OWINGS MILLS, Maryland – The Ravens staff embraced the opportunity to evaluate their depth this summer with the NFL returning to a pre-COVID-19 style training camp and preseason template. But they did not anticipate doing so at the very start of camp, in such a high profile manner.
Former MVP Lamar Jackson tested positive for COVID-19 prior to the first camp practice, coach John Harbaugh announced, becoming the second prominent contributor to this innovative offense to now be forced to miss an extended period of early work (joining running back Gus Edwards). Jackson, who has been negotiating a mega-contract extension with the Ravens this offseason, has declined to offer his vaccination status in the past, but Harbaugh indicated he has taken multiple tests in the past week – many of them negative – which, given the NFL's testing protocols, is indicative of a player who has not been vaccinated. Those players, when testing positive, are precluded from practicing for 10 days, which takes Baltimore up to the week of its first preseason game, Aug. 14 against New Orleans.
Harbaugh and Jackson's teammates took the news in stride – the Ravens endured a sweeping COVID outbreak last season which also caused Jackson to miss time – and are trying to find the positives from this situation. But the reality is, for a team with Super Bowl aspirations, and one that largely shuffled its offensive line, including adding a new center after rampant snap issues in 2020, this is suboptimal. For any club in these times, let alone a team that continues seek ways to cultivate more explosion in the pass game, tweaking the scheme, vowing to have the QB under center more and overhauling the receiver group with Sammy Watkins in free agency and draft picks Rashod Bateman (first round) and Tylan Wallace (fourth round), the lost time to enhance chemistry and build timing through reps is hardly ideal.
"It's no different than if someone gets an injury … it's just part of football," Harbaugh said, remaining chipper and energized through an upbeat two-hour practice that was sparked by the return of fans for the first time in two years.
Jackson's absence meant a heavy dose of backup quarterbacks Trace McSorley and Tyler Huntley, and also comes at a time when former All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley is still out recovering from last year's ankle surgeries (the Ravens maintain he will be back for Week 1). All of that, when coupled with all of the additions up front along the line and at receiver, made for a different-looking unit Wednesday and for the foreseeable future. Huntley's twitchy, instinctive nature has overtures of Jackson's ubiquitous style, but it was impossible not to notice, right away, that one of the league's most dynamic and electric performers was not under center.
"It's only going to bolster those two guys," Harbaugh said of the young QBs thrust to the fore.
Jackson dealt with some significant symptoms when he battled COVID during last season, as the Ravens eventually faced their rival Steelers in Pittsburgh after that game was delayed repeatedly due to the virus, and while the team has over 90-percent vaccinated there is obviously a threat of further spread now. Harbaugh said there was no indication from the team's medical staff about Jackson being under more risk for serious COVID symptoms during this second bout, though obviously there is so much we continue to learn about this virus.
"All we can do is really rally around these guys and show our support,' said receiver Hollywood Brown, one of Jackson's closest friends, about his teammates who have already tested positive. Starting safety chuck Clark said: "We're just praying that he's alright."
I'd be very surprised if any transactions take place during Jackson's absence – barring injury – save for the addition of camp arm Kenji Bahar (he joined the team prior to Wednesday's practice). Baltimore probably cannot find a way to carry three quarterbacks this season. Huntley thrived in limited regular season duty last season and he looked good overall in this session, too, though McSorley seemed to get the most reps with the starters. There were no shortage of downfield throws executed to Brown, running back J.K. Dobbins (a premium has been placed on getting him integrated into the passing attack) and tight end Josh Oliver, albeit this session was in shells and not full pads.
"The ball went up a lot today,' star corner Marlon Humphrey said. "That's really good."
As much as they want the passing game to blossom and become more robust in scope and efficiency, the larger reality is that this franchises has zigged when others have zagged and they operate a run-heavy, unique approach. Adding an aging veteran who cannot exhibit great dexterity outside the pocket wouldn't make much sense. Options are limited and understanding and experience within this scheme is paramount.
"There are a lot of quarterbacks out there, but do they fit us?" Harbaugh offered, making as salient a point as possible. Of course, no one fits this operation the way Jackson does, and any lost time with him comes at a cost.
Ravens camp notes
- Bad snaps were an epidemic with this team and it was no surprise to see the centers working on that before practice. It is a point of emphasis and something new center Bradley Bozeman – who played left guard here but center at Alabama – has excelled with this offseason. But there were two bad snaps Wednesday (uber-dexterous Jackson may have corralled them both), earning immediate reaction from the fans in attendance. "We're chasing perfection," Harbaugh said of the exchanges.
- If Stanley is not ready for Week 1, can't help but wonder at what cost. With Orlando Brown, Jr. traded, journeyman Andre Smith is serving as the top tackle for now (Alejandro Villanueva started there for Pittsburgh for years but has transitioned to right tackle here), and there aren't many established names running with the reserve units now.
- The biggest roster concern is the lack of proven pass rushers. There is extreme belief in defensive coordinator Wink Martindale's scheme and play calling, and many rival execs expect Baltimore to add a veteran at some point. However, the team has had nothing going with Justin Houston since hosting him for a visit a while back and I don't anticipate his price dropping (he turned down over $6M from the Steelers). Those in these parts clamoring for a Chandler Jones trade will only be let down; he's not holding out and the team isn't dealing him now.
- With No. 2 tight end Nick Boyle not able to practice yet, lots of depth tight ends are getting a look see. Oliver looks the most athletic and handsy of the bunch; injuries crippled his growth in Jacksonville but he has appealing traits. Baltimore may transition out of so much 12 and 13 personnel given the influx of so many receivers, but Jackson suffered without a dependable second move tight end (along with Mark Andrews) after the trade of Hayden Hurst prior to last season.
- If slot corner Tavon Young can finally stay healthy, an already excellent secondary will be even better. Humphrey sliding back outside strengthens the group overall, Marcus Peters has Pro Bowl credentials on the opposite side and Jimmy Smith is one of the most accomplished and position-flexible reserve corners in the game. "That's a pretty strong four (corners)," Humphrey said. "We're really excited to have him back."
- Dobbins is going to get every shot to be a weapon in the passing game. The intent is real, it seems, and he is going to get a chance to run routes from various spots on the field.
- Second-year receiver Devin Duvernay impresses me whenever I see him. Thought he was underutilized a year ago and even with the influx of receiver talent I can't help but think he can carve out a role in the slot, where he was force for Texas.