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Jonas Shaffer: Lamar Jackson has a clear weakness as a passer. Will the Ravens' splurge on wide receivers help?

Jonas Shaffer, Baltimore Sun on

Published in Football

For the past two years, he has been among the NFL’s least efficient quarterbacks on those no-pressure, out-wide throws. Among 30 potential 2021 starters, Jackson ranks 26th in Expected Points Added per drop-back, which measures the value of a play by accounting for its down, distance and yards to goal. According to SIS, the only qualifying quarterbacks worse than him were not esteemed company: Andy Dalton, Drew Lock, Sam Darnold and Tua Tagovailoa.

It was not just a Jackson problem. According to a review of last season’s receptions, Ravens wide receivers combined for no more than four or five contested catches on outside throws. But Jackson’s reluctance to throw to the sideline — more than 63% of his passes were over the middle, well above average, according to SIS — and his inaccuracy when doing so — Jackson had one one of the NFL’s lowest rates of throws “on target” — had a limiting effect on the rest of the offense.

Defenses, for one, were mostly untroubled by isolated Ravens receivers. Why worry about shading a safety over to, say, Miles Boykin’s side when he’d be more helpful bracketing tight end Mark Andrews in coverage? Or gumming up the Ravens’ ground attack? Or spying Jackson? PFF found that the Ravens threw 77 times in formations with an isolated receiver last season. Only Brown was ever targeted on a “true isolation route” — and that happened just three times.

The Ravens had to get better, so they got help. Watkins was not especially efficient outside the numbers over his past three seasons in Kansas City, but in 14 games in 2019, he had 232 yards and two touchdowns, according to SIS, third most on the Chiefs. In 2015, Watkins’ first season with then-Bills offensive coordinator Roman, he had 958 yards and a 151.1 passer rating when targeted outside the numbers.

In the draft, the Ravens added two insurance policies. Bateman profiles as a scheme-versatile target, but he was at his best for Minnesota in split-wide alignments, where he led all Football Bowl Subdivision receivers in yards per route run in 2019, according to PFF.

 

Bateman also finished in the top 20 nationally in contested-catch rate that season, and Wallace, the Ravens’ fourth-round pick and a productive outside receiver at Oklahoma State, has the NCAA’s most contested catches since 2018. Together, the two could bring out a side of Jackson he has seldom embraced.

On outside routes that often lead to jump-ball throws — fades, go routes, double moves, back-shoulder throws — Jackson has been remarkably gun-shy. He threw seven of them in 2019 and seven in 2020, the fewest among the NFL’s regular starters. (He completed one and none, respectively, according to SIS.) The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger, meanwhile, attempted 48 last season, completing 18. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Tom Brady went 15 for 38.

2021 could mark a turning point. In revamping their receiver room this offseason, the Ravens added “a lot of competition” to the position, Harbaugh said. He was hopeful that they’d push one another, that by working together, they’d improve together. But their evolution will depend, in part, on Jackson, just as his evolution will depend, in part, on them.

“There are definitely some things that we’re doing right now to evolve, and there are definitely some things people are going to see from us that they haven’t seen before,” Roman said. “Our staff is working really hard and diligently on that for this upcoming season. When you really look at who you have to beat in the AFC these days, you’ve got to have talent everywhere. There are some really good teams out there, and I really feel great about what we’re building here.”

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