On the day the Ravens made him the highest-paid player in NFL history, quarterback Lamar Jackson was asked whether he would attend organized team activities. He didn’t reveal much.
“I’m going to be in,” Jackson told reporters this month. “I’m going to be in soon. I’ll be here soon.”
Later in the day, in an interview with the team’s website, Jackson was asked about the significance of signing a five-year, $260 million contract. This answer was more revealing. It was also no more clarifying about his plans for the Ravens’ voluntary practices, which start Monday in Owings Mills. In a nearly 60-second span, Jackson seemed to acknowledge not only the responsibilities of his veteran standing but also the privileges.
“My initial thought walking in the building was, ‘OK, I was a rookie [the] last five years. Now I’m a new player, but from the same team,’” he said. “That’s what I was thinking, like: ‘I just signed a new five-year deal. Fresh start. I’m basically starting over, really. Like, yeah, I’m one of the new guys now.’”
He added: “Everything is new now. It’s like I said: It’s a new start for us, and we got new guys on our team, and I’m not a rookie anymore. Now I’m a vet, you know? Because, on my rookie deal, I felt like I was still a rookie throughout the entire process. You’re still on your rookie deal; you’re not a vet yet. So certain things vets can get away with, I’m like, ‘Nah, I can’t get away with that. I’m still a rookie.’ To me, that’s just my mindset.”
Even now, five years since Jackson arrived in Baltimore and four months from the start of maybe his most eagerly awaited season, getting a read on the 26-year-old’s intentions can sometimes seem as difficult as getting a hand on him.
When Jackson missed OTAs last year for the first time in his career, coach John Harbaugh declined to comment on his absence, saying it was “for him to talk about.” Jackson, who to that point had made little progress with Ravens officials on a contract extension beyond the season, later explained that he “just wanted to stay away and just grind. I just wanted to come back and just see how I felt.” He came back feeling and looking stronger, the ball zipping out of his hand in minicamp and training camp. Few quarterbacks started the 2022 season better.
Now, though, in Year 6, Jackson faces new pressures. His megadeal has answered some questions and raised others. Under Todd Monken, the Ravens are learning what Jackson himself has called a “different” offense. The former Georgia play-caller will be Jackson’s third offensive coordinator in six years, but he represents by far the offense’s most substantial shake-up during Jackson’s time; Greg Roman, the primary architect of the Ravens’ run game, was already on staff when he succeeded Marty Mornhinweg after the 2018 season.
Jackson, along with several projected starters on offense, missed voluntary on-field workouts the past two weeks, where defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald said Monken was running through “a million plays a day.” Will Jackson come back this week? Ravens officials hope so. They also haven’t indicated it’s a sure thing.
“We’re excited about the guys who are here,” Monken said May 10. “I know Lamar is working hard. I know the guys that aren’t here are working hard; they’re pros. When they’re here, they’re here. We look forward to getting them here and getting up to speed to what we’re doing offensively. I think that’s probably the biggest challenge, but it’s football. When they get here, they get here, and we’ll get them up to speed.”
Most quarterbacks in Jackson’s situation tend not to wait. Over the last two years, a team has entered OTAs with a new head coach, a new offensive coordinator or both 30 times. (Five teams underwent coaching changes in both 2021 and 2022.) According to media reports, only three of the 30 projected starting quarterbacks on those teams skipped all or part of OTAs.
The Buccaneers’ Tom Brady was one, but he was already familiar with Tampa Bay’s new coach, Todd Bowles, who’d been promoted from defensive coordinator in 2022. Brady was also a seven-time Super Bowl champion whose presence at OTAs was not expected.
The Packers’ Aaron Rodgers was a two-time defending NFL Most Valuable Player when he skipped OTAs last year. He also knew offensive coordinator Adam Stenavic, another in-house promotion.
The Titans’ Ryan Tannehill missed the start of OTAs in 2021, saying he opted to spend time with family, before returning to work with first-year coordinator Todd Downing, previously a position coach on Tennessee’s offensive staff.
Jackson has no such ties. Monken said this month that he’s in “constant communication” with his star quarterback, who’s received the offense’s new playbook. But teams have only so many opportunities to practice together before the NFL’s summer hiatus. The Ravens’ 10 allotted noncontact OTA practices are scheduled for the next three weeks, and their three-day mandatory minicamp begins June 13.
“Our offseason program is not a mandatory program, so it’s up to the player,” general manager Eric DeCosta said recently on “The Adam Jones Podcast.” “We can make our feelings known. I think Lamar knows we’d like him here, but that’s going to be up to the player. …
“Players have the rights [in the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement] to do what they want to do. We support Lamar. We do think it’s best for all of our players to be here. We do have a new offensive coordinator. I think it’s really, really important that our offense is on the same page. And I’m confident that we’ll be on the same page by the time September rolls around.”
Should Lamar attend voluntary OTAs now that he's signed?— The Adam Jones Podcast (@AdamJonesPod) May 12, 2023
"We do think it's best for all of our players to be here." -- EDC
▶️ https://t.co/cSx5bhy60n@SimplyAJ10 | @sportswcoleman | @BaltimoreBanner pic.twitter.com/J7V3Wh3Q9Z
Jackson’s not the only one learning the offense. He is, however, the one Harbaugh and Monken have entrusted to help figure out who works in the scheme, and where and why. At least publicly, the only Raven Jackson has worked out with since he signed his deal is new wide receiver Nelson Agholor, who’s unlikely to start. Jackson might’ve last thrown a pass to a returning Raven in early December, before he suffered a season-ending PCL injury. The signing of Odell Beckham Jr. and drafting of first-round pick Zay Flowers have only further upended the Ravens’ wide receiver room. (Beckham, who missed last year while rehabilitating a knee injury, indicated last month that he might skip OTAs.)
As Jackson acknowledged, he is now an older player in a new phase of his career. Among the Ravens’ projected starters on offense, only left tackle Ronnie Stanley and fullback Patrick Ricard have been in Baltimore longer. When Jackson’s future in Baltimore was uncertain late last season, there was no equivocation from the team’s established stars: They wanted him re-signed.
“All I know,” Stanley said in January, “is that I want Lamar to be playing here with me as long as I’m playing.”
Now, Jackson has a contract and says he’ll be here “soon.” But after his no-show at last year’s OTAs, the wondering around Owings Mills hasn’t changed: How soon, exactly?