The opening was small, about as wide as a kid’s-size hula hoop, which meant the throws had to be perfect. But in the late-morning hours of the Ravens’ final mandatory-minicamp practice earlier this month, as quarterback after quarterback dropped back to pass, the target might as well have been a ring toss carnival game.
From about 20 yards away, passes caromed off the target’s exterior, or landed short of the opening, or sailed over, or missed wide. Not until Lamar Jackson finally laced a throw into the net a few minutes into the drill did the thwang of a bull’s-eye ring out over the practice fields in Owings Mills.
“Oh, my God, we were, like, four of 1,000 today,” Jackson joked afterward. “I was like, ‘What the hell are we doing?’”
As Jackson and the Ravens continue their contract negotiations this summer, off-and-on talks that have invited the same kind of disbelieving commentary, there’s work to be done on the field, too. Jackson is coming off his worst year as a passer in his three seasons as an established starter. His interception and sack rates were the highest of his career, and his passer rating was his lowest since his rookie year.
But for as much as Jackson’s strong minicamp performance pointed toward a resurgent 2022, it couldn’t answer one of the most critical questions facing the Ravens’ passing game: How much can a lackluster downfield attack improve after trading away its most established deep threat?
Wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown finished tied for sixth in the NFL last season in targets of 20-plus air yards (28), according to Sports Info Solutions. No other Ravens player had more than 19 targets, and no other Baltimore wide receiver had more than eight. In dealing Brown to the Arizona Cardinals during April’s NFL draft, the Ravens wagered that they could compensate for his loss elsewhere. But after their long-ball struggles last year, they can’t afford to fall off any further.
“It was something that Coach [John] Harbaugh wanted us to improve on, and us as an offense, as players and coaches, wanted to improve on, so it’s been an emphasis,” Ravens wide receivers coach Tee Martin said during minicamp. “We’ve been pushing the ball down the field more in individual drills, before we even get to seven-on-seven and things of that nature, and just really seeing what we are. It’s hard to correct something if you don’t know what the issues are, and so we’ve been making that more of an emphasis and getting more reps at that, and we’ve been seeing improvement.”
There’s a lot of room for it. Jackson went 17-for-50 on passes of at least 20 yards downfield last season, finishing with three touchdowns and four interceptions, according to SIS. Among the 34 NFL quarterbacks with at least 20 such deep attempts, Jackson ranked 25th in accuracy (34%), 17th in catchable-pass rate (61.2%), 24th in on-target rate (49%) and 25th in passer rating (66.0).
The Ravens’ leaky offensive line, which allowed the second-most sacks in the NFL last year (57), was to blame for some of Jackson’s longer-developing drop-backs. But even when he wasn’t pressured, Jackson struggled with his accuracy downfield. Among the 38 quarterbacks with at least 10 unpressured deep throws last season, he ranked 25th in accuracy (36.4%, just behind the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger), 22nd in catchable-pass rate (59.4%), 17th in on-target rate (53.1%) and 27th in passer rating (66.0).
Part of the problem was Jackson’s frayed connection with Brown, his favorite deep threat. Only seven wide receivers were targeted downfield as often or more often than Brown in 2021, yet 18 wide receivers had more receptions of 20-plus air yards than Brown. Drops were a problem; Brown finished with four over his 28 targets. Jackson misfired often, too.
By the time an ankle injury ended Jackson’s season in mid-December, his early-season rhythm with Brown had all but disappeared. Backup Tyler Huntley, with his limited arm strength, couldn’t resuscitate Brown’s downfield production, either. On deep shots last year, Brown’s expected points added per target — a measure of efficiency that accounts for situational factors such as down, distance and field position — was minus-0.30, according to SIS. The EPA per carry of Ravens running back Le’Veon Bell, who was cut after five games: minus-0.13.
It’s unclear whether Brown’s departure will amount to addition by subtraction in coordinator Greg Roman’s passing scheme. Brown, who finished last season with a career-high 1,008 yards and six touchdown catches despite the offense’s injury struggles, helped soften up secondaries for the Ravens’ short-range passing game with the attention he attracted on downfield routes.
In Mark Andrews, the Ravens do have one proven field-stretching threat. The All-Pro tied with the Atlanta Falcons’ Kyle Pitts last season for the most deep catches by a tight end (eight) and led all players at the position in deep targets (19). But if defenses sell out to stop the Ravens’ ground game this season, regularly committing a safety to their run defense, Jackson will need an outside presence as well.
Rashod Bateman could not only replace Brown there but also represent an upgrade. As a sophomore at Minnesota, he was among college football’s most explosive receivers, averaging more than one deep catch per game. As a rookie in Baltimore, the first-round pick had four catches of 20-plus air yards — just two fewer than Brown despite seeing 20 fewer passes. Bateman’s EPA per deep target was an elite 0.98, ahead of even Cincinnati Bengals Ja’Marr Chase’s efficiency on such throws (0.94).
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In Bateman’s relatively small sample size, there was little waste. His four downfield grabs came on five “catchable” passes, according to SIS, compared to Brown’s 6-for-12 mark. Asked at minicamp whether his downfield ability is overlooked, Bateman shrugged his shoulders and grinned. “We’ll see,” he said.
Elsewhere, production remains a question mark for the Ravens’ wide receivers, even if pedigree does not. Devin Duvernay has elite speed, and his 10 deep catches for Texas in 2019 tied for second in the Big 12 Conference, behind only eventual first-round pick CeeDee Lamb. But he’s been targeted downfield just four times over his two years in Baltimore, catching one pass.
James Proche II, a frequent downfield target at Southern Methodist, has one career catch and two targets of 20-plus air yards. Tylan Wallace, who impressed with his contested-catch ability as a deep threat at Oklahoma State, was targeted just once on a pass of longer than 10 yards as a rookie.
“Of course, I think I can stretch the field — me and ‘Bate,’ for sure, [can] stretch the field, make plays down the field,” Duvernay said in minicamp. “And whenever ‘G-Ro’ [Roman] calls it, we’re ready.”
No one will face more pressure to perform, however, than Jackson. This offseason could mark an important stage in his downfield development, just as the 2021 offseason seemed to mark a turning point in his proficiency with sideline throws. After Roman said opposing defenses would have to cover “all 53 yards” of the field’s width, Jackson’s accuracy on unpressured throws outside the numbers improved from 64.8% to 73.5% last season, sixth best in the NFL among quarterbacks with at least 40 such attempts.
Deep throws seemed to be an emphasis of Jackson’s early-offseason workouts with Bateman and Proche, and Ravens coaches have said they’re making the downfield passing attack a priority in practice. That could mean more target practice for Jackson in training camp. That could mean more bull’s-eyes in the regular season.
“Look, I’ve been around long enough to know that you get what you emphasize,” Ravens quarterbacks coach James Urban said at minicamp. “So you emphasize it, and you emphasize the techniques, or the route running, and all of that, and then the timing aspect of it. So you get what you emphasize, and we’re going to emphasize it.”