Joe Flacco is undoubtedly the Baltimore Ravens' starting quarterback right now, but Lamar Jackson's accelerated progress is hard to deny. The rookie quarterback is entering the NFL as a project, but he's gotten better in each of his first four preseason games.
Jackson's passer rating jumped from 42.9 against the Chicago Bears in the Hall of Fame Game on Aug. 2, to 62.0 in Baltimore's second preseason outing, to 76.8 in its third, to 134.6 in a dress rehearsal against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday.
The 21-year-old Louisville product completed seven of 10 passes for 98 yards and a touchdown while rushing three times for 39 yards and another score. He led three long scoring drives in the 27-10 victory and looked crisp in what head coach John Harbaugh thinks was a breakout game, according to ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley.
"I hope people know I can throw now," Jackson said after his strong performance, per Clifton Brown of the team's official website.
Sure, Jackson didn't start, but with Flacco sidelined as a healthy scratch, Robert Griffin III was solid yet again, completing nine of 15 passes while chipping in 41 yards on five rushes against Miami's first-team defense.
The 28-year-old Griffin—who was the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2012—has completed 65.9 percent of his passes this preseason.
Both Jackson and Griffin are uniquely talented first-round picks, which leads to the question: How safe is Flacco's job?
There's no indication the Ravens are planning to switch to either Jackson or Griffin right now. But things move fast in this league, and Flacco might not be able to afford a slow start for a team that has set the bar high but has been to the playoffs just once since winning the Super Bowl in 2012.
In the five seasons since Flacco got hot on that Super Bowl XLVII run, 33 quarterbacks have started at least 32 games. Only one of those—Blake Bortles of the Jacksonville Jaguars—has a lower passer rating than Flacco (82.1). He is also tied for 32nd in touchdown rate (3.5), 25th in interception rate (2.6) and dead last with a yards-per-attempt average of 6.5.
He has yet to make a Pro Bowl at the age of 33, and his lack of consistent production is accentuated when the Ravens aren't competitive.
Possibly feeling the heat, Flacco has by many accounts put together a strong offseason, and earlier this summer, a "longtime Ravens observer" told NBC's Peter King that the 2008 No. 18 overall pick was having "far and away" the best training camp of his career. But that won't mean much if he struggles in September meetings with the AFC rival Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos and Pittsburgh Steelers and the Ravens fall behind in the AFC North standings.
Regarding Flacco's future, Harbaugh noted in an April press conference that "you take it one year at a time in this league," but does that mean Flacco should be guaranteed a starting job as long as he's healthy for the 2018 season?
He'll count $24.8 million against the salary cap this season and is under contract through 2021, and thus, he isn't likely to be worth much on the trade market. Still, if the Ravens fall out of contention this fall, they'd be silly to keep rolling with an 11th-year veteran who has peaked.
Jackson and Griffin have both earned the right to make some prove-it starts if Flacco can't get it done. And if it hasn't, the team should have that conversation with Flacco now to avoid the predicament the New York Giants ran into with veteran Eli Manning and potential successor Davis Webb last season.
If that doesn't light another fire under the seemingly inspired veteran, it'd at least make it easier to test out Jackson or Griffin in the near future.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.