Lamar Jackson's QB Coach Pinpoints Where MVP Can Still Improve

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJune 30, 2020

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) works in the pocket against the Tennessee Titans during the first half an NFL divisional playoff football game, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Nick Wass/Associated Press

The Baltimore Ravens' Lamar Jackson is the NFL's reigning MVP, but the 23-year-old is far from a finished product.

He took the league by storm during his second season and accomplished feats no other quarterback before him achieved, leading the most prolific rushing offense in NFL history.

Normally, a team's stable of running backs and the offensive line receive the lion's share of credit when discussing an elite rushing attack, yet Jackson's consistent threat as a runner requires split-second decisions from defenders that often lead to mistakes. In fact, he caused the most missed tackles by a quarterback (63) over the last two seasons, per Pro Football Focus.

As a result, he set a league record by a quarterback when he ran for 1,206 yards. He also ran for seven touchdowns and finished first with 36 touchdown passes.

The Jackson-led Ravens offense was unstoppable at points, which culminated in him becoming the face of the league's continued evolution. The architect of Baltimore's dynamic ground-and-astound scheme, Greg Roman, still believes we should expect incremental improvement from Jackson:

"Picture a bar graph, and there's 50 or 60 things that every day you're measured in each category at. If you can get all 50 of those up 2 percent or 3 percent, then you're a much better player at the end of the day. I think there's a magic to his style and how he plays—some creativity. We always want to focus that creativity and that energy into winning football and winning football decisions on the field—accuracy, timing, vision, all those things. It's a constant, slow, steady upward tick in all those different categories."

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When Jackson is away from the Ravens organization, Joshua Harris serves as the Yoda to his Luke Skywalker.

Harris first worked with Jackson during local camps in the South Florida area when Jackson was still in high school. Ultimately, the current offensive coordinator of McArthur High School in Hollywood, Florida, began tutoring the local product during his time with the Louisville Cardinals. Their relationship continues to this day, with Harris serving as Jackson's personal quarterback coach.

Harris now has the responsibilities of teaching high school classes when they're in session while trying to nurture the No. 1 performer in the country's most popular sport.

In some ways, things haven't changed, because he nor Jackson will allow the quarterback's perspective to shift. Harris discussed his pupil's mindset and how Jackson can continue to improve, as Roman stated, in a phone interview with Bleacher Report.

"We had this conversation when I first saw him this offseason," Harris said. "I told him, 'Well, now you know you're the MVP.' He looked at me strangely because we never talk about accolades. He responded, 'What do you mean, Coach?' He might have been a target before because he's the quarterback, but he's going to have a huge target on his back, and they're going to prepare more for your game.

"He explicitly said to me, 'They're preparing for me, but I'm preparing more for them. I'm going to keep a chip on my shoulder.' He remembers being in that room before becoming the 32nd overall pick. That fuels all of his preparation and where his mindset is. He doesn't see himself as the MVP; he sees himself as the fifth quarterback taken in his draft class."

Throughout the conversation, Harris discussed how Jackson can improve across the board and fulfill the parameters Roman set forth even after the success Jackson experienced during his sophomore campaign. Plenty of growth potential exists.

       

Continued Progression as a Passer

Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

Ever since Jackson became a starting quarterback for Louisville, questions arose about his viability as a passer despite becoming the two-time ACC Player of the Year and winning the 2016 Heisman Trophy.

Yet Jackson's prowess as a passer continued to be doubted as the NFL loomed. Everyone remembers Hall of Fame front-office executive and former ESPN analyst Bill Polian infamously stating he should convert to wide receiver.

As a rookie, detractors pounced every time Jackson faltered as a passer. But an inability to look past one's own confirmation bias didn't allow those same critics to see his inefficiency during a rookie campaign where he completed 58.2 percent of his passeshigher than classmates Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen, who were drafted ahead of himhad less to do with natural ability and more with inconsistencies with mechanics.

Jackson admitted he would "get lazy" during his rookie campaign by not "following through with his leg," per the Baltimore Sun's Jonas Shaffer.

Harris and his protege spent last offseason concentrating on better aligning Jackson's feet to his eyes. The preparation proved successful since his accuracy percentage jumped 7.9 points, while his 66.1 completion percentage tied for eighth-best in 2019.

The duo is concentrating on a different area this offseason: deep passing, both on vertical routes and outside the numbers.

"When I looked at Lamar this past season, the thing that seemed to stick out to me—and the Ravens seemingly saw the same thing from their quotes—is Lamar needs to work on deep-ball consistency, hitting that deep ball in stride," Harris said. "And the most important to me: throws outside the numbers. Those need to be consistent with velocity.

"With the outside-the-numbers throws, the main thing is getting more of his lower half into the throw. A lot of times, those throws are more arm strength than incorporating his lower half for him—which creates lost velocity. As a result, the ball tends to tail off at the end. This allows the defensive back to jump the route, or it doesn't get where it needs to be."

Despite putting up impressive numbers overall, Jackson's intended air yards per pass attempt minimally increased between his first and second campaigns, per Pro Football Reference.

Improvement in lower-body functionality will allow Jackson to drive through the football, and it's necessary to create improved accuracy along with velocity on the most difficult throws. If he improves in this area with the speed demons Baltimore has on the outside in Marquise Brown, Miles Boykin and incoming rookie Devin Duvernay, the Ravens offense will become even more difficult to stop since opponents will have to defend every blade of grass.

          

Becoming a More Efficient Runner

Nick Wass/Associated Press

Harris chuckled when asked how Jackson can be even better as a runner because the question has never been raised before, at least to him. Obviously, Jackson is the most dynamic running quarterback at the professional level, and the stats already say he's the greatest ever.

Even so, his decision-making could improve just a hair instead of always relying on his natural gifts.

"The obvious thing people will say is, 'He could slide more,'" Harris said. "I saw a statistic recently that he's only slid twice in his career. Lamar is more detail-oriented than most. He does a great job twisting his body to get down when defenders are trying to hold him up. It's something he's done so long that he knows how to get down. So I don't believe he can be a better runner by sliding.

"I think he can become a better runner by picking his spots a little bit more. This is nitpicky, of course. I believe Lamar is the greatest open-field runner in football right now. But he has more opportunities to pick his spots. Sometimes he thinks he can beat a guy off the alley or edge because he's always done it. Now that he's considered a franchise quarterback and the league MVP, those risks may be unnecessary since the defender may have the angle and could get the quarterback."

Defensive coordinators are smart, and everyone around the league understands how dangerous Jackson is when operating in space. Adjustments are coming. How he attacks those schemes built toward slowing him as a runner with judicious decision-making will make him even more effective.

         

Evolving Awareness

BALTIMORE, MD - NOVEMBER 03: Matt Skura #68 prepares to snap the ball to Lamar Jackson #8 of the Baltimore Ravens during the second half of the game against the New England Patriots at M&T Bank Stadium on November 3, 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by
Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

A quarterback's natural progression goes hand in hand with his on-field production.

Young QBs are generally overwhelmed by the number of defensive looks they'll face week to week. Physical gifts can keep some afloat, while veterans rely on their mental acuity to compensate for physical drawbacks. Processing speed is every bit as important, if not more so, than arm talent. A guy who sees the throw and releases the ball with anticipation will outlast someone who is a tick slower and too reliant on arm strength to fit passes into rapidly closing windows.

For everything Jackson already accomplished, he's still a developing quarterback who has yet to see it all. Eventually, defenses will start dictating to the Ravens what they can and cannot do. It will then fall on Jackson to make the proper pre- and post-snap reads.

"This is the most crucial aspect and what he talked about after the season as his self-scouting report. What did Lamar want to talk about the most? The mental part of the game," Harris said. "That's what he's attacked the most this offseason.

"At the quarterback position, the more information stored in your mental database, the better you're going to be. If you think about Tom Brady, for example, he has 21 years of information which allows him to mentally process faster than a third-year player like Lamar.

"He has so much more to gain as he sees different things, which is all part of the process now. Gaining and retaining information of what guys like to do, which blocking schemes work best, what happens when a defense brings this blitz or that blitz, and so forth."

More will be placed on Jackson this year because the Ravens will be going through a transition along their offensive interior. Right guard Marshal Yanda retired, and a center competition will take place during training camp with Matt Skura, Patrick Mekari and Bradley Bozeman. How Jackson handles those pre-snap identifications while helping with protection calls will be vital.

          
What's Next?

ORLANDO, FLORIDA - JANUARY 26: Lamar Jackson #8 of the Baltimore Ravens reacts to winning MVP Trophy after the 2020 NFL Pro Bowl at Camping World Stadium on January 26, 2020 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)
Mark Brown/Getty Images

Uncertainty abounds during the COVID-19 pandemic. Truncated training camps and preseasons could occur, and a full regular-season slate still isn't certain.

Players have had to be creative. In Jackson's case, he's met with Harris virtually, continued to progress through film and worked on a face-to-face level this offseason.

It's a difficult situation for everyone, but Jackson is putting in the time.

"As with any evolving teacher and student relationship, he's far more independent now, and he knows what he's doing," Harris said of Jackson. "We talk after I go through all of the film. I tell him points I think we need to meet and drills we want to utilize. He takes those and works on them himself while still throwing to receivers sometimes. I've been a part of those sessions, but he also does them on his own. The cool thing is he continues to mature, which means he can do a lot of this stuff himself. This is important, especially considering current circumstances."

It's a scary thought, but Jackson's expected improvement in 2020 should make him an even better player than he was during his MVP campaign.


        

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

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