Joe Flacco playing like a fire has been lit under him

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is in the best shape of his career and is throwing the ball better than he has in recent years.

The Ravens' coaches believe this is the result of Flacco being healthy again.

Others have another theory.

"He's obviously been challenged," safety Eric Weddle said. "Drafting Lamar [Jackson] and bringing [Robert] Griffin in, it’s lit a fire under him. You can tell. It has shown."

The drafting of Jackson in the first round and the free-agent signing of Griffin has led to a more driven Flacco this offseason. He's leaner and trimmer than he has ever been, although no one has ever accused Flacco of being out of shape. If he misses a throw -- which has been rare this spring -- you can hear Flacco angrily slapping his hands. And Flacco has been more engaged with his receivers before and after drills.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh contends Flacco has always been motivated, but added, "What the heck, our antennas are up at all times, and he's no different."

This is a critical season for Flacco. He could be the next Alex Smith who starts for another season and then gets traded. There's a chance Jackson sits for two years and waits to step into the starting role in 2020.

The timetable could be determined by Flacco's play and Jackson's development.

"When you pick a quarterback or anybody in the first round, it means something," Flacco said last month on the drafting of Jackson.

Flacco was nearly perfect during the organized team activities this spring. One defensive player estimated that he threw one interception over the eight practices.

What really jumped out was Flacco's aggressiveness pushing the ball downfield. He repeatedly hit John Brown on well-timed deep throws as well as connecting with Chris Moore on 20-plus-yard passes.

This is a big change in Baltimore's passing attack. Over the past three seasons, Flacco has completed 25 passes that traveled 25 yards or longer in the air. That ranks No. 21 in the NFL and behind Ryan Tannehill, Jay Cutler and Blake Bortles.

Someone recently joked with Harbaugh that the Ravens completed more deep balls in one practice than they did all offseason last year.

Flacco has had a more uneven minicamp this week, throwing three interceptions in the red zone (although one appeared to be the result of a bad route run by Moore). But Flacco is still passing the ball at a different level than Jackson, Griffin and reserve Josh Woodrum.

"Joe has had an outstanding offseason, and it's nice just to see him running around, getting drops, planting and throwing the ball with zip, throwing the ball downfield," Weddle said. "He can throw it 70 yards; you saw it a few weeks ago. So, we're pumped."

Flacco's health has been a factor this offseason. He missed all of the offseason workouts in the spring of 2016 because he was recovering from season-ending knee surgery. Last year, Flacco was sidelined for all of training camp and the preseason because of a herniated disk.

Over those two seasons, Flacco threw for 38 touchdowns and had 28 interceptions for an 82.1 passer rating, which is 27th in the league.

The Ravens feel like they are ahead of the game this year just with Flacco on the field.

"If you don’t have your quarterback out there, everything else kind of stagnates," Harbaugh said. "I don’t think you get as much out of the offseason or training camp as you would. To me, that’s the No. 1 thing -- it gives us the chance to really get to where we need to go -- the fact that our quarterback is out there."