OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The last time Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson was on the practice field, in 2021, the NFL’s most elusive player could barely move. Jackson limped from drill to drill as he favored his injured right ankle.
Seven months later, Jackson reported to training camp looking stronger than ever. He bulked up to 230 pounds, which is 18 pounds heavier than his listed weight last season.
“I told him he looks like a different guy,” Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “When I shake his hand, it feels a little different; you know that I mean?”
It’s been a different offseason for Jackson, who has been asked repeatedly about contract negotiations but not much about his durability. He was sidelined for the last four games of the 2021 campaign after Browns linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah dove at Jackson’s heels. Jackson was taken to the ground after escaping the pocket and making a pass, and he missed games because of injury for the first time in his NFL career.
Since taking over as the Ravens starting quarterback midway through the 2018 season, Jackson has become one of the league’s top playmakers with his ability to break long runs and extend pass plays by eluding defenders. But there is a risk: Jackson has been hit 710 times, 100 more than any other quarterback over that span.
Entering his fifth season, Jackson believes he has proved his dual-threat style of play is sustainable. The juked-out defenders outnumber the head-on collisions. His 33 runs of 20-plus yards triple the practices he has missed because of injury. And while he is coming off his most significant injury in the NFL, Jackson believes the circumstances of the play back up his point. In fact, Jackson is so confident he won’t suffer another significant injury, he is willing to play out his fifth-year option and not sign an extension.
“Do you know how the injury happened? Trying to pass in the pocket,” Jackson said. “I’ve been good [with] how I’ve been playing. But when I tried to shed and stay in the pocket, I got hurt for the first time. So, yes, I think it speaks for itself.”
Jackson reached 5,000 yards passing and 2,000 yards rushing in 35 games, which was the shortest time span needed to accomplish the feat in NFL history. Last season, he tied his own league mark with seven games of at least 200 yards passing and 50 yards rushing.
Jackson has racked up 615 rushing attempts. No other NFL quarterback has run the ball more than 500 times in his first four years.
And while the Ravens have reduced the number of Jackson’s designed runs in each of the past three seasons, team officials chalk up Jackson’s injury as “an aberration.”
“The thing about Lamar is that he is probably one of the best athletes at the position in the history of known mankind,” Roman said. “So, to not tap into that would be somewhat silly, would it not?”
For years, Ravens officials said the worst hits can come when Jackson is in the pocket. His eyes are focused downfield, which increases the chances of shots from his blind side.
When Jackson bolts out of the pocket, he is looking at defenders and rarely gets driven into the ground. He is more in control of his surroundings.
“He’s a magician when it comes to contorting his body to avoid hits,” Roman said.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh offered his take.
“You’re going to be concerned about that with any quarterback — quarterbacks can get hit in the pocket — but he’s got a knack,” Harbaugh said. “He’s done it his whole life; I think he’s just good at it, and he doesn’t really get hit that much and that hard.
“Now, of course, it’s football, and I think he’s going to have to manage and play the long game that way, certainly. But I kind of trust him with that.”
Jackson is already No. 7 all time among rushing quarterbacks with 3,673 yards. Of the six quarterbacks who rank ahead of him, only Cam Newton had more than four straight seasons of 100-plus carries.
“Whenever people ask me about running quarterbacks, I always think Lamar is in a different category,” Ravens Pro Bowl fullback Patrick Ricard said. “I feel like typical quarterbacks, who are running quarterbacks, have really good linear speed. Lamar can move in so many directions and not decrease his speed.
“So, I think that’s why his durability is so good, because he’s not taking direct hits. And he’s just a strong guy. I mean, you see how he looks right now?”
Adding muscle might decrease the concern about Jackson withstanding hits, but the extra weight has prompted questions about how it could impact his speed.
Since Jackson entered the league, he has produced nine runs in which he has exceeded 20 mph. Only five players have recorded more, and they’re all running backs: Derrick Henry, Jonathan Taylor, Nick Chubb, Dalvin Cook and Saquon Barkley.
Roman said he is “interested to see” how Jackson’s size affects him as a runner.
“When I see him kick it into fifth gear here, his engine is bigger this year,” Roman said. “So, he might be a little bit faster. We’ll just see how it goes, but it’s looking pretty good.”
Not only has the number of Jackson’s designed runs dipped in recent years, his effectiveness as a runner has decreased, as well. In Jackson’s 2019 MVP season, he averaged 7.05 yards per carry on designed runs. Last season, that average dipped to 4.95 yards.
Where Jackson has improved is in buying time in the pocket and not running. Last season, he had the second-best QBR (85.7) when he had three or more seconds to pass.
“I always tell him, ‘Don’t let me coach you out of being a great player. Trust your instincts,’” Ravens quarterbacks coach James Urban said. “We want to run the first play the way that it’s been designed. So, if the design of the play is to throw an in-cut, and the in-cut is there and we’re protected, let’s throw it. If not, now we go talk about the second play, and that’s when he lets his great natural ability take over and run.
“So, there’s a fine line, but we want to run the first play first — and then let your great natural ability come through.”