Reasonable Expectations for Lamar Jackson in Baltimore's New-Look Offense

May 9th 2023

Bryan Knowles

Lamar Jackson is a Raven, and will be for a long time. What’s next?

After a protracted standoff, Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens finally came to an agreement just before the draft, with Jackson signing a five-year, $260 million deal. Jackson didn’t get his desired DeSean Watson-level guarantee, but his $185 million guaranteed tops every other player in NFL history, and he got no-trade and no-tag clauses in his contract, as well. He’ll be just 31 when his contract expires, likely in prime form to sign another mega-deal, and he was able to negotiate his contact to the point where he’ll have complete leverage on where he goes come 2028. Not bad for someone without an agent.

But, of course, we’re not here to talk about any of that. Ravens fans want to know what the passing offense looks like in 2023. As good as Jackson has been, Baltimore hasn’t had a top-15 passing offense since Jackson’s MVP season in 2019, where they were first with a 52.7% DVOA. In the three seasons since, Baltimore is dead last in completions (953), and 30th in yards (9,740). They’re near the middle of the pack in advanced metrics, with the volume being down because they’ve been such a strong running game, but if you’re going to be paying a quarterback $52 million a year, you’d like to be getting something more than 195 passing yards per game.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, and Jackson isn’t entirely blameless in the toothlessness of Baltimore’s passing attack in recent years. Most notably, his accuracy was significantly down in 2022. Per Sports Info Solutions, only 69.0% of Jackson’s passes were on target last season and 80.2% of them were deemed catchable, both fifth-worst among qualified passers. Those are both career lows. Per Johnny Kinsley’s Deep Ball Project, Jackson was accurate on only 35.9% of his deep passes, fifth-worst in the league. Not all of that is terrible – some of it came from smarter decisions with the ball, as Jackson’s interception percentage fell from 3.4% in 2021 to 2.1% last season and his turnover-worthy throw percentage fell from 3.6% to 2.3%, per Pro Football Focus. Jackson was more willing to throw the ball away when needed, and it was needed quite a bit in 2022 – he had 26 throwaways in just 12 games, the most in his career by a substantial amount. As a result, however, Jackson set lows in completion percentage over expected (CPOE) – Ben Baldwin’s version of the stat had him at -0.6, the first time he had been in the negatives since his rookie season. It’s not accurate to say Jackson was bad at throwing the ball at all – Football Outsiders had him with a 5.5% DVOA, while PFF had him with passing grade of 72.3, both in in the top 20. But ideally, all those metrics would be a bit higher.

Still, can you blame him? If Jackson learned to be a little more gunshy about forcing the ball into coverage, that may be because his receivers simply are not finding their ways open. The only Ravens wideout to qualify for 538’s receiving leaderboards was Demarcus Robinson; he finished a paltry 41st in getting open and averaged just 3.0 yards of separation when targeted. Rashod Bateman and Devin Duvernay got injured, leaving the cupboard bare behind them – the Ravens have been conservative in acquiring wideouts over the past few seasons, spending the fewest amount of money on the position, and so when the top wideouts went down, the cupboards were bare behind them. Both Bateman and Robinson finished in the bottom 10 in drop percentage among wide receivers with at least 25 targets, with Bateman’s 14.3% second-worst behind only Justin Watson.

And to top it all off, Greg Roman’s offense had become stale and predictable. Roman failed to find creative ways to scheme his receivers open; Jackson would finish his dropbacks and still find his top options all covered with their backs turned far too often for a competent NFL offense. There was very little in the way of hurry up or quick passing to help get the ball to the wideouts quickly. The routes were simplistic, the usage was questionable, and the results poor. It’s a pattern with Roman – an innovative run game gets the fans excited, and then the lack of integrating a passing attack into things ends up ending his tenure. That was the Greg Roman story in San Francisco, that was the Greg Roman story in Buffalo, and that was the Greg Roman story in Baltimore.

Add it all together, and you get a wide receiver corps which ended with 124 receptions for 1,517 yards and seven touchdowns. By comparison, Justin Jefferson finished the year with a 128/1,809/8 line by himself. In retrospect, it’s a minor miracle Jackson had the Ravens with a 22.7% passing DVOA in his 12 games as a starter, 11th in the league. Maybe that tops out at above average, but considering Baltimore dropped to -10.4% without him, the impact of Jackson cannot be overstated.

So Roman’s gone, replaced by Todd Monken calling the shots. And with a healthy Rashod Bateman, free agent Odell Beckham and first-round pick Zay Flowers, Baltimore has a wide receiver corps which almost looks…OK. Not fantastic, not amazing, but just about NFL average. Considering what Baltimore has had in recent years, they’ll take it.

And it’s easy to see why Jackson and company are excited. Just last week, Jackson (mostly jokingly) said that he wanted to throw for 6,000 yards in 2023, which, you know, it’s great to have goals. Aim for the moon and you’ll end up among the stars and all of that nonsense. A 6,000 yard season would require a quarterback to average 353 yards per game; Jackson has just two starts games where he’s topped that mark in his entire career to this point. Monken’s new-look passing attack could see the Ravens throw 50% more than they had in the past, and Jackson still wouldn’t hit 6,000 passing yards. It’s some fun nonsense to pass time in May, and a way to hype up his new weapons, and shouldn’t be taken seriously.

We’re a ways off from having anyone hit the 6K passing yards mark. The only player who has ever taken a legitimate run at it was 2013 Peyton Manning, who was on pace for 6,000 yards in a theoretical 17-game season with 3,572 yards in his first 10 games before a cold night in New England shut him down. We haven’t had anyone on pace through at least six games since 2013 Manning; we’re a long way off from having that 6K passer. And it won’t be Jackson when it happens.

But that’s fine – the Ravens don’t need to set yardage records to have a successful passing attack. Both Baltimore fans and fantasy managers alike are eager to see what kind of numbers can be put up in a new-look passing attack.

At Georgia, Monken made things easy for his quarterbacks – plenty of read options, run-pass options, and one-read concepts that allowed Stetson Bennett to gain momentum, and to get the ball quickly into the hands of the playmakers. It’s easy to imagine Monken using Bateman and Duvernay’s speed to stretch defenses both horizontally and vertically, opening up quick, predefined reads in the space vacated by the defenders. Monken has repeatedly extolled the virtues of creating space in order to create explosive play opportunities. Couple that with an up-tempo pace and plenty of deep shots sprinkled in for spice, and it’s easy to imagine Jackson setting new career highs across the board. Jackson has never thrown more than 401 attempts in a season, or for more than 3,127 yards – both in his MVP season of 2019. Assuming Jackson stays healthy, he should comfortably exceed both those marks. Expecting him to become a top-10 volume passer overnight is probably asking too much, but top 15? In the 3,500 yard range? That’s entirely reasonable.

And when accompanied with his rushing value, that should make him a solid mid-QB1 for fantasy. I’d be concerned about the hype on paper growing out of control and pushing Jackson up into the top 50 or so in ADP – don’t take him before the likes of Joe Burrow or Justin Herbert or anything crazy until we see the offense actually working. But as long as the market remains sane on him, fantasy managers should feel very happy with him in a way they haven’t been in a few years; Jackson was last a top-10 fantasy quarterback in 2020.

Health will play a huge factor, as well, and not just for Jackson. Remember, both Beckham and Bateman are coming off of lost years. Beckham missed all of 2022 rehabbing his torn ACL, and has appeared in just over half of his possible games since 2017. When healthy, Beckham does still occasionally flash the playmaking ability he had as a young man in New York, but he’ll be turning 31 this year, and the injuries are a real concern. It’s doubtful he comes close to his first 1,000 yard season since 2019, but a 700-yard campaign seems reasonable, which would make him a solid WR3/flex flyer with upside in the mid-to-late rounds. Bateman’s fantasy stock takes a massive hit with Beckham and Flowers in the lineup, though perhaps not having to shoulder the load as Baltimore’s top receiver will help him develop on the field – better news for Ravens fans than fantasy players, at least. I would expect Flowers to supplant Bateman as WR2, though projections aren’t super-kind to him. Football Outsiders’ playmaker score had Flowers as only the sixth-best in the class, as it’s concerned that he was missing the sort of eye-popping numbers you’d hope to see out of a senior receiver. Between two players coming off of banged up years and a rookie, you can see the potential danger in projecting Baltimore’s receiving corps to live up to their end of the hype. There’s every chance that the bottom falls out here, with all three of the top players at least somewhat at risk of busting.

I believe it should be fine, however. Baltimore has finally come to a long-term agreement with their superstar quarterback, and supplied him with new weapons to use, all orchestrated by one of the hotter offensive minds in this year’s hiring cycle. There’s every reason for optimism for Baltimore fans from here on out – and, at the very least, they can stop having to hear about contract negotiations and guaranteed quarterback money for at least four years. That’s a victory already.