2019 NFL preview: With Lamar Jackson, Ravens are different than everyone else

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Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, complete with our initial 2019 power rankings.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

When a team relies heavily on the running game, it doesn’t mean it’s boring.

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Take the option-based service academies in college football. The triple option is an intricate dance. When run correctly, it’s practically unstoppable. You won’t see many deep passes when Army plays Navy in December, but you will see players executing a multi-layered offense at a very high level. The fun just happens on the ground instead of in the air. It can be a beautiful thing if you appreciate football in all its forms.

Don’t confuse what the 2018 Baltimore Ravens did in the second half last season as boring football. They were as creative as any offense in the NFL. Everyone knew the intent — run the football, often with rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson — but they got to those runs via a dizzying array of formations, motions and backfield looks. It was fascinating to see the Ravens completely change in midseason when Jackson took over for injured Joe Flacco. Opponents suddenly had to prepare for an offense they never had seen on the NFL level. It’s no wonder why the Ravens won six of Jackson’s seven starts in the second half of the regular season and took the AFC North title.

“A lot of challenges, just because you don’t know what plays they’re running,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said last season, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “I don’t recognize some of the plays they’re running. You’ve got to go back to Louisville and study [Jackson] there.”

There’s no reason for the 2019 Ravens to dramatically change the basic philosophy of their offense, which was to use Jackson’s special dual-threat ability as often as possible.

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The offense worked, for sound reasons. When the quarterback is a runner, the offense is playing 11-on-11 again in the running game. And when the quarterback is as good in the open field as Jackson, a former Heisman Trophy winner who was one of the most electrifying players in college football history, it becomes a problem.

There’s also a reason NFL teams haven’t run the wishbone. The NFL is a physical game, and quarterbacks are too valuable to use like they’re Tommie Frazier. When it comes to quarterbacks running, everyone gets nervous they’ll get hurt. But Jackson mostly held up last season despite a historic workload. Jackson set an NFL record for rushing attempts by a quarterback in a season with 147, and he only started 7-of-16 games. No other NFL team has practically built its running game around a quarterback like that. Cam Newton runs a lot too, though not as much as Jackson last season. Newton is also built like a defensive end. Jackson is not.

Jackson is not exactly small, however. He measured 6-foot-2, 216 pounds at the combine. Over the last eight seasons, seven of the NFL’s leader in carries have weighed between 220-228 pounds, and Jackson isn’t too far off that. The exception in that group is LeSean McCoy, who is 210 pounds, has 2,346 career carries and has missed 13 games in 10 seasons. Nobody worries all the time about McCoy getting hurt. Someone like Warrick Dunn was 187 pounds, had 2,669 carries and there wasn’t a constant worry about him taking on injuries. It shouldn’t be inconceivable that Jackson could handle a much larger workload than any other quarterback we’ve ever seen. It just hasn’t happened before.

It isn’t entirely logical to think a quarterback has a much greater chance of getting hurt running the ball than a tailback.

“I think it’s a little overrated, the whole danger thing,” new Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman said, according to the team’s transcripts. “Why? Because, and this is empirical data here, over the years you kind of realize that when a quarterback decides to run, he’s in control. So now [if] he wants to slide, he can slide. If he wants to dive, he can dive, get out of bounds – all of those different things. He can get down, declare himself down.

“A lot of the time, the situations that [have] more danger are when he doesn’t see what’s coming — my eyes are downfield, I’m standing stationary from the pocket, somebody is hitting me from the blindside. My experience, and I kind of learned this, is that when the quarterback takes the ball and starts to run, there’s not a lot of danger involved in that relative to other situations.”

Reading that quote, it doesn’t seem the Ravens will scale back Jackson’s running.

The Ravens are intriguing. They’re unlike any other team in the NFL due to their offensive style, with a really exciting quarterback whose potential seems limitless. If Jackson develops as a passer — and he was developing just fine as a passer at Louisville — he could be a cheat code.

The Ravens’ offense changed dramatically on the fly after Flacco’s injury, but the offense will be different this season. Roman said the Ravens were “reimagining our offense” and it would be overhauled from scratch. Since Roman ran the San Francisco 49ers’ offense when Colin Kaepernick was quarterback, one can assume it’ll be heavy on quarterback runs again. Could Jackson get to 200 carries? More? In Jackson’s eight starts, including the playoffs, he rushed 128 times, and while 256 carries for a quarterback over a 16-game season seems inconceivable, who knows? The exact shape the offense will take is still unclear. Roman said he wanted to build it to fit Jackson’s skill set, “as opposed to try to fit him into something that other people had once done.”

Other than the laboratory experiment of an offense, we know what to expect from the Ravens. Their defense is always solid, though some key losses on that side cloud the issue. The special teams are consistently excellent. Head coach John Harbaugh is one of the best in the game. He has finished below .500 one time in 11 seasons as Ravens coach. Outside of Foxboro, Baltimore might be the most consistent franchise in the NFL.

And a new era of Ravens football has already begun. It’ll continue to look unlike anything else in the NFL, for better or worse. And it won’t be boring.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson led his team to the playoffs as a rookie. (AP)
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson led his team to the playoffs as a rookie. (AP)

The Ravens always lose key pieces and it doesn’t seem to matter. They find replacements from within and never take a step back. That will be tested this year. The defense lost Pro Bowl linebacker C.J. Mosley, versatile rusher Za’Darius Smith, safety Eric Weddle and franchise legend Terrell Suggs. The Ravens also lost receiver John Brown and didn’t bring back Michael Crabtree, though Brown was rendered obsolete in the Lamar Jackson offense and Crabtree looked like he was near the end. The Ravens were active themselves. Former Seahawks safety Earl Thomas is a Hall of Fame talent, and even though he just turned 30, it’s hard to bet on him coming back strong from a broken leg that ended his season. Running back Mark Ingram helps the Ravens’ run-first style. The draft looked like a good one, with a lot of speed added. The prize of the draft is lightning fast receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, who is undersized but will add a playmaking component to the Ravens’ passing game.

GRADE: C-minus

The Ravens have the pieces to play a run-first style, and that starts with a very good offensive line. Most metrics or rankings had the Ravens offensive line in the top 10. Football Outsiders had the Ravens’ line first in power success (short-yardage situations) and third in best stuff rate (the rate that a ballcarrier is hit behind the line). Right tackle Orlando Brown Jr., who bombed at the 2018 combine, looks like a third-round steal. Guard Marshal Yanda is still one of the best in the game and left tackle Ronnie Stanley is very good. The Ravens are well stocked up front for the offense they want to run.

The Ravens defense took some major blows. Two of the three Ravens who got more than 5.5 sacks last season were Za’Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs, and they’re both gone. C.J. Mosley, one of the best inside linebackers in football, had 105 tackles, 31 more than any other Ravens defender. He’s gone to the Jets. The Ravens coaching staff credited safety Eric Weddle’s experience and leadership for being able to change the defense before the snap when he saw fit — defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale called Weddle “a football savant.” He was cut in a salary-cap move. Earl Thomas should fill Weddle’s role, but other departures weren’t addressed with a big addition. Players like linebackers Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young or rookie pass rusher Jaylon Ferguson have to emerge.

Lamar Jackson’s inconsistency as a passer was on full display in a playoff loss to the Chargers. He was 3-of-10 for 25 yards a few minutes into the fourth quarter. He got hot over the last three possessions and finished 14-of-29 for 194 yards and a pair of touchdown passes, but the ugliness of the first three-plus quarters is hard to shake. Still, the Ravens expressed that they believe in Jackson as a passer.

“As far as him throwing the football, we feel great about it, and we saw a lot of improvement last year throughout the season,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “And really, he’s only going to get better from here.”

Jackson’s final passing stats as a rookie weren’t great but not horrendous either: 1,201 yards, six touchdowns, three interceptions, 58.2 completion percentage and an 84.5 passer rating. He has a lot of room to improve, but that’s true of every rookie quarterback. And the Ravens saw things they liked.

“I’ll tell you what, he has a great feel for the game, and he can do things you can’t coach in the passing game,” Roman said. “He has really, really good field vision, and that’s something we noticed last spring. You could put a progression to a passing route, like, ‘Hey, I’m going one to two to three.’ You could have him read the coverage and figure out where to throw it. But often times, he’ll just see guys open. He’ll see leverage take place. Not all guys are like that, so that is a great starting point.”

Earl Thomas steps into an unusual situation. Practically speaking, he’s already the biggest star on a defense despite signing just a few months ago. He admitted that the transition to a much different defense has taken some getting used to.

"This defense is very complex compared to what we were doing in Seattle,” Thomas said, according to the team’s site. “We were just playing Cover-3 all the time. Now, we’re making calls on the fly. That’s the biggest adjustment for me.”

Thomas is coming off a broken leg and just turned 30, but he did play well last season for the Seahawks before his season ended. He’s one of the great center-field safeties of his era, a six-time Pro Bowler who was instrumental in the success of the famous “Legion of Boom” defense. The Ravens lost some key pieces but getting Thomas will help a lot.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “For a team that’s ostensibly a playoff contender, the Ravens do not have a lot of fantasy juice. Mark Ingram is their only high-ticket fantasy item, and even he commonly lands outside the Top 50 of Yahoo drafts. Baltimore has a young quarterback and a largely unknown set of wide receivers.

“But we should have a talk about second-year tight end Mark Andrews, who could be a breakout player. He averaged a zesty 16.2 YPC on his 34 grabs last year, and was also user-efficient [11 yards per target]. To contextualize that latter stat, only O.J. Howard beat it at the tight end position last season. Andrews only had 50 looks as a rookie, but that number is sure to rise in 2019.

“We love tight ends who are used as hybrid wide receivers, and Andrews checks that box; over half of his routes last season came from the slot. Baltimore will be a low priority for me in most drafts, and I’m not sure what to expect from Lamar Jackson’s passing development. But Andrews is outside the Top 20 tight ends in both Yahoo and NFFC rooms, and there’s a good chance he will deliver a tidy profit on that.”

[Yahoo fantasy preview: Baltimore Ravens]

The Ravens’ defense was one of the best in the NFL last season. It finished first in yards allowed, second in points allowed, first in yards per pass allowed, second in passer rating allowed and third in yards per run allowed. The defense was third in Football Outsiders’ DVOA (sixth against the run, third against the pass) if you prefer advanced stats. The Ravens did lose some pieces, but they are very strong at cornerback and safety, and if some replacements in the front seven step up, this will be a top defense again.

WHEN THE RAVENS PASS THE BALL, WHO IS CATCHING IT?

Uncertainty at receiver and tight end is a big issue for some teams. Not so much for the Ravens, but they still do need guys to catch the ball when they throw it. Good luck pinpointing who, if anyone, might have a big receiving season. First-round pick Marquise Brown has a ton of talent, as does big third-round pick Miles Boykin, but they’re still rookies. Willie Snead is the team’s leading returning receiver (651 yards) and he could repeat that production. One player to watch is second-year tight end Mark Andrews, a third-round pick who moved ahead of 2018 first-round pick Hayden Hurst as Hurst dealt with injuries. Andrews, a big-play tight end at Oklahoma, had 552 yards on 34 catches last season and had a nice connection with fellow rookie Lamar Jackson. Rookie tight ends usually struggle, which makes Andrews’ strong production worth noting.

However the Ravens’ offense changes this season, it is very likely to look similar to what we saw in the second half last season. And that offense was effective. People are quick to criticize Lamar Jackson’s passing, but he was a rookie who was put into the starting lineup at midseason, and it’s not like he had a ton of great receivers to work with. Most second-year quarterbacks are given the patience to develop and improve as a passer, and Jackson should be too. If he makes a big leap — many smart draft experts thought he would function just fine as a passer coming out of Louisville — the Ravens’ offense will be really good. The Ravens have a well-established floor, and another division title should be a clear goal. If Jackson really takes a huge second-year leap, a long playoff run can happen too.

The Ravens can’t be sure the Lamar Jackson experiment works. I don’t buy that teams will necessarily “catch up” with the Ravens’ offense with an offseason to watch film; a run-first offense can be almost impossible to stop when you have a quarterback like Jackson, a coaching staff that knows how to devise a run game and a good offensive line. Yet, it’s hard to imagine an NFL quarterback being ultimately successful if he can’t make it as a pocket passer. Jackson can develop that part of his game, but it’s not a guarantee that he’ll reach a certain level as a passer. That’s still an unknown, and an important one. If he has more games in which he struggles like he did over the first three quarters of the playoff loss to the Chargers, the Ravens might be in a tough spot. The Ravens have invested a lot in Jackson and it won’t be easy to just do a U-turn if it looks like he won’t work out.

The Ravens’ losses on defense worry me more than Lamar Jackson. They lost a lot in one offseason, though Earl Thomas covers up a lot. I think the Ravens take a step back on defense. That’s not insignificant for a team that wants to run the ball and will shorten games. Maybe I’m being too optimistic on Jackson’s development because he’s different, fun and can be a great star for the NFL — he was an electric player at Louisville and is exciting to watch. But I really do think Jackson can be very good, though with some concerns about him wearing down if he’s deployed like a running back. There are just enough questions to keep the Ravens out of the top spot in what will be a competitive AFC North, but they’ll be in the playoff hunt as usual.

32. Arizona Cardinals

31. Miami Dolphins

30. Oakland Raiders

29. New York Giants

28. Cincinnati Bengals

27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

26. Washington Redskins

25. Detroit Lions

24. Buffalo Bills

23. New York Jets

22. Denver Broncos

21. San Francisco 49ers

20. Jacksonville Jaguars

19. Atlanta Falcons

18. Tennessee Titans

17. Carolina Panthers

16. Minnesota Vikings

15. Seattle Seahawks

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab

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