BALTIMORE – A week before the draft I was leaving an annual sports and law symposium at the prestigious University of Baltimore Law School when I was approached by one of the suited men in attendance. Turns out he owns a large ticket brokerage here and all he wanted to talk about was Lamar Jackson.
"Please tell me the Ravens aren't just going to draft another tackle," he pleaded, almost begged. "I need Lamar Jackson. This market is dying for Lamar Jackson. There might not be a ticket market here without him."
The Ravens, for decades the hottest ticket it town and a focal point of year-round interest and attention, were at a crossroads. You couldn't give away tickets to what amounted to home playoff games last December, their brutal Week 17 collapse to the Bengals – knocking them from the playoffs – was met by some folks here as a sort of awkward relief for a team that frankly just was not that good and lacked playmakers and couldn't get to the playoffs despite a cake schedule loaded with games against backup quarterbacks.
It was getting kinda bleak. Excuses being made about people not wanting to go downtown. Add in all of the controversy over National Anthem demonstrations. Toss in the Ravens not handling the public messaging of the way they parted with Ray Rice and pursued Colin Kaepernick, and the void created by the retirement of larger-than-life leaders Ray Lewis and Ed Reed and them moving training camp to the team facility (where precious few get to experience that connection with the team), and this franchise was falling out of step with the community. Their covenant with the fan base was fraying in a way that many who watched the Colts leave in the middle of the night never thought it would, especially with two Lombardi Trophies already delivered.
This bold and potentially masterful swoop up to land Jackson – after two brilliant trades down to get the tight end they desperately need and coveted – doesn't change all of that, but it certainly brings hope. This team has no sizzle and little personality and the most popular current player here – the one who has the most local endorsements and whose jersey you see most on fans – was kicker Justin Tucker. No longer.
Owner Steve Bisciotti has to provide a jolt of adrenaline and send a signal that there is hope one day for an offense that inspires more than yawns and grimaces, and in his last draft as general manager Ozzie Newsome went out and executed it perfectly. Even if Jackson fails – and that is always a possibility – this is a move that frankly had to be made, from a football perspective, from a fan-engagement perspective, from a business perspective, from a marketing perspective and from an excitement perspective. Mission accomplished.
Joe Flacco was never going to be back in 2019, and I have been reporting for months the Ravens were all-in on landing a replacement in this draft wherever it made sense. At 32 overall, it's a no-brainer to me. Flacco is still here because of a contract that makes him impossible to cut or trade, but that's no longer the case after this season; if he plays well there might be a trade market and if he continues in his malaise of the past few seasons – and this is hardly all on him as his supporting cast has been largely inept – then he can be released without overriding cap or cash ramifications.
Regardless, the franchise and this market is also ready for a change, and this trade has been embraced already. The texts came in from my friends here, guys who own companies and college kids I mentor and some local guys who made it big in Hollywood. All of them are shocked that the Ravens actually did this, and are overflowing with excitement about what the future could hold.
I expect we see Jackson in a limited basis sooner rather than later. The infrastructure is there to install packages for him – short yardage, red zone, goal line – and no one is going to be in arms when the starter, who has the lowest yards-per-attempt rate in the NFL over the past two years – is pushed to sidelines because of it. The are obvious concerns about how to scale and cater an offense to Jackson and there are some flaws with his footwork and ball placement and you have to worry about his durability given the way he runs with the ball … but this is a risk this franchise had to take.
"I see him as a faster, potentially better, Michael Vick," said one scout who believes Jackson's upside is the highest of any quarterback in this draft. "And they have RG3 (back-up Robert Griffin III) there who has been through this transition and (coordinator) Marty Mornhinweg who coached Vick and (coach) Greg Roman who worked with (Colin) Kaepernick in San Francisco. They have guys there who are experienced in this."
On Thursday morning I spoke at length about Jackson with an offensive coach who I completely trust about the quarterback prospect. His team did plenty of work on all of the QBs, and he is a big Jackson fan. He believes Jackson understands the game well enough to win, he isn't concerned about the Wonderlic score and he believes the kid is driven and wired to succeed.
"If it doesn't work in the NFL, it won't be because of Lamar," the coach implored. "If you are willing to fundamentally change your offense and build it around him and you commit to that infrastructure and you have a plan, the sky is the limit. We really, really like this kid. It's going to take some work, and a total commitment, but the potential is very real. He is a very intriguing prospect."
One top personnel executive whose team selected a quarterback in the first round told me: "You have to have a coaching staff who is willing to do what it takes to win with him. To me, he is the anti-RG3 in that after his first season Griffin didn't want to run what Kyle Shanahan put in place for him when he was the rookie of the year. He thought he was too good for that and he wanted to be a pocket passer. This kid, he wants to run, and if you put him with a Bill O'Brien-type who is willing to build everything around him, he has a chance to be really good. But there are also only so many really good coaches who can truly do it."
I know this much, Jackson's swagger and brashness and athleticism is going to make him immediately incredibly popular here. The Ravens won't throw him into the deep end too soon, but it's also naïve to think they'll be able to keep him off the field entirely for all that long. And with a very difficult schedule and a lame-duck starting quarterback, Jackson is going to dominate the local discussion around this team this season.
He might not be built to have a 12 to 15 year career. This might flame out. No one knows. But if ever there was a time for the Ravens to take a significant gamble, this was it, and with a bleak 2019 quarterback draft class being projected by all the evaluators I speak to, and a record-tying five going in the top 32 this year, Baltimore had to do this. In the end, the biggest gamble they may have made was passing on Tremaine Edmunds at 16 (who might be a monster in the NFL and would fill a big immediate void at Will linebacker), but taking this swing at Jackson is something they had to take a chance on.
Making sense of the Browns' picks
For years people will be dissecting what the Browns did at the top of the draft. In the end, as several GMS pointed out to me, they could have landed Baker Mayfield at No. 4 rather than No. 1 – the Jets were never passing on Sam Darnold at No. 3 – and taken Saquon Barkley first overall. They could have taken Barkley at No. 1 and Denzel Ward at No. 4 and moved up from the 33rd spot in the draft to the 32nd, as Baltimore did, to land Jackson and come away with three players in the first round. I also had several execs suggest that they strongly believe Ward would have been available at 12 had the Browns moved down and traded with the Bills, who they had several trade talks with. (It was Buffalo, not Denver, trying to move up to second overall, sources said, but that would have required the Bills getting Denver's pick first, because the Giants were not willing to trade back past 5 or 6, as I and others have reported for a while.)
Obviously, in the end, the Browns were sold on Mayfield. His size and attitude and ability to hold up at the next level are in question. Time will tell. One thing to note with him, however, his running style is more akin to the straight-line, track style that got RG3 in so much trouble. "Mayfield doesn't run like a running back the way Russell Wilson does or a Mike Vick or Lamar Jackson," one scout pointed out. "And when he throws on the run, a lot of the time he stops first. That'll get you hurt up here. And he was never under pressure with all of the talent around him at Oklahoma and with that offensive line. Maybe he's Russell Wilson. But he might be Rex Grossman."
- For all the talk of Orlando Brown's monumental slide following his disastrous combine, I continue to firmly believe he is one of the top 50 picks. Had the Ravens stayed in the second round I don't think he would have slid past them, and the Browns, with two of the top three picks to start Friday, really need a tackle. … Some GMs believe the Chargers will try to move up to pick 33 to land Mason Rudolph, the last of the big-six quarterbacks. The Giants might at least consider him at pick 34, and the Chargers were in heavy talks with the Eagles for the 32nd pick on Thursday night, which the Ravens ultimately landed. … Harold Landry's slide isn't a shocker to football people. I had him going 25th to the Titans, and I thought that might be too high. The 2017 tape really turned people off and I know evaluators who don't even think he's the best pass rusher still available. We'll see if my guy Josh Sweat out of Florida State beats him out. … Justin Reid, brother of Eric Reid, won't have to wait long tonight. He was under consideration with the Steelers pick last night but they ended up going with Terrell Edmunds instead. I have some bets to cash in with agents and personnel men who thought I was crazy to suggest both Edmunds brothers had a very real chance to go Thursday night. …
- If the Browns keep that 33rd pick, I'd put my money on them snagging offensive lineman Will Hernandez, who is sticking out on many boards around the NFL right now. … The early consensus around the NFL is the Raiders paid too steep a price for Martavis Bryant, a talented but troubled receiver who didn't have a future with the Steelers and might be a one-year rental in Oakland. Jon Gruden orchestrated that trade personally and is running the show there. I'm told. There continue to be steady rumblings in the scouting and personnel community that Skins team president Bruce Allen could end up back with the Raiders in some capacity after the draft and some wonder if Gruden shuffles his personnel department more after the draft. … In the end, my money is on Josh Rosen being the best of all of these quarterbacks in Year One and long-term the best pocket passer of the five selected. Arizona loved Josh Allen, like a lot of others, but I can't help but wonder if them giving up third- and fifth-round picks to move up five spots and take Rosen doesn't go down as one of the most sage moves in this entire draft.