As Ravens rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson approaches his first NFL game, it also means he could take his first NFL hit.
Jackson was a prolific runner in college, putting up more than 4,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in three years. Jackson will also run in the NFL; it's part of what makes him special.
The dilemma is that, as quarterback, Jackson is a precious commodity that must be protected. Running opens him up to taking more tackles.
While Ravens coaches have talked to Jackson some about how to protect himself, they haven't told him not to run.
"That's a slippery slope, right?" Quarterbacks Coach James Urban said. "He didn't get drafted where we drafted him and he didn't accomplish what he has because he stands in the pocket. … He might take a hit that he shouldn't, and then he'll learn."
Perhaps nobody knows that tightrope walk better than Robert Griffin III, whose health problems began early in his career when he took a few too many hard knocks. Thus, Griffin has talked to the fellow Heisman Trophy winner about what he should expect at this level.
"What I tried to tell him, mostly, is that in this league, things happen faster. It's not that he can't run. He just has to be smart when he does run," Griffin said.
"I feel like he's my little brother, but I'm not going to say, as his big brother, 'Don't do this.' He's going to have to learn some things on his own. I think he'll figure it out pretty quickly and he'll still be the dynamic player that he is."
Griffin admitted that Jackson was a more prolific runner than he was in college – though Griffin smiled and said he has faster straight-line speed. Jackson has a catalogue of cutbacks, spins moves and other jukes that made him a nightmare to tackle in college.
"His natural instinct when he's running is that nobody is going to tackle him, no one can tackle him," Griffin said. "There's some guys in this league that can tackle him, and he'll figure that out."
Griffin said that early in his career, he didn't understand how to get down and when to get down. One particular instance was in a 2012 regular-season game against the Ravens when defensive tackle Haloti Ngata crushed Griffin as he scrambled and awkwardly tried to get down at the last second.
"I looked at every single play like, 'This is the last play of the game!' That was my competitive nature," Griffin said. "What I've learned is I can still have that competitive nature, but there's a time and place for it. In the red zone, go for it. In the open field, if you feel like you have an edge, go for it. But when there's three guys about to smother you, you might want to go down a little bit faster."
Jackson said the last big hit that he took was in Louisville's TaxSlayer Bowl loss to Mississippi State on Dec. 30. He completed 13 of 31 passes for 171 yards that night. He ran 24 times for 158 yards.
Jackson has crossed up and outrun many defenders in Ravens practices, drawing gasps of excitement from fans along the way, but his teammates aren't out to hit him. That's about to change Thursday night.
"I'm just going to play my game. I'm not going to let anything change," Jackson said. "If it's there, [I'm] throwing the ball like always. If it's not, [I'll] probably run. I'm going to go out of bounds, I'm not going to take on defenders and stuff like that."
Lamar Jackson Has Widened His Throwing Base
While the Ravens aren't spending too much time coaching Jackson on running, there's a ton of time being put into his development as a passer.
From the first days of rookie minicamp, it's evident that Jackson is throwing the ball better now.
"He has to learn how to throw in the pocket," Urban said. "At some point, to play quarterback in the National Football League, you have to drop back and throw it. So we're getting there and he's improving dramatically."
When asked about how he's changed as a quarterback, Jackson pointed to the mechanics of his throwing posture and footwork.
"I have a little wider base," Jackson said. "Sometimes coach will be telling me to stay down still – or a lot because every day he was telling me to stay down. I'm on my toes a lot throwing the ball."
Has widening his base and bending his knees become instinctive now? Jackson said sometimes.
"It depends if I'm on it," he added. "Sometimes I have to get coached a little. Coach will be like, 'Stay down! Stay down!' sometimes, certain periods, if I get a little fatigued."
John Harbaugh Is Hoping for Ray Lewis Pregame Speech
Admit it, you would love to see another fiery pregame Ray Lewis speech like this one.
Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh would like to see it too, and reached out to Lewis to see if it was in the cards. Lewis, however, thinks it would have to happen sometime after the team's trip to Canton.
"I don't believe he's speaking to our team; he's pretty busy, he's got a lot of events," Harbaugh said. "I still have my fingers crossed that maybe our paths will cross and we'll get him to say a few words. He's not usually shy about saying a word or two, so we might be able to get that done still."
While the Ravens will fly back from Canton immediately after Thursday night's game (the team has practice Saturday and Sunday), Harbaugh, Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale and players who suited up with Lewis will go back for the induction ceremony Saturday night.
The Ravens who played with Lewis are linebacker Terrell Suggs, quarterback Joe Flacco, guard Marshal Yanda, linebacker Albert McClellan, cornerback Jimmy Smith, safety/linebacker Anthony Levine Sr., punter Sam Koch, kicker Justin Tucker and long snapper Morgan Cox.
Harbaugh said his parents took him to the Pro Football Hall of Fame when he was 8 years old when it had just opened, and he's looking forward to another trip back.
"That'll be fun. It'll be amazing. I can't wait!" Harbaugh said. "I've never been to one of those inductions, so I can't wait to see it in real life."