OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Lamar Jackson‘s first throw of the summer barely left his hand, and the criticism already commenced.
Ball didn’t wobble. Good sign.
Surprised he didn’t fumble it
No arm … stick to running
Here’s the crazy part: These hits from social media, albeit some delivered tongue-in-cheek, came after Jackson tossed the first pitch at a Baltimore Orioles baseball game. He won’t step onto the football field for a full-team practice until Thursday, when Ravens training camp kicks off.
If Jackson didn’t know the level of scrutiny he was about to face, he certainly does now.
For Ravens coaches and players, Jackson is their quarterback. For the rest of the football world, he’s the team’s qualifier.
If Jackson can develop into an effective passer, Baltimore will be a dangerous team. If he fails to take the next step, the Ravens are the ones in danger.
The increased pressure can often become too much for young quarterbacks. That won’t be the case with Jackson, according to his personal quarterback coach.
“I actually think it’s a benefit for him in his career because he’s a person that, when he hears the knocks or negativity, it locks him in and makes him focus,” said Joshua Harris, who has worked with Jackson throughout college and this past offseason. “I’ve never seen a kid when challenged, the next time, it’s perfect. We all know the high variance in his throws at times. When I need him to lock in, I’m like, ‘Look Lamar, you can’t do that.’ Or I’ll mess with him and say, ‘You’re trash.’ The next throw, I promise you, will be perfect.”
Jackson is coming off a season in which he overachieved, which tends to get pushed aside in projecting what he will do this season. The last pick of the 2018 first round, Jackson became the only rookie quarterback to lead his team to the postseason last season and became the youngest QB ever to start an NFL playoff game. He won six of seven starts to finish with a better winning percentage than Baker Mayfield (6-7), and his passer rating (84.5) was higher than Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen — all of whom were taken in the top 10.
Whether Jackson can lead Baltimore to another AFC North title depends on his arm. He ran the ball (147 carries) about as much as he threw it (170 pass attempts) last season. Critics point out how his passes flutter and how he throws sidearm or off his back foot. In seven starts after taking over for the injured Joe Flacco, Jackson finished 30th in completion rate (58 percent) and 31st in off-target percentage (23 percent).
As defenses devise plans to limit Jackson’s playmaking ability as a runner, he has to evolve as a passer.
“If you would divide all the different things that go in to playing quarterback, I think it would be amazing to many people how many columns there are. He has raised his level in every column, to a certain extent,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “Lamar is the kind of guy that, the more he does something, he’s going to get better at it. We’ve been really trying to focus on certain things, but I think everything has really elevated.”
Here’s a checklist on the main areas in which Jackson has to improve upon in training camp:
Throwing outside the numbers
The biggest disparity in Jackson’s game is the direction of his throws.
He’s among the best in the NFL when passing over the middle of the field. He’s one of the worst when throwing to the sideline.
“Teams are going to pack the middle of the field on this guy and say look, ‘Throw the football, 10 to 15 yards-plus outside the numbers. Until you do that, we’ll put all 11 right between the numbers,'” ESPN analyst Louis Riddick said. “Until he answers that question, it’s just going to be more of the same.”
In between the numbers, Jackson completed 71 percent of his throws and recorded a 108.4 passer rating, which ranked seventh in the NFL and ahead of Philip Rivers, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger. Outside the numbers, he connected on 47.8 percent of his passes and posted a 61.7 passer rating, which ranked 40th in the league.
“When is he going to become a super quarterback? It’s when he has the accuracy outside the numbers,” said Rex Ryan, a former NFL head coach and defensive coordinator who is now an analyst for ESPN. “If that develops, the kid is going to be special.”
Jackson has been working on his mechanics to boost his success on the longer throws. With Harris, Jackson has been using a wider base, which allows him to use his lower half of his body to get more velocity on throws. He’s been concentrating on keeping his shoulder from opening too fast, which causes him to lose zip on his passes.
It boils down to being more poised when he sees an open receiver and a big-play opportunity on the outside.
“What was happening is Lamar is just excited, if you want to put it in a nutshell,” Harris said. “It’s like, ‘Wait, be patient. Be fundamentally sound. Be disciplined.’ It’s really just training him to be patient, patient, patient. If you’re patient and fundamentally sound, it will be like any other throw. It becomes just another straight line throw if you do it right.”
The only hits Jackson took this offseason were from his assistant coaches.
Putting on arm-length pads, the Ravens coaches repeatedly whacked Jackson’s hands when he dropped back and moved with the ball. The purpose of this frequent drill was to strengthen Jackson’s ball security.
Jackson averaged a fumble every 47 offensive snaps, which was the worst such rate of any player in the last 10 seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The next-worst rate in 2018 was Josh Rosen at 74.4 snaps per fumble.
“Nine times out of 10, if you win the game, it starts with the turnover battle,” Jackson said. “Keeping the ball in our hands, that was the biggest thing for me going into this year.”
How difficult is that going to be to correct?
“It won’t be difficult,” he said. “Just hold on to the ball. That’s all.”
Jackson fumbled 10 times in his seven starts last season, which were the most in the league over that span. One of his turnovers was returned 74 yards for a touchdown in Atlanta.
There were too many times when Jackson held the ball away from his body when scrambling, which allowed defenders to strip it away. There were other moments when he held the ball in the belly of the running back too long on an option play, which led to miscommunication and the ball falling to the ground.
Asked about the importance of ball security with Jackson, Roman said, “That’s a big, everyday thing. That’s like brushing your teeth. That’s going to happen every day.”
In the red zone
In what became the story of his offseason, Jackson showed great touch and anticipation on his passes in seven-on-seven drills and then struggled in the red zone sessions.
On one day, former AAF cornerback Terrell Bonds intercepted Jackson twice inside the 20-yard line. In another practice, he threw a pass that was almost picked off by Anthony Levine Sr. and then threw the ball right to Brandon Carr in the end zone with no offensive player in sight.
“Teams are going to pack the middle of the field on this guy and say look, ‘Throw the football, 10 to 15 yards-plus outside the numbers. Until you do that, we’ll put all 11 right between the numbers. Until he answers that question, it’s just going to be more of the same.” Louis Riddick on Jackson
“He’s so hard on himself. He wants to be a perfectionist,” wide receiver Chris Moore said. “He’s gotten better every single week, and he will only continue to get better. He only played half the season last year; that’s what people don’t understand. This season, I expect big things from him.”
For that to occur, Jackson must become more accurate in the most important area of the field. Last season, he completed 42.9 percent of his passes in the red zone. Only Jeff Driskel and Ryan Fitzpatrick were worse.
When the field becomes smaller, Jackson has to figure out how to hit targets in tighter windows.
“He’s going to get it right, and at the end of the day, he can make plays,” wide receiver Willie Snead said. “I think in time, it will come. He’s still young. He’s still getting the hang of things, especially with the new offense and everything, but once the timing is there and we get everything down, I think he’ll develop more as a passer.”
What the Ravens know is they’ve put Jackson in a position to succeed this offseason. They traded Flacco to Denver, a move that announced they’re all-in on Jackson. They promoted Roman to offensive coordinator because of his previous success with athletic quarterbacks like Colin Kaepernick and Tyrod Taylor. They used two of their first three picks this year on wide receivers (Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin), the first time they’ve done so in franchise history.
What is unknown is how Jackson will progress in his second season and his first as a full-time NFL starter.
“He is 22 years old. He was the youngest starter last year. He’s learning,” Harris said. “He’s a great student. He makes mistakes, and he doesn’t like to make mistakes, so he learns. I believe he will be better than last year. We will not see the best Lamar Jackson yet because he’s young and he’s growing.”