As Ravens build around Lamar Jackson, 2022 offense could lay a blueprint – The Denver Post


Midway through training camp, quarterback Lamar Jackson was midway through an interview blessedly free of questions about his long-term future with the Ravens. Then came a comment on the short-term future of the Ravens’ offense.

I think you love big receivers crossing in front of you. Your best year had a bunch of tight ends involved. Isaiah Likely looks like the next guy killing defenses with dig routes …

“Actually, I really like everything,” Jackson said in that August Sirius XM interview. “That was like 2019, you’re saying. That was pretty much our offense, though. That was pretty much the statement we were making that season. But right now, I’m liking everything. … We’re trying to go somewhere.”

Exactly where the Ravens’ offense goes this year could be one of the NFL’s most intriguing subplots. Three years ago, Jackson was at the vanguard of what coach John Harbaugh called a “revolutionary” offense, the unanimous NFL Most Valuable Player on the league’s best team (until it lost in its playoff opener, anyway). The Ravens had a record-breaking rushing attack. They had the NFL’s most efficient passing game. In a sport accustomed to air shows, Greg Roman’s unit was a souped-up wrecking ball.

Then defenses adjusted and players got hurt and the novel coronavirus spread and things went south. After finishing first in Football Outsiders’ efficiency rankings in 2019, the Ravens’ offense slipped to 11th in 2020, when their season again ended in the wild-card round of the playoffs. Amid a tsunami of injuries, the Ravens sputtered to 17th last year, out of the playoffs for the first time in Jackson’s career.

Even when he struggled in 2021, either with injuries (a bone bruise in Jackson’s ankle ended his season in mid-December) or interceptions (a career-high 13) or illness, Jackson was still one of the NFL’s best bargains. Over his first four seasons, his salary cap hit never exceeded $3 million. Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta could build around Jackson. He didn’t have to reckon with the opportunity cost of a typical contract for a veteran star quarterback.

Now, as Jackson’s rookie contract window closes and the Ravens prepare for a more expensive future, DeCosta and Harbaugh will confront difficult team-building choices. Jackson’s cap hit this year spiked to $23 million. With a franchise tag or a megadeal extension, that could nearly double next year. A rising salary cap would not spare the Ravens from the harsh economic realities of the NFL. Good players, once they reach the open market, would be lost and replaced with cheaper, likely inferior alternatives.

“We understand that if we do sign a long-term deal with Lamar Jackson, that’s going to change the way we’ve operated the last couple of years,” DeCosta said last year. “We certainly understand that, and we look at that as a great problem to have. We aspire to that type of problem. We want to have the franchise quarterback. …

“It will change the way that we do contracts, potentially. We will have to be probably a little bit more careful about which players we sign and which players we don’t sign. We may lose some good, young players. That’s unfortunately just the salary cap age that we’re in, and it happens to every single team.”

On offense, the cost cutting has already started. In April, on the opening night of the NFL draft, DeCosta traded leading wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, his first-ever pick as GM and Jackson’s best friend on the team, to the Arizona Cardinals for the first-round pick that became center Tyler Linderbaum.

Two months earlier, DeCosta had said the Ravens would pick up Brown’s fifth-year option for 2023, now valued at $13.4 million. In Linderbaum, they acquired a potential cornerstone lineman whose four-year contract is worth $13.2 million total.

It was a telling trade, pointing the Ravens’ offense away from a more conventional structure. With 2021 first-round pick Rashod Bateman finally healthy and Brown back after a career year, the Ravens seemed to have the wide receiver corps that fans had long clamored for — one that could lift Jackson up, not need him to do the carrying.

Instead, team officials went back to the future. The Ravens gave tight ends Mark Andrews and Nick Boyle and fullback Patrick Ricard two new positional partners in Isaiah Likely, a training camp standout, and Charlie Kolar, a fellow fourth-round pick. They grabbed Linderbaum for their vacated center position, signed sturdy right tackle Morgan Moses, and banked on a healthy Ronnie Stanley again anchoring one of the NFL’s best offensive lines and protecting Jackson’s blind side.

It was as if DeCosta were trying to stage a revival of the Ravens’ record-breaking 2019 offense, which ran over defensive fronts with heavy personnel groupings and pierced secondaries with play-action passes. Even the team’s weaknesses aligned — ESPN ranked the Ravens’ wide receiver corps as the league’s worst entering 2019, and again entering this season.

“We’ll see how it all fits together,” Roman said in June of the Ravens’ reinvestment at tight end. “Could be pretty interesting. Right now, as we go through this installation, we learn about all of these guys. We’re learning about them, and then we’re starting to visualize what we could possibly do. I’m sure it will be different than last year, as it was different than the year before.”

A healthy, locked-in Jackson will only help. Over the past two seasons, illnesses forced him to skip practices, miss games and lose weight. But he showed up to mandatory minicamp weighing about 220 pounds, with a newfound zip on the ball. He added even more muscle before training camp. Players and coaches have said Jackson has never thrown the ball as well as he has this summer.

If Jackson again proves capable of leading a dynamic passing offense, it could establish a blueprint for the Ravens’ future — one with Roman still calling plays, with tight ends still heavily featured, with run-pass ratios still relatively balanced, with starting wide receivers still on their rookie contracts.

But if the aerial attack flounders again — the Ravens finished 17th in Football Outsiders’ passing efficiency in 2020 and were 22nd entering Week 14 last season, when Jackson’s season ended — an offense with revolutionary designs could require a drastic evolution. And with Jackson’s rising price tag, it wouldn’t be simple or easy.

Of course, it’s better to have a franchise quarterback than not. And with Jackson, the Ravens believe, all things are possible.

“I feel better than 2019, I’ll say that,” Jackson said in June. “I’m very eager. I’m very eager, no doubt.”



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