OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The football spins tightly in the air, the buzz of the crowd slowly builds before exploding, not coincidently, the moment it drops into Andre Levrone’s hands down the left sideline.
“There ya go, Lamar!” one fan exclaimed, amidst applause and cheers.
The large gain, which came on a bright and sunny Saturday morning, happened right in front of the grandstands that line the practice fields at the palatial Under Armour Performance Center, home of the Baltimore Ravens.
That means players can actually hear when fans yell at them, and the man the crowd was cheering for looking off the deep safety and delivering a gorgeous throw on the go-route — first-round rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson — was no different.
“It happens every practice,” Jackson told Yahoo Sports on Saturday. “… previously with me winning the Heisman [Trophy], fans always see me out, they’re always saying my name, stopping me in stores. And I’m always hearing stuff like that.”
Jackson’s eyes widen as he says this, and he’s grinning, too. It’s clear the 21-year-old appreciates the love from the Ravens’ defense-accustomed fans, though the team has been clear that incumbent starter Joe Flacco is the team’s present, despite the fact the Ravens have gone 40-40 overall since the high-water mark of Flacco’s career, when he was named the MVP of Super Bowl XLVII.
Over the past two seasons, Flacco has gone 17-15 as a starter and averaged a line of 19 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, numbers far off the prolific pace set by quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Drew Brees, who are each fully taking advantage of the pass-oriented nature of today’s NFL.
Throw in Flacco’s massive contract — his 2018 salary-cap number of $24.75 million makes him uncuttable this season — and it’s easy to see why fans are excited about a future guided by the 6-foot-2, 216-pound Jackson, who drew pre-draft comparisons to Michael Vick due to rare speed, arm strength, flair and overall production at Louisville.
Jackson is still mastering the verbiage, footwork and accuracy the Ravens’ offense demands (more on all that later), so ideally his future as the starter wouldn’t begin until 2020 or so. The Ravens can get out of Flacco’s deal as early as next season, when they can save $10 million on the cap by releasing him, but would be better served from a financial standpoint doing it after next season, when the cap penalty is reduced from $16 million to $8 million and they can save $20 million total.
Whether Flacco lengthens the timeline for his stay in Baltimore depends on how well he does this season, but the 33-year-old is responding to the pressure of Jackson’s arrival with one of his best camps in years. Back issues hampered Flacco’s mobility in the pocket last season, but he appears to be moving better these days, and putting more passes on the money, too, making it easier to see him as the starter for the foreseeable future, a prospect that does not bother Jackson.
“Yeah, I’d be cool with that, 100 percent,” Jackson said. “I came in knowing what I was getting myself into. He’s a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, an MVP.
“I just want to learn as much as I can from him because I know one day, I’m gonna bring an MVP — not an MVP …. well, that too, probably — but a Super Bowl back to Baltimore. That’s my goal. I said that when I got drafted, and that’s what I mean.”
The team can afford to be patient with Jackson, who doesn’t turn 22 until January, making him one of the youngest players in his draft class. The Ravens plan on making him earn everything, as he started out third on the initial depth chart released Saturday behind Flacco and veteran Robert Griffin III.
But the truth is, it’s been years since the Ravens have entered the season with more than two quarterbacks on their 53-man roster, meaning the team will likely be charged with getting Jackson ready for backup duty sooner rather than later. That means helping him get accustomed to calling plays in the huddle, which he didn’t consistently do at Louisville, and spitting out NFL verbiage, which is more than a notion.
At Louisville, for instance, Jackson said a typical play call might have been “Move to Indian right, bang 23 right, Y-corner.” A play in the Ravens’ playbook might be double that in length.
“The verbiage is crazy,” Jackson said with a laugh. “You’ve got to explain every route, every concept to each and every player.”
What’s more, Jackson — who says he spends his camp nights watching tape and practicing play calls in a mirror if he isn’t dead tired from two-a-days — also has to spit those plays out quickly and efficiently so the Ravens can jog to the line of scrimmage and give him additional time to make pre-snap reads.
The good news for Jackson, at least once the play begins, is that the Ravens’ playbook is littered with many of the routes and concepts Louisville coach Bobby Petrino asked Jackson to execute during his two-year stint as the Cardinals’ starting quarterback. Mesh. Deep comebacks. Daggers. Pivots.
“They just have different names [here],” Jackson said. “Even the route [names] here are different. You’ve got to get used to that, too.”
Not to mention the footwork. Oh, the footwork. Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg comes from a West Coast offense lineage, which calls for timed patterns coordinated with a multitude of three- and five-step drops.
Jackson says he is good with the three-step drops; his offense at Louisville called for many of those since the Cardinals were in the shotgun so much. But he could remember executing only one five-step drop during his entire stint in college, meaning he’s still getting a feel for those with the Ravens.
Once he gets comfortable with his footwork, the Ravens expect that to improve his accuracy, which can be feathery at every level of the field but must be more consistent, overall, to repeatedly stress NFL defenses.
“As far as his accuracy and all of that, he has really, really worked hard,” Mornhinweg said. “You can see on the practice field, it’s coming now — he’s getting better every day. Now, there’ll be a time where he takes a step back to take two steps forward, so a little anticipation of all that, but he’s done an outstanding job up to date. He’s way ahead of the curve now.”
The last area of targeted improvement for Jackson is his body. Internally, the Ravens wouldn’t mind seeing Jackson put on a little weight, especially since his legs are an elite weapon and he figures to take some wear and tear because of that.
But don’t expect Jackson to bulk up significantly; he says he currently weighs 216 pounds and fears going anything above 220.
“I’m good right here — I can keep my speed,” Jackson said. “I don’t want to be 225 out there.”
But for all the areas he’s working on, Jackson appears to have already won some respect from his teammates, many of whom genuinely like him. While standing in a hall during a recent interview, no fewer than five Ravens who passed by — from veteran Willie Snead IV to fellow rookie Orlando Brown Jr. — either stopped altogether to crack jokes or direct an amusing comment toward Jackson, mid-stride.
Jackson rattled off the names of 11 fellow rookies, with zero hesitation, when asked what teammates he hangs out with. The show of charisma doesn’t surprise inside linebacker Albert McClellan, an eight-year pro. “In the locker room and team meeting, he’s not a shy guy,” McClellan said. “He’s one that can demand attention, just off of his presence — like, you want to listen to him. Great kid, great guy, and he looks like he’s willing to learn. In the locker room, he asks direct questions to the right veterans. He knows where to go when it comes to advice.”
That includes Flacco, whose relationship — or lack thereof — with Jackson was the topic du jour in Baltimore when Jackson said in May shortly after was drafted that he hadn’t heard from or exchanged texts with the 11-year pro.
Jackson, however, told Yahoo Sports on Saturday that Flacco has been helpful to him, particularly during practice.
“I would just say on the field, I ask him mostly questions during the plays, about how he sees certain things, certain defenses that they bring to me different than him,” Jackson said.
Jackson said he didn’t seek counsel from Flacco during Saturday’s practice, but he pointed out a time earlier in the week when he made the wrong read during a rep, walked up to Flacco — who’d gotten it right earlier — and asked went wrong.
“Joe just broke it down, saying, ‘If I felt like they’re giving me this, I go here,’” Jackson said.
Moments like that are all part of a growth process that Jackson hopes will help him reach all of his dreams in Baltimore. When asked what he wants his legacy to be 20 years from now, he said that he wants to be known as the G.O.A.T., like Brady, Joe Montana or Peyton Manning.
“A Joe Flacco,” he added, showing respect to the Ravens’ starter. “Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, really.”
And like Brady in Boston and Montana in San Francisco, Jackson hopes to build a unique bond and love affair with the city and team that drafted him, a process that appears to be going well enough. If the cheers for him at Saturday’s practice were any indication, Baltimore has already embraced Jackson, and it appears its young, wide-eyed quarterback has already done the same.
On Wednesday, Jackson stood in the living room of his new home in Owings Mills, only a short drive away from the facility. All his furniture had been delivered, and he felt a sense of calm and happiness. He looked at his mother, Felicia Jones — who had set everything up for him — and smiled.
“I’m finally home,” Jackson told her.
His mom looked around, too.
“Yeah, it’s looking decent,” she said. “But we ain’t done yet.”
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