As preseason opens, Lamar Jackson makes big leap as passer

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Lamar Jackson's pass zipped through the small window between Jacksonville Jaguars defenders and into the outstretched arms of tight end Mark Andrews in the end zone.

The pinpoint red zone strike displayed his improved accuracy. The decision to make such a throw showed his growing confidence.

This was not only Jackson's best pass in the two days of joint practices with the Jaguars, but the type of throw which has provided so much optimism going forward.

"I think the guys are all rallying around seeing how much improvement he’s made," backup quarterback Robert Griffin III said.

As Baltimore opens the preseason against Jacksonville on Thursday night, the theme of Ravens training camp has been Jackson exceeding expectations as a passer.

He has made strides since last season, when he led Baltimore to the AFC North title more on the strength of his legs than his arm. What has excited teammates even more is the progress Jackson has made since the offseason workouts in the spring.

No one is comparing Jackson to Drew Brees or any other Pro Bowl quarterback. Jackson is still climbing a learning curve leading up to the regular season.

There has just been fewer wobbly passes and a decreasing amount of throws that make you scratch your head. In two practices against the Jaguars, Jackson was a combined 29-of-43 passing (67.4 percent) in 7-on-7 and team drills.

"I think he gets pegged as a guy who can’t throw the ball and all of that, but you come out to practice and that’s all we do," Andrews said. "That’s all we’re doing is throwing the ball. He puts the ball in incredible spots, and he’s such a dynamic player. He has that special ‘it’ factor about him, and again, he’s special, and there’s really no other word to describe him. He’s incredible."

How much Jackson throws the ball this season is uncertain. The Ravens' philosophy under offensive coordinator Greg Roman will continue to revolve around the run.

But Baltimore will need Jackson to step up as a passer if it wants to contend for a Super Bowl title. In seven starts after taking over for Joe Flacco, Jackson eclipsed 60 percent passing twice and topped 200 yards passing once.

What has stood out to veteran cornerback Brandon Carr is Jackson's improvement in processing the passing game.

"For a second-year quarterback, I just watch his progressions and how he goes through his reads," Carr said. "He gets from one to four real quick. That’s remarkable to see that big jump in his sophomore year. That’s what you look for in a quarterback. He’s making all the right strides for us."

For Griffin, the biggest growth for Jackson is in his timing and rhythm. Jackson knows the purpose of the play and then executes it.

"Once the games start and the bodies start flying, it’s still going to take time to get used to that and continue to make those strides," Griffin said. "But it’s good to see him have a great idea where the ball is supposed to go, how it’s supposed to get there and the timing it’s supposed to get there."

The amount of time Jackson sees in the preseason is undetermined. Ravens coach John Harbaugh declined to say Tuesday how many snaps Jackson will receive in the preseason opener because the coaches still needed to discuss it.

In previous years, Flacco was limited to one drive in the first preseason game. But Flacco was one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the league.

Asked if Jackson's youth weighs into his playing time in the preseason, Harbaugh said, “It definitely factors in...no question.”

However many snaps Jackson takes, the hope is he'll carry over the momentum from training camp into the preseason games. If he does that, it will begin to quiet the questions about whether Jackson can be an effective passer in the NFL.

"There’s a lot of outside noise with everybody, whether it’s myself, Lamar, anybody," tight end Hayden Hurst said. "There is negativity all over the place, but I think as players we know what we’re capable of. What I’m seeing out there, that’s not a running back. He’s an incredible quarterback. He makes really good decisions. He makes some really impressive throws. I’m just happy to see how he progresses moving forward."