Lamar Jackson Primed for Second-Year Leap in Dangerous Ravens Offense

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystApril 29, 2019

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson warms up before an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Dec. 30, 2018, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Nick Wass/Associated Press

Detractors better be ready, because Lamar Jackson is ready to blossom in the Baltimore Ravens' new-look offense. 

For many, the lasting impression of Jackson's rookie campaign is that the worst performance of his football career came at the worst possible time. The first-year signal-caller threw an interception and fumbled three times in a 23-17 Wild Card loss to the Los Angeles Chargers

Critics reveled in Jackson's playoff failure. The miserable performance only cemented the ridiculous narrative that the quarterback should have converted to wide receiver because he's not a good enough passer.

Confirmation bias overlooks the fact that a developmental quarterback prospect took over a mediocre team in Week 11, completely changed the offense for the better and helped lead Baltimore to the playoffs in the first place. 

The Ravens prepared this offseason to take their run-first offensive scheme and make it nearly impossible to defend.

Jackson's mobility spawned everything Baltimore did as the league's second-best rushing attack. The mere threat of the signal-caller scrambling stretched the field sideline-to-sideline. In most spread offenses, extra receivers create this spacing. The Ravens took the opposite approach by threatening the alley with a dynamic runner at the game's most important position. 

In turn, lanes along the interior widened and Ravens running backs, particularly undrafted rookie Gus Edwards, feasted. Jackson's presence helped create gaping holes for runners during Baltimore's march to the playoffs. 

Edwards' longest run of the season came on Baltimore's first offensive play in a Week 16 victory over the Chargers. How Los Angeles originally defended the approach left the squad vulnerable in the 22-10 loss, because they weren't prepared for Jackson and Co. The genesis of the aforementioned run can be seen below, courtesy of NFL.com: 

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson hands the ball to running back Gus Edwards in a Week 15 contest against the Los Angeles Chargers.
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson hands the ball to running back Gus Edwards in a Week 15 contest against the Los Angeles Chargers.NFL Gamepass

At the mesh point, linebacker Jatavis Brown and safety Adrian Phillips overpursued to their left in an attempt to contain Jackson even though he completed the handoff on the zone-read. As a result, the Ravens offensive linemen gained easy angles and opened a gaping hole by NFL standards, as seen below: 

Baltimore Ravens running back Gus Edwards carries the ball against the Los Angeles Chargers.
Baltimore Ravens running back Gus Edwards carries the ball against the Los Angeles Chargers.NFL Gamepass

The Chargers caught Edwards 43 yards downfield.

Los Angeles countered and slowed Baltimore's approach two weeks later in the postseason, though. The coaching staff created a new look other teams may emulate in future contests. Head coach Anthony Lynn decided to utilize what the team called its "quarters" package. Basically, seven defensive backs took the field and two played linebacker to counter Jackson's athleticism and outside escapability. 

"Our defensive coaches felt like against this quarterback, it would be good to go small, because [the DBs] can help in coverage and they can help track Lamar," Lynn said after the Chargers' 23-17 victory, per Sports Illustrated's Jenny Vrentas. "And it worked." 

Los Angeles stacked the defensive interior and dared Jackson and Co. to run wide against the seven swarming defensive backs or beat them in coverage. The Ravens didn't have an answer and needed to develop one this offseason. General manager Eric DeCosta, who took over for Ozzie Newsome this year, did so on two fronts. 

First, Mark Ingram II signed a three-year, $15 million free-agent deal. The two-time Pro Bowl running back is a significant upgrade. Edwards developed into a nice surprise last year, but he's not a true feature back. Ingram's history shows he can be a punishing lead runner. The 215-pound back is a powerful downhill runner who creates plenty of missed tackles and contributes in the passing game. With Ingram and Edwards in the backfield, the Ravens can now play bully ball even if opponents stack the box.  

Fourth-round pick Justice Hill becomes the X-factor, because of the running back's 4.40-second 40-yard-dash speed. 

Up front, all five of last year's starting offensive linemen return. Right guard Marshal Yanda and left tackle Ronnie Stanley are already elite performers. The Ravens can expect improved play from center Matt Skura and right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. during their second years in the starting lineup. 

Plus, the organization re-signed Nick Boyle to a three-year, $18 million contract. Boyle is one of the league's best blocking tight ends. 

DeCosta then expanded the offense's capabilities by adding a pair of blazing fast wide receivers in the draft. Before the event, Willie Snead IV, who has never had a 1,000-yard season, projected as the Ravens' WR1. The team's entire wide receiver group was underwhelming. And its leading receiver last year, John Brown, signed with the Buffalo Bills this offseason. So, the Baltimore front office spent two of its first three draft picks on dynamic, athletic targets. 

Baltimore dove into the wide receiver pool first when it selected Oklahoma's Marquise "Hollywood" Brown with the 25th overall pick. The diminutive target (5'9", 166 pounds) is nearly impossible to cover. His short-area quickness creates significant amounts of separation at the top of his stems, and Hollywood can take the top off any defense with his vertical speed. According to Pro Football Focus, the draft's top receiver ranked top-nine overall with 3.85 yards per route run, 8.5 yards after catch, a 135.1 passer rating when targeted, 18 missed tackles forced and an 85 overall grade. 

Brown immediately steps into the lineup as the Ravens' top option. 

Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Marquise Brown with offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Marquise Brown with offensive coordinator Greg Roman.Gail Burton/Associated Press

"We can play him inside, outside, short, deep, all kinds of things, and we're really only limited by our imagination," offensive coordinator Greg Roman said, per Clifton Brown of the team's official site. 

Two rounds later, the Ravens chose the class' most physically gifted receiver. No, not D.K. Metcalf. Notre Dame's Miles Boykin heard his name called with the 93rd overall pick. The 6'4", 220-pound prospect with 4.42-second 40-yard-dash speed and a 43.5" vertical jump tested in the 99.9th percentile of NFL wide receivers in SPARQ (speed, power, agility, reaction and quickness), according to Three Sigma Athlete's Zach Whitman

To place those numbers into context, Boykin's physical profile is similar to Calvin Johnson and Andre Johnson, per Mockdraftable's Marcus Armstrong. As impressive as that is, the former member of the Fighting Irish also caught 59 passes for 872 yards and eight touchdowns last season. 

Baltimore paired the league's most innovate rushing attack with field-stretching receiving talent to maximize spacing. Brown and Boykin on the field at the same time will consistently threaten deep zones and force defenses to pull an extra defender out of the box. If they don't, the two rookies can make them pay. Also, the team's talented tight ends—Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews—and Snead will now have more room to work on short to immediate routes, especially over the middle. 

One misstep because of a poor read can result in disaster for opposing defenses. 

"We got a chance to see what Lamar can do this past year, and I think our vision, collective vision, for the offense is to add more guys like that to make it really challenging on the defense," DeCosta said, per Brown. 

The rest falls on Jackson. As a rookie, his deficiencies as a passer were evident. He must improve upon last year's 58.2 completion percentage with improved footwork and overall ball placement, especially on out-breaking and timing routes.

Natural improvement should occur thanks to a better understanding of the system, play speed, defensive looks and an increased emphasis on fundamentals. The final point can't be stressed enough. Jackson admitted he'd "get lazy" last season, which led to inaccurate throws. 

"[I would] try to make things happen with just my arm, not following through with my leg," Jackson told the Baltimore Sun's Jonas Shaffer. "And it would show a lot."

Roman knows he must emphasize the little things with the 22-year-old quarterback to maximize his effectiveness in both phases of the game. 

"Moving forward, the consistent fundamentals are really going to take him to the next level, because he has all the ability in the world," the offensive coordinator said. "He has the right mindset—nothing fazes him, either. He has all those intrinsic things." 

Jackson's maturation will be expedited by an improved supporting cast acquired with the sole purpose to expand the Ravens' offensive approach. A year ago, Jackson and the Ravens' running attack caught opponents off guard. Now, with Jackson once again serving as the focal point, an explosive passing attack can be expected. 

"It's his team," veteran safety Tony Jefferson said. "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 depending on him. We know he's putting in the work that's needed."


Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.