In the months after the Ravens realized what they had in quarterback Lamar Jackson, they also realized they wanted more of what made him special. They wanted fast players. They wanted speed to accentuate speed.
“It’s a challenge for a team to face speed when you have multiple guys on the field at the same time who can run and make explosive plays,” general manager Eric DeCosta said after the 2019 draft, in which the team took wide receivers Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and Miles Boykin and running back Justice Hill. “We got a chance to see what Lamar can do this past year, and I think our vision, collective vision, for the offense is to add more guys like that to make it really challenging on the defense.”
But over the next four years, a surprising thing happened. As the skill position talent around Jackson got faster, coordinator Greg Roman’s personnel groupings got slower. If DeCosta had imagined Jackson anchoring a track-and-field relay team, he instead ultimately got a sprinter surrounded by maybe a few more shot putters than he expected. No team was as uninterested in spreading defenses out last season as the Patrick Ricard-reliant, wideout-depleted Ravens.
With the offseason hiring of coordinator Todd Monken and revitalization of the Ravens’ wide receiver room, though, the offense’s very structure could change. Former NFL wide receiver James Jones said on Fox Sports 1′s “The Carton Show” last week that Monken has told him that he is “all about spreading people out.” Jackson would have room to run, Jones said, and his wide receivers would have the space to make plays.
“You’d like to, right?” Monken said Wednesday, his first meeting with reporters since the Ravens re-signed Jackson, drafted wide receiver Zay Flowers and signed Odell Beckham Jr. “You’d like to be able to spread the field, use every blade of grass. What dictates that? Your ability to function doing that, having enough players that a defense would have to respect using all that, which is true. You’d love to be able to have weapons where they have to defend every skill player that you have. So that’s exactly right, but then what takes you out of that?”
Some of the same things that handicapped Roman: injuries, roster imbalances, defensive matchups. Brown never developed into a bona fide No. 1 wide receiver over his three years in Baltimore. Injuries have limited Rashod Bateman to just 18 games over his first two seasons. Tight ends Mark Andrews and Isaiah Likely have functioned as de facto wide receivers. Ricard, a perennial Pro Bowl fullback, and tight ends Nick Boyle and Josh Oliver have helped carve open holes for the Ravens’ dominant run game and protect Jackson on long-developing drop-backs.
Roman’s tendencies were more successful than not, especially when Jackson was healthy. The Ravens finished lower than third in rushing efficiency just once during his tenure, according to Football Outsiders, and that came during a 2021 season ravaged by injuries. Last year, they had one of the NFL’s best passing attacks until Bateman suffered his Lisfranc (foot) injury.
But over time, the offense stalled out. As the Ravens’ late-season passing game wobbled with Jackson and then backup Tyler Huntley in 2022, Roman leaned even more into condensed formations and heavy personnel packages. There was little margin for error and almost no room for post-snap creativity.
“The more spread out you get, the more you have to put on your quarterback in terms of issues in the run game or RPOs [run-pass options],” Monken said. “So the more condensed you are, sometimes you can protect gaps and protect the quarterback a little bit more. So some of that is reliant on the players that you have and the abilities that they have.”
If the Ravens need a proof of concept for Jackson’s potential in a spread attack, they need only look at 2019, his NFL Most Valuable Player season. For all the dynamism that Jackson brought to a smash-mouth rushing offense, his contributions in obvious passing situations often went overlooked.
In 119 drop-backs in empty formations — no running backs by his side, five receivers typically spread out around him — Jackson went 70-for-101 (69.3%) for 11 touchdowns and two interceptions, according to Sports Info Solutions, good for a passer rating of 123.7. Just for good measure, he also scrambled 13 times in empty formations for 149 yards.
Jackson’s leading receivers that year were two second-year tight ends (Andrews and Hayden Hurst) and a rookie-year receiver (Brown). This season, he could have Devin Duvernay, who spent part of last year as the Ravens’ leading wideout, as the No. 4 or No. 5 wide receiver. Three former first-round picks (Beckham, Bateman and Flowers) could be ahead of him on the depth chart.
“It has a chance to be exciting and fun,” coach John Harbaugh said last week. “It has a chance to be a winning offense. That’s what we always want to be. The expectations are always high. … This year is no exception, but I understand it’s kind of ramped up a little bit.”
“Definitely a ton of different ways to stretch the field and do things,” Duvernay said Wednesday. “Got a ton of different guys that can do a multitude of things. And Todd Monken, I think he’s the guy for the job, and we’ll have a lot of fun.”
At his introductory news conference in February, Monken couldn’t say for sure whether he’d have Jackson, then stuck in contract negotiations with the Ravens, leading the 2023 offense. But he left little doubt about his interest in creating space, rather than crowding it. “It’s about being explosive,” he said, and having a quarterback like Jackson couldn’t hurt. “It’s more fun if your guy is athletic. He can get you out of trouble.”
The Ravens’ offensive rebuild is still in its early days. Jackson only recently received the team’s new playbook, and few projected starters were on hand for the team’s voluntary workouts Wednesday. Even Monken’s definition of “space” in a “spread” offense is open to interpretation; at Georgia, he largely relied on two-tight-end formations, not wideout-heavy Air Raid sets.
Asked Wednesday whether he preferred a faster offense around Jackson or a slower defense against Jackson, he was noncommittal. Monken just wanted good players. The rest would sort itself out.
“You’re always looking for big, fast, physical, smart at every position,” Monken said. “Unfortunately, here, you draft players, and so you’re just trying to surround your quarterback with talent and trying to surround him with players with unique skill sets that you can try to take advantage of. …
“You just try to surround them with the most talent you can, starting up front — because it always does start up front with the guys you have up front — and then surrounding your quarterback with weapons that allow him to showcase his ability, which is what every quarterback wants.”