MVP Season or Not, Lamar Jackson -Remains One of the NFL's Best
Lamar Jackson isn't a secret anymore.
The player who many pundits questioned overcame those doubts in MVP fashion last season.
Now Jackson enters his third season as one of the league's most electrifying young quarterbacks, biggest stars, and the focus for opposing defensive coordinators.
But as teams work to slow down Jackson, he's working even harder.
"We had this conversation when I first saw him this offseason," Joshua Harris, Jackson's personal quarterback coach, told Bleacher Report. "I told him, 'Well, now you know you're the MVP.' He looked at me strangely because we never talk about accolades. He responded, 'What do you mean, Coach?' He might have been a target before because he's the quarterback, but he's going to have a huge target on his back, and they're going to prepare more for your game.
"[Jackson] explicitly said to me, 'They're preparing for me, but I'm preparing more for them. I'm going to keep a chip on my shoulder.' He remembers being in that room before becoming the 32nd overall pick. That fuels all of his preparation and where his mindset is. He doesn't see himself as the MVP; he sees himself as the fifth quarterback taken in his draft class."
ESPN's Bill Barnwell pointed out that 10 of the 16 teams Jackson will face this season have already played him once. One of those teams, the Tennessee Titans, ended the Ravens' Super Bowl hopes last season.
The jump from Year 1 to Year 2 was significant, and Jackson's work ethic provides plenty of reason for improvement. Harris believes one of the biggest areas for improvement is Jackson's deep ball accuracy.
"When I looked at Lamar this past season, the thing that seemed to stick out to me – and the Ravens seemingly saw the same thing from their quotes – is Lamar needs to work on deep-ball consistency, hitting that deep ball in stride," Harris said. "And the most important to me: throws outside the numbers. Those need to be consistent with velocity.
"With the outside-the-numbers throws, the main thing is getting more of his lower half into the throw. A lot of times, those throws are more arm strength than incorporating his lower half for him – which creates lost velocity. As a result, the ball tends to tail off at the end. This allows the defensive back to jump the route, or it doesn't get where it needs to be."
With Marquise "Hollywood" Brown healthy, along with the additions of rookies Devin Duvernay and James Proche, the Ravens have surrounded Jackson with weapons to make that part of the passing game a bigger threat.
Even if Jackson doesn't match the crazy numbers from last year, that doesn't make or break a successful season.
"If only because it's virtually impossible to improve on an MVP campaign, history suggests that Jackson will decline some this season," Barnwell wrote.
Patrick Mahomes regressed last season following his MVP campaign and still took the Chiefs to a Super Bowl title. The target is bigger on Jackson's back, but so are the expectations. Pundits believe Jackson will fulfill them.
"Jackson isn't going anywhere," Barnwell added. "He's going to present the same problems for opposing defenses in the years to come, and the Ravens are committed to building their offense around his dizzying array of skills. Asking for another MVP performance in 2020 is likely too much, but he should remain one of the best quarterbacks in football."
John Harbaugh Ranked Among NFL's Top Coaches
Consistency at head coach is hard to find, but John Harbaugh enters his 13th season in Baltimore riding high.
CBS Sports' Sean-Wagner McGough ranked his top 10 head coaches and sees Harbaugh in the top three along with Andy Reid and Bill Belichick.
Harbaugh, the reigning AP Coach of the Year, led the Ravens to eight playoff appearances, and won a Super Bowl title.
But what McGough believes is Harbaugh's most impressive accolade is the transition to Jackson.
"Last offseason, the Ravens proceeded to make changes to their offense to cater it toward Jackson's strengths," McGough wrote. "That might seem like an obvious thing to do, but in the NFL, it doesn't always happen. Coaches are sometimes resistant to change. They'd prefer for their players fit their system rather than the tailoring the system around their players. Harbaugh, along with the rest of his coaching staff, built the perfect offense for Jackson's undeniable talent, and was rewarded. … But with Jackson installed as the team's long-term starter, the Ravens are set to build off that season and eventually take it a step further."
With Jackson, Harbaugh reconstructed the offense around his young quarterback and surrounded himself with the coaches to make it successful.
"I think to have longevity in the National Football League, particularly as a head coach, you've got to be very open to change and very comfortable with who you are," former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher said in January. "And I think you constantly see that with John. He takes a group of players and men, and he creates a plan based on the talent he has. … It's hard; sometimes you get locked into loyalty, and you're afraid to make change, but I think that's one thing John has proven: He's not afraid."
It's not just the offense. McGough also cited Harbaugh's willingness to embrace analytics. The Ravens beefed up the analytics department last offseason. They were one of the most aggressive and successful teams on fourth down.
While he already has a strong resume as a head coach, there's reason to believe Harbaugh's best years in Baltimore are ahead of him.
"It's Harbaugh's willingness to evolve that makes me feel confident his placement on this list will age well," McGough added. "Not to mention, he's going to be paired with Jackson for the next decade. The pair has already won 19 of its 22 regular-season games together. All that's missing is success in January."
Ravens Confident in Chris Board and Otaro Alaka
The Ravens' linebacker core will look a lot different this year, as they'll rely on an influx of young talent.
Rookies Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison could win the starting jobs, but Zrebiec said the Ravens are also confident in the abilities of Chris Board and Otaro Alaka.
"Board and Alaka are the top two candidates and both could eventually get spots, especially since Board has stuck mostly because of his special teams play," Zrebiec wrote. "My understanding was that Jake Ryan still wasn't healthy. He's played in only two games since 2017 and it sounds like both sides recognized that there wasn't enough time for him to get healthy and have a legitimate shot to learn the defense and earn a spot on the team. His release was unrelated to how the Ravens feel about Alaka."
Board played 67 percent of the Ravens' special teams snaps in 2019, second only behind Anthony Levine Sr. Alaka's standout preseason earned him a spot on the roster, but a hamstring injury landed him on injured reserve in September.
It's an underrated position battle to watch heading into training camp. The Ravens used a rotation at linebacker last season. Patrick Onwuasor, Josh Bynes, and L.J. Fort all played at least 250 defensive snaps. The first two signed elsewhere in free agency, and Fort will be a major contributor this season.
Board told Glenn Clark Radio that he's hungry for the opportunity to play.
"Kind of crazy just to see where I'm at, how I've played a role on special teams, it's just crazy because many people didn't think I'd make it this far," Board said. "But I'm definitely hungry and want to prove that I can play and do a lot more than just play special teams."
- The Ravens experimented some last preseason with using Brown on punt returns, but it didn't pan out. Baltimore drafted Proche this offseason with the expectation that he could take over those duties, but it looks like Brown is staying sharp just in case.