The Baltimore Ravens set Lamar Jackson up to fail and his body finally did
Lamar Jackson wants a fully guaranteed contract. The Baltimore Ravens don’t want to give him one.
That’s not the reason why Baltimore rolled into 2022 with a massively depleted receiving corps, but that bug was a hidden feature for a franchise trying to squeeze a bargain from a former MVP. Any backslide this fall — like the one that saw his touchdown rate drop and interception rate rise in 2021 — was evidence Jackson was unworthy of a record-setting contract as he stood on the precipice of free agency.
Restocking the team’s receiving corps was no priority in an offseason where Baltimore traded away top wideout Hollywood Brown, drafted an offensive lineman and safety in the first round, didn’t select a skill player until the fourth round and made another safety, Marcus Williams, the crown jewel of its free agent haul. Once Rashod Bateman went down with injury — after only 15 catches in six games — Jackson’s top receivers were a motley mix of Devin Duvernay, Demarcus Robinson, James Proche and, gulp, Desean Jackson.
Needless to say, this has put the Ravens’ offensive impetus on his shoulders. He’s risen to the challenge. Baltimore was 7-4 despite middling numbers from the quarterback at the center of its solar system. Jackson was good enough to beat AFC playoff hopefuls like the Cincinnati Bengals, New England Patriots and New York Jets and hang with playoff favorites like the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins.
And then that weight finally broke Jackson. He left Week 13’s game against the 3-8 Denver Broncos with a knee injury in the first half and didn’t return. In the process, he may have proved his value to a team that isn’t eager to recognize it.
Jackson’s absence left Tyler Huntley to fill the void. Like in 2021 when he started four games thanks to injury, the former undrafted free agent was occasionally promising but mostly benign. His first drive ended in three points. The next six ended with zero.
Without Jackson in the lineup, offensive coordinator Greg Roman had to rely on a below average quarterback and his below average receiving corps. That meant clusters of short throws, occasional deep shots that went nowhere and, uh, whatever the hell this was.
Baltimore didn’t fall back on its run game. Instead it kept forging ahead against the league’s fourth-best passing defense, dialing up 41 passing plays against 17 handoffs and 11 quarterback keepers. Huntley eventually broke through with a series of short passes, runs and Denver penalties; 32 of the Ravens’ final 91 yards came via flag.
This led to a win when the young QB broke through for a two-yard touchdown run, but the lesson was clear. This game was ugly, and winning this way unsustainable; Baltimore’s win probability was less than 30 percent through the bulk of the fourth quarter.
This, conflictingly, helps and hurts Jackson’s value. The Ravens average 5.7 yards per play with their QB1 in the lineup and 5.2 without him. With Jackson they’ve averaged 0.4 points per play; without him it was 0.17. Jackson’s average pass traveled 8.6 yards downfield. In Week 13, Huntley’s was a meager 5.8.
While some of that dropoff can be attributed to a Broncos defense that’s performing at a *significantly* higher level than Russell Wilson’s objectively awful offense, you didn’t have to watch much of Sunday’s game or last year’s extended Huntley audition to understand the difference between the two. Jackson, when surrounded by chicken crap, is better at turning that into chicken salad than anyone else on the Ravens roster.
But the two biggest concerns that have followed Jackson throughout his career — even, unfairly, as he won 2019’s MVP award — is that he’s not a classic pocket passer and that his style of play leaves him vulnerable to injury, where any loss of speed could be catastrophic. 2022 will likely mark the second straight season in which he misses multiple games due to injury. It’s not unfair for the Ravens to want to insulate themselves from that, just like it’s not unfair for Jackson to be asking for an upper crust salary after five years of playing well above his pay scale in Baltimore.
These are the issues the Ravens will use to chill Jackson’s contract demands. In 2022, they’ve been self inflicted wounds. Baltimore surrounded its franchise quarterback with exactly one proven target, tight end Mark Andrews, and an imperative to figure things out on the fly. Jackson’s completion rate has taken a hit, his passer rating hasn’t rebounded to 2019 levels and he’s completing fewer deep balls than ever because he’s been set up to fail.
He’s also absorbing a fair share of punishment thanks to the wideouts who can’t get open. His 3.0 seconds in the pocket per pass is the third-highest mark in the league. He can’t operate a quick strike offense that gets the ball out of his hands and keeps him upright because he doesn’t have the personnel who can thrive in that environment. Instead, he’s been left to get hit, tackled or sacked at least a dozen times in nine of his first 11 games to start 2022.
Now he’s injured, leaving his replacement to barely scrape by a Broncos team in the midst of a truly depressing season. Jackson doesn’t have a set timeline to return, as he’s not expected to miss the rest of the season but there’s little information beyond that. This absence may not be fatal thanks to an easy stretch of games to cap the season before a Week 18 date with the Cincinnati Bengals that could determine the AFC North champion. But it will make this team vulnerable in the thick of a furious playoff race in a conference loaded with good teams.
Jackson hasn’t been as good as he’s been in the past, but he’s been able to do more with less. The dropoff between him and the next man up, despite Huntley’s comeback win, remains vast. By dulling their quarterback’s value through surrounding him with replacement-level wideouts, the Ravens created space for their quarterback to get hurt and potentially illustrate his value through his absence rather than on-field accolades.
This all leads to what should be a quick franchise tag and months of protracted negotiations this spring. Baltimore will turn to Jackson’s just-OK passing numbers and another in-season malady as evidence not to make him the team’s richest quarterback since Joe Flacco. Jackson’s camp will be able to counter with the gold he’s spun from a hay-filled receiving corps and the performance of his offense without him.
It’ll be a wild negotiating process, even if the most obvious answer — the one where Jackson gets the contract he deserves — isn’t the one that winds up happening.