just feel good right now."

Coaches have tinkered with Jackson's mechanics, widening his stance and instructing him not to throw from his toes. Jackson admits the new delivery isn't completely instinctive yet. "Coaches are sometimes telling me to 'stay down' still," he said. "It depends on the drill."

Jackson is also working to master the complex verbiage of NFL play-calling. He did call some plays in Louisville's offense, but that no-huddle system used signs and hand signals to relay most plays from the sideline. So Jackson has taken a page from the old public-speaking handbook to better convey information in the huddle.

"Coach gives me the play, I get in the huddle, and I get tongue twisted," Jackson said. "The guys are like, 'Say that again?' So I stand in the mirror, look at the plays and say them to myself to get ready for the next day."

Quarterbacks coach James Urban said Jackson's off-target passes are the result of a natural learning curve and the new mechanics. "In our drill work, we see the growth. And then sometimes, when the bullets are flying, he reverts back to what he knows. So we're improving that consistency of doing it [right] all the time."

Many first-round rookie quarterbacks enter training camp buried on the third string. Josh Allen is behind AJ McCarron and Nathan Peterman on the Bills depth chart. Carson Wentz began his Eagles career behind Sam Bradford and Chase Daniel. There's no shame in starting your career shunted behind a former Super Bowl MVP in Flacco and a former Rookie of the Year/fellow Heisman Trophy winner in Griffin.

But while Flacco is having an exceptional camp, he's clearly past his never-scintillating prime. And Jackson dealt with nonstop predraft prattle about being better off at wide receiver than quarterback. So all eyes and ears are on the Ravens as they assert Flacco's primacy and Jackson's status as a promising, industrious rookie quarterback, all the while undercutting that message, just a little, by auditioning Jackson as a gadget-play wide receiver.

         

So Creative…or Too Tricky?

Jackson lines up at an offensive position other than quarterback. Flacco is at quarterback. In a sunny-afternoon practice, in front of reporters and fans, the Ravens offer a brief glimpse of their much-anticipated two-quarterback package.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh and Lamar Jackson embrace on draft day.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh and Lamar Jackson embrace on draft day.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Harbaugh explained after that practice just what he was looking for when the team auditioned its gadget plays for the first time.

"You run a play like that, and it's like everyone thinks, Oh, it's great; it's genius; it's so creative! Harbaugh said. "Or it's a disaster and you're getting too tricky and you need to stick to the basics."

For the record, the Jackson slot plays look OK. Teams don't like it when reporters offer too much strategic detail; hence the coy description of where Jackson was and what he did. Suffice to say that on one particular play, the Jackson wrinkle opened a seam in a defense that was on high alert for tomfoolery, and Flacco completed a deep pass as a result.

On Monday, the Ravens unveiled even more gadgetry, including a play that resulted in a one-handed catch by Flacco from Jackson.

Flacco sneered about running a "high school offense" a few years ago when forced to share snaps with then-backup Tyrod Taylor. With two-quarterback packages on the menu this year, the Ravens are walking back those old statements. "There's nothing wrong with a 'high school' play; we have a lot of them," Mornhinweg said. "But if they're done properly, they're very effective."

Jackson was also critical of being typecast as a "slash" player before the draft. He asserted he was "strictly a quarterback" several times during his combine press conference, after a rumor surfaced that he was asked to work out for coaches and scouts at wide receiver. When asked specifically about slash-Wildcat plays, Jackson diffused the question with a smile: "That's basically another position! Like I said before: I'm a quarterback."

Jackson still sounds a little reluctant to embrace the "any way to get on the field" approach to development. "I wouldn't say 'get the ball more,'" he said. "We're just trying different things for different disguises for different defenses. That's all."

"I'm just going with the flow right now," he added.

It's important to note "the flow" does not require Jackson to run through cones with the receivers or sacrifice quarterback reps so he can catch passes from a JUGS machine. Jackson does all the things the other quarterbacks do. He isn't being marginalized or stealthily groomed for a position change. He's just a quarterback who happens to line up elsewhere for trick plays once or twice per practice.

"One way or another, he's going to be out there, taking snaps," Harbaugh told John Kryk of the Toronto Sun. "... Lamar is also a weapon for us, who can play quarterback. And we're going to play Lamar at quarterback."

Whether the "weapon who plays quarterback" treatment is best for Jackson remains to be seen. But the Jackson "slash" threat is the most interesting thing to happen to the Ravens offense in years. And after the Super Bowl success of the Philly Special, "high school plays" may be in vogue this year.

Still, what's most exciting about Jackson isn't his potential to run the Wildcat or single wing, but his potential to become a dynamic all-purpose, every-down starting quarterback. And there's plenty of evidence of that potential. All you have to do is look past the wobblers and clangers.

        

Like Any Quarterback Who Couldn't Run

Minutes after rattling the rafters with an off-target pass, Jackson finds Chris Moore in the back corner of the end zone during a goal-line seven-on-seven drill. The pass is crisp and precise: no clang, no need to repeat the rep. With Flacco, Crabtree and others getting rest-the-veteran treatment during the second halves of early-camp practices, Jackson-to-Moore is technically a starter's rep.

"That dude's amazing," Moore said of Jackson after the session. "He can throw way better than I thought he could."

Chris Moore at Ravens camp.
Chris Moore at Ravens camp.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Moore watched Jackson on television last year like the rest of us—"You had to watch him: He won the Heisman!" Moore reminded—and assumed Jackson had a similar skill set to Louisville's previous quarterback, whom Moore's Cincinnati Bearcats faced a few times in college.

"I thought he was gonna be similar to Teddy Bridgewater," Moore said. "But he's an athletic freak. And he can throw like any quarterback who couldn't run."

It goes to show that even NFL receivers make presumptions about college quarterbacks that aren't exactly accurate.

Moore also knows what it's like to be a young offensive player adjusting to life in the NFL while lining up every day against the Ravens defense, which is loaded with holdovers from the Ray Lewis era (Suggs), rugged veteran mercenaries (Eric Weddle, Tony Jefferson) and tough up-and-comers with SEC pedigrees (pretty much the rest of the defense).

"You're playing against some veterans who have been doing this for 15 years. They know your offense better than you know it, really. It's about catching up and then getting comfortable. Then it gets a lot easier.

"You can see it in Lamar. He's getting comfortable fast."

But there's no reason to rush Jackson—not with Flacco and Griffin on the roster.

"It sounds like us beating our chests, but he's got the best quarterback room to help him get prepared," Griffin said. "He's got a guy who's done it a certain way for a long time—and Joe's 'sneaky athletic.' And he's got myself, who's been in his shoes and his position, and a similar type of player. He's got the tools and everybody around him to be successful."

"Lamar has been a sponge," Coach Urban said. "Lamar shows just enough personality that you really like him. But he's respectful. If he's said it once, he's said it 100 times: Joe Flacco has won a Super Bowl, that means he's for real."

Maybe an internship behind Flacco and Griffin (who said he thinks of Jackson almost like a little brother) isn't such a bad thing for a rookie still mouthing plays in front of a mirror. There's no urgency to force anything in Baltimore. The Ravens, and Jackson, have the luxury of waiting for the footwork to become perfect and the passes to straighten out.

"It's coming," Moore said. "It's gonna be there. And once we get it. It's gonna be awesome."

            

Compete and Complete

Jackson skitters a pass into a throng of sideline reporters, forcing us to scatter like pigeons. It's Tuesday, two days before the Hall of Fame Game, one week after the indoor practice, and there are still some Gong Show moments now and then. There will probably be a few more tucked among the highlights during preseason games.

Lamar Jackson working out at Ravens camp.
Lamar Jackson working out at Ravens camp.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

There's nothing unusual about Jackson's ups and downs this summer; Wentz went through the same adjustment period of wobbly passes and tempered expectations just two years ago in Philly, and you know how that turned out. What's unusual is Flacco is held in such low national esteem for an established starter that Jackson became an almost symbolic figure before the draft, and the Ravens, usually one of the NFL's least buzz-worthy teams, are in the Hall of Fame Game spotlight. So all eyes will be on a quarterback situation that really isn't a situation. Not yet, anyway.

Harbaugh kept it simple when asked what he most needs to see from Jackson in the preseason.

"Poise," Harbaugh said. "You gotta run the show. To see him run the show and get things right is the main thing. After that, play football and see what happens."

"Compete and complete," added Coach Urban when asked to outline an ideal preseason for Jackson. "Play the game, first of all. And then, get completions: Throw it to the open guy, and if not, let your great natural ability take over. Do that from Game 1 of the preseason all the way through Game 5, and we'll have a better understanding of where he is."

That's the Ravens' timeline. This preseason is about evaluation and understanding, not competition for a starting job. Frankly, that's what is best for Jackson right now.

As for Jackson, he said his ideal preseason would be "winning every game." But there may still be a little chip on his shoulder from all of that predraft switch-to-receiver nonsense. When asked what he hoped to prove in the Hall of Fame Game, Jackson sounded more instinctive in his response than many of his throws have looked.

"I'm a quarterback," he said. "That's the first thing that I want to show."

Jackson is a quarterback. No one can take that away from him. But it will be a while before he's a truly great one.

    

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