Much has changed since the last time Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson was seen on a football field for a meaningful snap.
The final image of his 2020 season was him being driven into the turf at Bills Stadium, suffering a concussion after an errant snap from center Patrick Mekari sailed over his head.
After that season-ending 17-3 loss to the Buffalo Bills in the divisional round Jan. 16, the Ravens’ front office devoted much of its offseason to fixing the problems that painfully reemerged on that windy night in upstate New York.
For as much turnover as the offense has experienced, two things have not changed: the team’s commitment to improving a dormant passing game, and Jackson’s desire to be a Raven, even as questions persist regarding his contract status.
During a brief virtual news conference after Wednesday’s practice, the Ravens’ second of organized team activities and first open to reporters, Jackson spoke to local media for the first time since leaving the divisional-round game early. He did not divulge much on a potential contract extension but reaffirmed his desire to stay in Baltimore long-term.
“I spoke to Mr. EDC [general manager Eric DeCosta] probably like a month or two ago,” Jackson said. “But I would love to be here forever. I love Baltimore. I love the whole organization. I love everybody in the building. Hopefully, we’ll make it happen, pretty soon or whenever.”
The Ravens in April exercised Jackson’s fifth-year option, ensuring that the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player would be in Baltimore through at least the 2022 season and allowing more time to negotiate an extension. DeCosta in May said he would work “tirelessly” to reach an agreement with his young star quarterback, who’s set to earn $23 million in 2022 under the NFL’s new collective bargaining agreement.
Jackson’s expected extension has been even more noteworthy given the lucrative deals signed in the past year by his peers at the position — Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott signed a four-year, $160 million contract in March — and the uniqueness of his management.
But Jackson on Wednesday was as coy regarding a new deal as the man he’ll continue to negotiate with over the coming months.
Would Jackson’s mother, who by all accounts has served as his representative, negotiate an extension? “Maybe. Maybe. We’ll see,” he responded with a laugh.
Would he prefer to reach a deal before the season starts? “I’m really focused on the season,” he said. “I’m focused on trying to win. I’m not really worried about if it gets done this year or next year. I’m just trying to build and stack and we’re going to see.”
Wednesday’s practice was another step in pursuit of the goal that Jackson and the Ravens have come up short in over the past three postseasons.
Over the course of a roughly two-hour practice in scorching heat, Jackson took shotgun and pistol snaps from Bradley Bozeman, who coach John Harbaugh confirmed will likely be the starting center in Week 1. He dropped back to pass behind an offensive line that was missing two starters in left tackle Ronnie Stanley, who is continuing to rehab from a season-ending ankle injury, and guard Kevin Zeitler, who was signed in March after being cut by the New York Giants.
Jackson connected with a host of targets — some new, such as rookies Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace, and returning faces such as Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and Miles Boykin.
“I just can’t wait to put the pads on and go against other opponents to show off our skills and stuff like that,” Jackson said of the new additions. “Right now, everyone’s rolling. Everyone’s happy to get back. The new guys, they’re happy to be here. So, we’re just going to see.”
Harbaugh said that during the three-week session, he wanted to see improvement in fundamentals from all players, Jackson included. With the additions to the offense — including veteran receiver Sammy Watkins, who was not seen at practice — improvement for Jackson will again focus on his execution, particularly outside the numbers, where he’s found less success than targets over the middle of the field.
The reason for that drop-off in production has been dissected, from the play design of coordinator Greg Roman to the team’s talent pool at receiver to Jackson himself. With new pieces across the board, the hope is that the Ravens have their most diverse and complete iteration of the passing game since Jackson took over as the starter in Week 11 of the 2018 season.
Brown said whatever criticism might accompany the offense, the expectation “is to score a lot of points.”
“If that’s with the least amount of pass attempts, if that’s with the most pass attempts, we want to take advantage of everything we get and score the most points we possibly can each and every game,” he said.
And whether Jackson finds himself with a new contract before the start of the season or not, the pressure to deliver more success in the postseason won’t subside, a reality echoed by Brown, a close friend of Jackson.
“I’m pretty sure Lamar wants to stay here. The Ravens want him here, but we want a Super Bowl,” Brown said. “If we win a Super Bowl, everybody gets to stay here.”