Lamar Jackson has proven he can change negative perceptions.
Last year, some people thought Jackson should work out as a wide receiver at the NFL combine. Jackson refused, telling everyone he was a quarterback. One year later, he is the starting quarterback the Ravens are building their franchise around.
Now some people have the perception that the Ravens won’t be an attractive destination for free agent wide receivers because of Jackson.
Despite the Ravens’ late-season success with Jackson as the starter, the offense was run-first, and pass-catching opportunities for the wide receivers decreased, particularly for deep threat John Brown. In his eight games as a starter, Jackson threw for more than 200 yards just once, and Brown never caught more than two passes in any game.
However, the Ravens don’t buy the notion that free agent wideouts will avoid Baltimore. Jackson is clearly a dynamic talent and he’s only 22 years old. He is determined to improve as a passer, and the Ravens are determined to design an offense that accentuates his abilities.
This offseason, the Ravens have promoted Greg Roman to offensive coordinator and have hired David Culley as their Assistant Head Coach/Receivers/Passing Game Coordinator. Those coaching staff moves are part of Head Coach John Harbaugh’s offseason plan to build the offense “from the ground up.”
“We want to be a balanced offense with the threat of being able to run the ball effectively and pass the ball effectively,” Ravens General Manager Eric DeCosta said. “I'm confident. I know John is extremely confident that we're going to do that this year. We're excited about that. We expect Lamar to make a jump, but we also expect a lot of the other players on offense to make a jump as well. We think we're going to get there.”
Certainly, free agent offensive linemen and running backs should relish a chance to play with Jackson. The Ravens became the NFL’s most dynamic running team with Jackson as the starter. As for defensive players, Baltimore remains an attractive destination. The Ravens had the league’s No. 1-ranked defense last season, and the offense’s ability to control time of possession was an advantage for the entire defensive unit.
For wide receivers, there are some pluses playing with a mobile quarterback like Jackson. His ability to scramble occasionally gives receivers more time to get open. His threat as a runner often puts wide receivers in single coverage, with the defense committed to stopping Baltimore’s running game.
The Ravens envision Jackson becoming a more consistent passer, and an offense that becomes more diverse. If that happens, their offense will give wide receivers opportunities to make plays. More importantly, it will be an offense they can win with.
“I think players respect talent,” DeCosta said. “I think players respect athletes and competitors. Anyone can watch Lamar Jackson and see how talented he is and what kind of a competitor he is. Players also want to win, and I think that’s something that drives every professional athlete – winning football games or winning games. I think they’ll recognize that about us. When they watch us play, they’ll want to play here.”
This week, Jackson met up with New York Giants All-Pro wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. at the Super Bowl in Atlanta.
The Ravens are still in the process of deciding how their wide receiver corps will look next season. Brown is a free agent, and Michael Crabtree is under contract but could become a salary cap casualty. Willie Snead IV was the wide receiver who seemed to gel best with Jackson, leading the team in catches with 62. Younger receivers on the roster such as Chris Moore, Jordan Lasley, and Jaleel Scott will be given a chance to prove they belong, but the Ravens are expected to address the wide receiver position through the draft, free agency, or both.
If the Ravens decide to retool their wide receiver group, free agents who could possibly fit their offense include Devin Funchess of the Carolina Panthers, Golden Tate of the Philadelphia Eagles, and Tyrell Williams of the Los Angeles Chargers. Funchess (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) and Williams (6-foot-4, 205 pounds) are targets who can also block in an offense were Jackson will be a duel threat. Tate is both an intermediate and deep ball threat who is dynamic after the catch and has topped 1,000 yards receiving in three of the last five years.
A few other veteran wide receivers will undoubtedly become available either before free agency, or later in the offseason once they are released by other teams.
But as the Ravens move forward with Jackson as their starter, they are confident about their ability to attract free agents, believing the best days for Jackson are yet to come
“I think a lot of players are going to want to play with a quarterback like Lamar,” Harbaugh said. “I know the guys that are here, the guys that are pending free agents and restricted free agents and those guys, they want to stay.”