I visited the joint practices between the Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts this past weekend and found it very interesting from a quarterback perspective. I wrote about Andrew Luck and the Colts the other day, and I wanted to take in Monday night’s game to gather my thoughts about what the Ravens’ plan appears to be.
Right now it’s clear: Joe Flacco is the starting quarterback. Now and for the foreseeable future.
Don’t take that as the Ravens not liking what they’ve seen with Jackson. They certainly seemed thrilled with him so far, as least from what I could tell in two off-the-record conversations with Ravens folks.
No question Jackson’s preseason accuracy (18-of-43 passing, 41.9 completion percentage) has been almost alarmingly bad, he’s taken too many sacks (six) and put the ball in harm’s way too often. The two practices with the Colts — especially Friday — showed just how far he must go to be a starting-grade quarterback.
“Incompletions,” Jackson said after the game. “I came out cold. I started slow. A lot of balls I didn’t like, but I ended up throwing a touchdown. I don’t feel I’ve performed at a high level yet.”
The Ravens didn’t draft Jackson to push Flacco this season, at least from everything I’ve been able to gather. Oh sure, if they’re 4-8 in December and all hope for the playoffs is lost, those plans could certainly change. But the feeling I got during the visit was one of quiet confidence for the team’s prospects this season — with Flacco at the trigger.
He’s an easy mark — just ask Jalen Ramsey.
“Just being honest about it, Flacco sucks,” Ramsey said during his QB-hunting sortie to GQ. “I played him two years in a row. He sucks.”
A lot of it justifiably starts with his own play. Flacco is dead last in the NFL the past three seasons in yards per pass attempt among quarterbacks with at least 500 pass attempts. (Behind even Blaine Gabbert and Brock Osweiler, yikes.) He has 40 INTs in his past 42 starts. But Flacco looked different to me in person, what I saw. Not incredible but quite poised and polished.
“Joe’s healthy for the first time in two years, and he looks it,” one source reminded me, as a knee injury slowed him in 2016 followed by a back injury that bothered him most of the first half of last season. The Ravens have upgraded the receiver and tight end positions with numbers and talent. Yes, they have a league-high 332 targets that departed from last year’s squad, but if you subscribe to what one personnel official called the “wildfire theory,” sometimes you have to burn down the forest in order for it to regrow more thickly.
Michael Crabtree has been exactly as advertised. John Brown has been the training camp surprise and could be in line for a resurgent season. Willie Snead will have a role underneath. Chris Moore is the flash player in the mix, making a few highlight grabs in practice and catching a TD in Monday's game from Jackson on a beautiful throw against tight coverage.
First-round tight end Hayden Hurst will have a role right away on this team, and I was told that his third-round counterpart Mark Andrews should not be overlooked as well. I also liked what I saw from Nick Boyle, who has had his career sidetracked by injuries and suspensions.
The Ravens also are deep at running back with Alex Collins, Buck Allen and Kenneth Dixon — who is doing well to earn back trust after a poor start to his career — which could make a nice trio. Also keep an eye on undrafted RB Gus Edwards, out of Rutgers via Miami (Fla.). The offensive line might not be in shambles as it was last season, assuming Ronnie Stanley’s injury against the Colts on Monday isn’t serious.
One thing the Ravens have not been given enough credit for is building this roster in such a way where it helps Flacco now and could help Jackson down the road. By beefing up at tight end, they give Flacco the underneath and intermediate targets he prefers now.
But there’s also a long-term vision of Jackson one day running an offense that uses multiple tight ends as part of a base package. Why? Because by putting multiple bigger-framed players on the field, defenses will be fixed to pick their poison: Do you dare play base against a runner of Jackson’s rare athletic gifts? If so, defenses must be prepared to put linebackers on tight ends, and that’s a mismatch in today’s game.
Flacco showed in the two practices and on Monday that he’s the most accurate quarterback on the Ravens’ roster, throwing with the best touch, timing and anticipation of the quartet. In the game, he was 7-of-9 passing for 72 yards and a beauty of a TD pass to Brown.
Flacco only threw deep twice, missing the first post pattern to Brown, but he made his best throw of the night with a dime to Crabtree down the left sideline in the hole vs. cover-2 for a 29-yard gain. Overall, it was a pretty respectable night for the first-team offense minus All Pro guard Marshal Yanda and Collins, who sat out the game as a precaution.
The Ravens’ QB4, Josh Woodrum (DNP Monday), doesn’t appear have a shot on the 53-man roster, but don’t count out Robert Griffin III, who had a decent night Monday. The Ravens seem pleased so far with his performance, and both in practice and in the game he could be seen mentoring Jackson after a few struggles.
Of course, Jackson also showed some really nice intangibles that I witnessed. On Saturday, Jackson stepped up in the pocket in 11-on-11 against the Colts’ second-team defense and drilled a nice throw to rookie receiver Jordan Lasley, who had made a few splash plays earlier. But Lasley flat out dropped Jackson’s pass that hit him chest-high in the hands.
Jackson ran over and consoled Lasley, who seemed to take the drop hard. Almost the same situation played out Monday after Lasley dropped RG3’s beautiful, would-be TD pass. You could tell the rookie wideout was in his own head about it, and both Griffin and Jackson went to his side to keep his spirits up as best they could.
That’s something you want to see, of course, and it’s exactly what the Ravens thought they were getting in the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. A few folks in the organization graded Jackson two ways during the run-up to the draft: as a football player and as a quarterback. The QB grades for Jackson were solid — not in the Mayfield/Rosen/Darnold region, but good. As a football player, Jackson graded through the roof for most of them.
There was a little concern that Jackson might resist being used in non-QB ways while he develops and waits, given that he made it clear to the media at the NFL scouting combine that he was a quarterback alone and that Jackson opted not to work out as a wide receiver at the request of the Los Angeles Chargers, among other interested clubs.
But that has not been an issue at all from what we can tell. Jackson has taken on his role with open arms, and we saw him more than once line up on the field in practice periods with Flacco under center. (The Ravens are among the NFL teams that ask media not to reveal specific formations and special packages used during practice, but trust us when we say they used a few interesting looks that should force defenses to respect Jackson’s presence on the field.)
Having Jackson moonlight as a playmaker will make him a gameday active more often than not, and that likely helps RG3’s chances of making the team. The Ravens last kept three quarterbacks on the Week 1 roster back in 2009, so it’s no guarantee they will. But with Flacco’s recent injuries and Jackson’s unreadiness as a full-time passer, Griffin’s solid preseason (69.2 completion percentage) could make him the de facto QB2 to start the season.
Even at the risk of taking up an extra roster spot (and possibly an extra game-day slot), that also would help Jackson’s development for the long term and ease the pressure on him to perform as a full-time quarterback right away. His throwing and playmaking talent has impressed the Ravens, even if the on-field results have been mixed so far. Jackson’s penchant for throwing high and behind his receivers too often must be fixed, but as one source reminded me they’re having him drill on his mechanics and operate with different footwork than he used at Louisville, widening his base far more than he played with in college, and aligning his hip, shoulder and eyes more consistently on his throws.
But there have been positive signs, including Monday’s work, including 3-of-3 passing from under center, which was something he did a mere 16 times last season at Louisville. The work continues, but the plan hasn’t changed. The Ravens anticipated a long marinade for Jackson, but one that includes folding him into the game plan, just as we suspected the night they drafted him.