PRESTON: It’s time for Lamar Jackson to prove he can lead Baltimore Ravens to Super Bowl
There are multiple storylines as the Baltimore Ravens open training camp Wednesday morning, but none more prevalent than the development of quarterback Lamar Jackson and the passing game, as well as improving the pass rush.
Unfortunately, those have been the major issues of the previous two seasons, which resulted in the team’s early round playoff losses.
The Ravens have worked hard in the offseason attempting to improve in these areas — especially in the passing game — by signing free agent receiver Sammy Watkins and offensive linemen Alejandro Villanueva (right tackle) and right guard Kevin Zeitler, as well as drafting receiver Rashod Bateman and outside linebacker Odafe Oweh in the first round.
Now, we’ll get to see if what looks good on paper can produce on the field.
In the case of Jackson, it’s time for him to put on his big boy pants. The NFL Most Valuable Player Award won in 2019 and all those yards, wins and explosive plays are great, but entering his fourth season it’s time to show he is a complete quarterback who can lead his team to the Super Bowl.
The Ravens have pampered and defended Jackson from Day 1. The national media has done the same claiming Jackson has the arm strength but needs better receivers around him and a more elaborate passing scheme. Well, the personnel has improved and we’ll find out more about the scheme once training camp opens.
Jackson has a lot of the right intangibles. His ego is in check and he is tough, accountable, a self-motivator and extremely athletic.
But can he throw accurately and consistently outside the numbers? Nope, not yet.
The Ravens had the best running and worst passing offenses in the NFL last season, and they have failed in the postseason because teams crowd the line of scrimmage to stop the run. And then they either play zone or at least fake it to take away Jackson’s big play ability in the running game as well as shut down the middle of the field. The objective is to make Jackson throw to the outside, which he hasn’t been able to do consistently.
Adding receivers: The Ravens did a good job of finding receivers for him in the off season.
They preferred to have Indianapolis’ T.Y. Hilton or Pittsburgh’s JuJu Smith-Schuster over Watkins, but Watkins’ addition was still an upgrade for the Ravens. With Watkins, Marquise Brown and Bateman in the mix along with tight end Mark Andrews, the team has a lot of options as far as moving players around, which could create mismatches — especially with their speed.
But, even if these receivers can bail Jackson out with a couple of clutch catches and the offensive line can pass block better than a year ago, that’s not enough to push this team deep into the playoffs. Even with a more sophisticated scheme, the bottom line is that Jackson still has to throw better.
There has been plenty of talk within the organization about Jackson getting a new contract, but the Ravens need to be careful and this deal has to be structured where a lot of money isn’t guaranteed until Jackson can prove this offense won’t fall asleep in the playoffs.
Pass rush concerns: The Ravens have similar concerns on defense about the pass rush. They struggled in that area last season before losing outside linebacker Matthew Judon and defensive end Yannick Ngakoue in free agency.
The scary part is that the Ravens drafted the 6-foot-5, 251-pound Oweh in the first round after Bateman and he didn’t even have a sack for Penn State last season. No, not one. It seems to be a trend now in the NFL where teams are drafting more on potential than production. To complicate matters, the Ravens have only one established outside linebacker on the roster in Pernell McPhee, who has 37 career sacks, but Tyus Bower, about to enter his fifth season, has only 10.5 and Jaylon Ferguson, about to enter his third, has 4.5.
Rookie outside linebacker Daelin Hayes, a fifth-round pick from Notre Dame, was impressive in OTAs and minicamp but there are only so many miracles that defensive coordinator Don Martindale can perform. Plus, all those blitzes and pressures work in the regular season — but opposing teams figure those out in the postseason.
That’s when it comes down to one-on-one matchups.
A talented team: Overall, this is a talented Ravens team. Because of the new influx of talent and the rehabilitation of left tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle), it will take some time for the offensive line to jell, but the Ravens have adequate depth at the running back positions with J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, and Andrews will lead a solid group of tight ends.
On defense, the line has talent, depth and will feature at least a five-man rotation of Calais Campbell, Brandon Williams, Derek Wolfe, Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington.
The secondary lacks speed and a cover-type safety, but it’s hard to find a better tandem of cornerbacks than Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, and two harder hitting safeties than Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott.
This is a team with two major weaknesses, and that’s been a problem for two straight years. You’d think the Ravens would have overcome those by now, but apparently they haven’t.
If they had, we wouldn’t still be writing or talking about them.