OWINGS MILLS, Md. – It was impossible not to keep looking down at the roster, and then back at the field, and then back at the roster, and then double-checking with someone else nearby if, in fact, we were both seeing the same thing. Best I could tell, No. 8 was the only guy throwing the football.
It appeared that in drill after drill – seven-on-seven or 11-on-11 – Joe Flacco was nowhere in sight, hidden somewhere among the hundred-odd people on the sideline, and that Robert Griffin III might as well have been back on the league's daily transaction wire. Because all you ever saw running the Baltimore Ravens offense for the entirety of their final minicamp practice Thursday was Lamar Jackson.
The uber-athletic rookie – whom the team drafted 32nd overall after moving back into the first round and whose natural explosiveness has created a persistent buzz among the veterans here this spring – was taking every snap with the starters. And the backups. And the third team. And with any other stray receiver or tight end who might still be hanging around.
Jackson was making every throw in the red zone. And to start drives in his own territory. And from midfield.
It was Jackson on a precious few designed keepers, too, but most of the time it was him throwing short and intermediate, soaking up every rep possible before the Ravens break for the summer. The talented-but-raw rookie needed each practice throw more than the other quarterbacks on the roster, and he was drafted to be the future face of this franchise (as soon as 2019) and, as I've been reporting since immediately after Baltimore completed the trade to land him, he is going to see the field from Week 1 on in certain situations and in packages that play to his strengths, something coach John Harbaugh basically confirmed when speaking about the prospect this week.
The 2016 Heisman Trophy winner may have been the fifth and final one of the record-tying group of quarterbacks selected in the first round, but I would wager a hefty sum that he will be the first of them to actually see the field in the regular season – could happen as soon as the opening drive, depending on the circumstances – while I have yet to see or hear anything this spring that has convinced me the other four will be Week 1 starters. Josh Allen in Buffalo probably has the best shot right now, but even he wasn't handed over an entire practice to run the offense the way the Ravens did for Jackson Thursday, and there aren't any top-secret plays being installed for him or Josh Rosen or Baker Mayfield the way Ravens offensive coaches Marty Mornhinweg and Greg Roman are crafting specific looks for Jackson, as they have in the past for incredibly mobile quarterbacks like Mike Vick and Colin Kaepernick.
A perfect fit
"I think he's fit in well," Harbaugh said, explaining that Mornhinweg suggested on Monday that they essentially give the final minicamp practice to the rookie. "Since he's got here he's been all ears, so to speak. He wants to learn. He's a very hard worker, and a very smart guy. And sometimes it's knowing what you don't know. Some guys don't know, and you know they don't know. He knows a lot, but he also knows what he doesn't know.
"The types of an offense and the systems that he's going to be exposed to in this league are far different than what he was exposed to in college; it's just a different game. But the plus side is his head coach at Louisville (Bobby Petrino) is one of the best offensive coaches in football, so he's been exposed to the concepts. But the play calls are so much different; the way things are organized. So he's gone to work with that, and he's done a good job with that, and you saw him out here today. He ran almost the whole practice today, and that's a big step in the right direction."
Jackson made some tight-window throws in the red zone, completing touchdowns to receivers Chris Moore and Jordan Lasley, and, most impressively, was trying to read the entire field and not lock in on his primary target. Repeatedly he went to the third and sometimes fourth teammate in his progression – though sometimes not particularly accurately – and in no way seemed overwhelmed by the challenge.
The coaches were impressed that he could get everyone aligned and handle the play calls, and he had to burn only one timeout during the entire session due to any communication or processing issues. Clearly, he must become a more polished passer (too many passes, including some short ones, hit the ground), and sharpen his footwork and accuracy. But this practice also featured quite little of the world-class speed and elusiveness he brings and that can be a difference-maker as soon as September when he invariably gets a shot at quarterback, including some packages with both him and Flacco on the field. If anything, he held the ball too long at times in the pocket, a tacit acknowledgement of sorts that he won't be able to just glance downfield and then tuck the ball and run for huge chunks of yards like he could in college (especially if he wants to remain healthy and durable).
"I got too comfortable (in the pocket) today," Jackson said with a smile, comfortable with the media and cracking a few jokes. "Coach Harbaugh was saying, 'Sack,' on certain things. I have to get that ball out of my hands."
Still a ways to go
Quarterbacks coach James Urban noted how Jackson's conditioning and ability to speak this offense and master the verbiage has improved, while also pointing out how far he still has to go (again, Week 1 2019 would truly be the earliest anyone would plan on Jackson having to be prepared to start a game, although injuries and losses and other factors obviously have a way of altering such things in the NFL). This afternoon was a microcosm of the entire spring.
"Probably a little synopsis of the whole deal," Urban said. "There are some really good plays, some very encouraging plays, and some that he would like to have back. And there have been some very, very good series, and some that we'd like to have back … But today I thought he competed like crazy. And the two things that I have emphasized – compete, and complete the ball; those two things - and I think he tried very hard to do those things."
When asked about his full workload Thursday, Jackson said: "I don't think I've had my best practice yet. There are still things I can go over. I'm still a rookie. I'm still learning, just going day by day. But yeah, I've still got to work."
Jackson is in no hurry to pat himself on the back. He seems grounded and coachable and, most of all, hungry to get better. There is no shortage of confidence – and clearly the 21-year old is cognizant of the fact that, athletically, he already can hold his own with pretty much anyone in this league – but no outward signs of being too brash or cocky. Jackson said he has no plans to vacation, wouldn't concede to even taking a few days off between now and the start of training camp (the Ravens open a week early since they are in the Hall of Fame Game) and vowed to be attached to his playbook and film study.
"A lot of film, a lot of grinding," Jackson said when asked about his plans for the next four weeks. "Get a little lift in, keep my body in shape and just go over the playbook a lot. That's what I plan to do."
Doesn't he need a little break after going from the season to combine prep, to the combine, to the long, drawn-out, tension-filed visits and workouts before the draft to the rookie camp right after being selected to the OTAs and now, minicamps?
"Can't get away," Jackson said. "Keep your mind running. Keep it fresh."
School's in session
Summer school is very much in session, with receiver Willie Snead, who lives on his block, among those who intend to keep an eye on the youngster and help him with the learning curve, as well as train and run routes with him. Jackson, who embraces the inevitable comparisons to Vick, said he will continue speaking on the phone with him and perhaps get together with him before camp opens. "I've got to pick his brain a little bit, yeah," Jackson said.
The rookie has not been shy about asking Flacco for pointers about coverages and looks as things unfold in practice and he has made a habit of staying extra at the facility to work with the coaches. Snead likened Jackson's development to where eventual Rookie of the Year winners Marshon Lattimore and Alvin Kamara were in New Orleans at minicamp a year ago, as they began to grasp more of the scheme.
"Marshon Lattimore and Alvin Kamara, they didn't look how they looked during the season at this time," Snead said. "Like I tell Lamar, 'Look man, once you get it, you get it, and it's going to come easy for you.' I'm lucky to live like down the street from Lamar, and being able to get that extra time in, that's going to be huge. Just getting in the playbook and learning the receivers and knowing the nuances of what the coordinators want from Lamar, that's going to be huge. Because once he gets it, man, you're going to see something special."
Snead took a pregnant pause when I asked him if Jackson is already the best pure athlete on the roster. He didn't want to concede too much to the kid, but he couldn't deny it, either. "He's an exceptional athlete," he said. "A quarterback. A threat running the ball. He's like a human-joystick out there, you know, and that's just something a lot of athletes don't have coming out of college."
Veteran corner Brandon Carr said: "He's smooth, man. If the play breaks down, that's going to be the defense's problem, because he can get out around the perimeter and make plays. He can run effortlessly out there. I guess he's like a young Michael Vick back in his day, and we're definitely excited to see him in the preseason and see what he can do."
Flacco impressed, too
Flacco noted how electric Jackson has been running with the ball in his hands this spring even though Baltimore's defense basically knows what's coming when the Ravens line up in certain formations in ways opposing defenses won't. His ability to extend plays seems to come easy. "He does a really good job, naturally, of hanging in there. … He has a knack for finding guys who are open," Flacco observed.
As for the prospects of a former Super Bowl MVP quarterback having to share the field with a rookie when Baltimore is in wildcat looks, or even step aside entirely at times, the veteran continues his team-first mantra. "It'll be interesting what we do," Flacco said of the two-quarterback formations. "If we can do that to our advantage to help us win football games, then we'll see where it goes."
Jackson, as you would presume, is bursting with excitement for the opportunity. Those formations will serve as his introduction to the NFL, his gateway to the field and his indoctrination into part of the offense, the start of a process that will most likely lead to him assuming full duties a year from now.
"It's pretty cool just to throw the defense off," Jackson said. "Just to have two quarterbacks who can throw the ball, and Joe can run a little bit, I know you guys have seen him out there. So it's pretty cool. You've got to hit them where it hurts, and we're going to do our best."