La­mar Jack­son era to be­gin in earnest

There’s no QB con­tro­versy any­more af­ter 2018 rookie emerged midyear as starter

Baltimore Sun - - RAVENS - By Childs Walker

Quar­ter­back is gen­er­ally the most scru­ti­nized po­si­tion for any NFL fran­chise. Even by that stan­dard, 2018 was a doozy for the Ravens as they tran­si­tioned from long­time starter Joe Flacco to rookie La­mar Jack­son. This year could be just as in­ter­est­ing, with the Ravens look­ing to trade Flacco, find a backup and most im­por­tantly, de­velop Jack­son into a pol­ished passer who can lead the team through its next decade.

2018 in re­view: The Ravens be­gan with Flacco as their un­ques­tioned starter for the 11th straight sea­son. A back in­jury had ham­pered him early in the 2017 sea­son, but he drew raves for the way he moved and threw last sum­mer, and he jumped to one of the best starts of his ca­reer. Flacco threw eight touch­down passes against just two in­ter­cep­tions as the Ravens won three of their first four games, and he found im­me­di­ate chem­istry with his new re­ceivers, es­pe­cially deep threat John Brown, who av­er­aged al­most 20 yards per catch in the first half of the sea­son.

Flacco’s pro­duc­tion dipped as the Ravens en­tered the most dif­fi­cult pe­riod of their sched­ule, but even so, the an­a­lyt­ics site Foot­ball Out­siders rated the Ravens’ pass­ing of­fense the 12th-most ef­fi­cient in the league through nine games. Flacco in­jured his hip early in a Nov. 4 loss to the Pitts­burgh Steel­ers. He fin­ished that game, but never played another snap the rest of the sea­son.

Jack­son, the 2016 Heis­man Tro­phy win­ner and 2018 first-round draft pick, took over the of­fense when the Ravens re­turned from their bye week for a cru­cial Nov. 18 date with the Cincin­nati Bengals. The change from Flacco was dras­tic. The Ravens ran for 267 yards, with Jack­son con­tribut­ing 119 of his own, and they would sur­pass 200 four more times in the fol­low­ing six games. The pass-happy NFL had not seen such a ground-heavy at­tack since the 1970s, and it worked as the Ravens won six of seven games to claim their first AFC North ti­tle since 2012.

Jack­son’s speed and fluid moves earned him com­par­isons to the great­est run­ning quar­ter­backs in league his­tory, from Michael Vick to Randall Cun­ning­ham. Team­mates em­braced him for his en­thu­si­asm, hu­mil­ity and re­silience.

But there were less pos­i­tive signs as well. Jack­son’s pass­ing ac­cu­racy re­mained in­con­sis­tent, and he strug­gled to find the team’s wide re­ceivers on out­side routes. He fum­bled 13 times in eight starts (in­clud­ing the post­sea­son).

And when the Los An­ge­les Charg­ers used seven de­fen­sive backs to match his speed at the line of scrimmage in the first round of the play­offs, Jack­son could not ad­just un­til the game was too far out of reach. His rookie sea­son was a suc­cess by any mea­sure, but he left it with a lengthy to-do list of skills he must re­fine.

The Ravens also took the un­usual step of keep­ing a third quar­ter­back, Robert Grif­fin III, on their 53-man ros­ter for the en­tire sea­son. Coaches were pleased with Grif­fin’s work as a day-to-day men­tor to Jack­son and also with his abil­ity to mimic the rookie’s skills when he served as the backup while Flacco was in­jured. Af­ter spend­ing the en­tire 2017 sea­son out of the league, the 2012 Of­fen­sive Rookie of the Year did not see the field of­ten for the Ravens, but he did re-es­tab­lish him­self as a vi­able NFL player.

2019 out­look: There’s no quar­ter­back con­tro­versy this time around as the Ravens and coach John Har­baugh have made it clear they will build their of­fense around Jack­son. The Ravens pro­moted Greg Ro­man to re­place Marty Morn­hin­weg as of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor be­cause of his proven acu­men for de­sign­ing cre­ative run­ning at­tacks.

Har­baugh didn’t of­fer many de­tails on Jack­son’s train­ing plans at his post­sea­son news con­fer­ence, but he did say the sec­ond-year starter will go through rig­or­ous in­de­pen­dent work­outs de­signed to pol­ish his all-around skills. Har­baugh also said the Ravens will re­build their of­fense from the ground up with an em­pha­sis on cre­at­ing play-ac­tion pass­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties — and even­tu­ally more drop-back sets — for Jack­son.

The Charg­ers gave the league a blue­print for ad­just­ing to Jack­son’s rare run­ning skills. Now, the Ravens will have to prove they can ad­just to the ad­just­ment.

They also need to find re­ceivers who pair well with Jack­son. His big­gest throws went to rookie tight end Mark An­drews, and he also showed an affin­ity for slot spe­cial­ist Wil­lie Snead IV. But the Ravens will likely draft or sign sev­eral new pass catch­ers, and it will be in­trigu­ing to see which traits they prize.

Mean­while, they will try to trade Flacco, and if no mar­ket de­vel­ops for him, they will likely cut the Su­per Bowl XLVII Most Valu­able Player and great­est quar­ter­back in fran­chise his­tory. Flacco wants to start again, and given his per­for­mance in 2018 and the plethora of un­set­tled quar­ter­back sit­u­a­tions around the league, he’ll prob­a­bly find an op­por­tu­nity.

Har­baugh and gen­eral man­ager Eric DeCosta both said find­ing the right backup for Jack­son will be an off­sea­son pri­or­ity. Grif­fin is a free agent and will sur­vey the land­scape for po­ten­tial start­ing chances, but he said he would not mind re­turn­ing to the Ravens as Jack­son’s backup. He made a good im­pres­sion in 2018, and if Jack­son were to suf­fer an in­jury, Grif­fin has the run-pass skills to slot in rel­a­tively seam­lessly.

Har­baugh men­tioned for­mer Ravens backup Ty­rod Tay­lor as another at­trac­tive op­tion if Tay­lor can’t find a start­ing job some­where else. Whether it’s Grif­fin, Tay­lor or some­one else, the Ravens seem de­ter­mined to find a player who could run the of­fense they plan to build around Jack­son’s un­usual skills.

Free-agent op­tions: The Ravens won’t be look­ing for a start­ing can­di­date but will likely sign a vet­eran free agent to back up Jack­son. That list starts with Grif­fin and Tay­lor, who would have to take a sub­stan­tial pay cut from the $16 mil­lion he earned as the Cleve­land Browns’ starter en­ter­ing the 2018 sea­son.

Other quar­ter­backs set to hit the mar­ket as backup tar­gets in­clude Ryan Fitz­patrick, Josh McCown, Trevor Siemian, Brett Hund­ley and Brock Osweiler. But none of them fit the Ravens’ needs as well as Grif­fin or Tay­lor.

CAROLYN KASTER/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

La­mar Jack­son proved to be one of the most ef­fec­tive run­ning quar­ter­backs in NFL his­tory in his rookie sea­son. He’ll look to im­prove his ball se­cu­rity and pass­ing ac­cu­racy in 2019.

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