Lamar Jackson and the Ravens weren't able to rekindle the magic of 2019 last season yet still advanced to the divisional round of the playoffs where their limited offense disallowed them from moving on to the next round in the postseason. While it demonstrated how high the bar has been set in Baltimore, the loss in Buffalo served as a reminder that the Ravens needed to be better as a passing offense to hang with the Chiefs and Bills in the AFC.
With the fate of the Ravens firmly in Jackson's hands, let's explore everything about his environment in Baltimore and pinpoint what he needs to do to take the next step as a quarterback.
How Jackson has improved since he was a prospect
These positive developments in a quarterback's game are noteworthy because they indicate the distinct possibility of future growth.
I was higher on Jackson than most. While he was my QB2, I had him as the No. 14 overall prospect in the 2018 class. Here's what I wrote about Jackson before the draft.
Jackson's the true wildcard of this quarterback class because of his Michael Vickian running ability. He's significantly improved as a passer, and while he had some bad misses last season and seemed confused by diverse coverages at times, he also threw some of the most pinpoint accurate passes down the field through tight windows of all the quarterbacks I watched and had plays with mastery-level pocket drifting.
After phenomenal running of the football in his short audition as the Ravens starter in 2018, we all vividly remember Jackson's dominant play from his second season in the NFL, when he became the second ever unanimous MVP, completing over 66% of his throws with a league-high 36 touchdowns, a 7.8 yards-per-attempt average and 1,206 yards on the ground at 6.9 yards per rush.
In that MVP season, I did think Jackson's passing wasn't as impressive as the figures -- lot of easy, schemed open throws -- but it proved he was a capable thrower of the football, just like he showed at Louisville.
It's safe to assume the analytics-forward Ravens understand they must boost their passing efficiency. They signed Sammy Watkins in free agency and drafted complete wideout Rashod Bateman in the first round.
Third-round pick Ben Cleveland is a mountain of man and enters the NFL from the power-blocking factory that is the University of Georgia today. He'll help to improve the play of the guard position. Alejandro Villanueva, formerly of the rival Steelers, was added to make sure the quality of the right tackle spot wouldn't fall off a cliff after the surprising Orlando Brown trade. Following years of being a reliable outside blocker in Pittsburgh, Villanueva had a down year in 2020 and turns 33 in September.
Gone is Willie Snead in the slot. Youngsters like fourth-round pick Tylan Wallace, and second-year pros James Proche and Devin Duvernay will be relied upon as secondary and tertiary options in what should be a passing offense that is more featured than it's previously been during the Greg Roman era.
In short -- Baltimore noticeably improved the pass-catching options for Jackson, but the offensive line is still a work in progress to return to the premier unit it was in 2019.
Jackson operates Roman's classic scheme, an offense tailor-made to pound the rock and accentuate strengths of a supremely gifted running quarterback. While the history of Roman's attacks boast triumphs -- like 2012 Colin Kaepernick who was four points away from winning a Super Bowl or getting the most out of Tyrod Taylor in Buffalo -- they've lacked staying power.
And that's precisely what happened in 2020 after running through the entire NFL in 2019 during Jackson's MVP campaign. Roman's offense is predicated on a powerful, man-blocking front, creative designed-run game usage for its quarterback and traditionally low-volume passing.
After Marshal Yanda's retirement, Baltimore simply was unable to physically manhandle opposing defensive lines and second-level defenders last season. But the Ravens are still going to run it well, and run it often. They've led the league in rushing yards in back-to-back seasons. However, we all know moving the football via the ground game isn't as efficient as through the air. And Baltimore had the NFL's lowest pass rate (45% of its offensive snaps) in 2020. Those plays averaged 7.1 yards per attempt, while the Ravens averaged 5.6 yards on every rush.
Improving his weaknesses
In 2020, Jackson and Baltimore regressed in almost every measurable way. But the third-year quarterback still finished the season with a passer rating of 99.3 -- slightly above league average -- and again eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark on the ground at better than six yards per rushing attempt.
The downturn in offensive production wasn't really on him. There wasn't a clear dip in his play as a passer, regardless of which angle you observed it. The regression was more about the situation around him, defenses having a better grasp on how to limit Roman's offense, and because the insanely high 9.0% touchdown rate from 2019 was simply unsustainable and more about exquisite scheming than remarkable individual play from Jackson.
His pressure rate sky-rocketed from 30.1% of the time in 2019 to 37.0% in 2020, and while Jackson fared similarly against that pressure in his third season -- a good sign -- it did have a minor negative impact on him, and the damage it caused is worth monitoring in 2021.
When he won MVP, Jackson was credited with the creation of his own pressure on just nine of 466 drop backs, an amazingly low figure for a quarterback with his athleticism and scrambling gifts. That's a rate of 1.9%. Last year, that number doubled to 18 Jackson-generated pressures on 457 drop backs (3.9%).
Now, of course, that disparity is mostly insignificant because it accounts for less than 5% of times when Jackson dropped back to throw the football, but it indicated the increased pressure had an impact on his brain much more often, and probably even on the throws in which he didn't run into pressure that previously wasn't there. It's what I call "young QB shellshock," and it can be severely harmful in the development process.
Essentially, Jackson needs to get more comfortable surveying from inside the pocket for a second or two longer, so he's not hurting his offensive line or missing big-play opportunities through the air because he prematurely looks to run.
Strengthening his strengths
I firmly believe Jackson needs to continue to run the football. He's too young and too dynamic to conform to the vintage pocket-passing prototype. He can be a good passer in the NFL. Will he ever be an elite thrower? Probably not. But solid pocket play coupled with his threatening running talent can elevate him to, yeah, MVP-caliber type play.
He's averaged 167.5 rushing attempts in his first two full seasons at quarterback, and to account for more passing attempts the Ravens offense needs, somewhere in the 125 to 150 carry range seems right for someone of Jackson's athletic caliber.
And, it's time to take the reins off Jackson as a passer. Stop limiting the offense because of an immense belief in how good the run game is and a lack of confidence in him as a thrower and the receivers on the roster.
I'm not a huge extrapolation fan, but had Jackson thrown the football 500 times in 2020 -- 15 quarterback had more attempts -- assuming his rates would've stayed the same, he would've finished with 3,650 yards, 34 passing touchdowns and 12 interceptions. That's a much more respectable line for a full-time starter in today's NFL.
Jackson will bounce back in 2021. Not to MVP form. But there'll be more MVP-like instances this season than a season ago, and most of that will be due to a strengthened receiver group.
I'm slightly concerned about the state of the Ravens offensive line, yet the return of monster left tackle Ronnie Stanley will boost the overall play of the unit. If Villanueva can come close to the ultra-steady production Brown demonstrated in 2019, Jackson could exceed my expectations.
Jackson's running will be ... Jackson's running. Electric. And for his sake, let's hope Roman was humbled by what transpired in 2020 and doesn't shy away from leaning more on the pass this season.
By the end of the year, I expect Jackson to be widely viewed as a top-eight to top-10 quarterback.