Lamar Jackson, the 2019 NFL MVP, was the best player in football last season. The case could easily be made for Patrick Mahomes, but the point is Jackson was no worse than the second-best player in football last year. But still, there’s a sense of uncertainty that surrounds Jackson and the 2020 Ravens — outside of the general sense of uncertainty surrounding *gestures at everything*.
Jackson and the Ravens produced one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history last season, but the story for 2020 is how much of that success can continue. While much of 2019 was carried on Jackson’s legs, the assumption is the 2020 offense will have to ride on Jackson’s arm. To some, despite the year of excellence and being named the league’s most valuable player, Jackson has yet to prove himself as a reliable passer.
Recently, Mike Sando of The Athletic published his annual QB Tiers article, which polls 50 NFL insiders on their thoughts about the quality of the league’s quarterbacks. Jackson came out in Tier 2 as the seventh-ranked quarterback and still had three Tier 3 votes.
Jackson’s unique athleticism and ability to run the ball was used against him in the draft process and is still somehow viewed as a negative by some, even when it’s been proven to work at the NFL level. Jackson’s throwing ability is only a question because the rushing was so good last season and the Ravens rarely had to rely on the pass to move the ball down the field or score. Last year, no team ran a higher percentage of plays with the lead than Baltimore, which led to the Ravens running at the highest rate in the league. It would be unwise to assume Baltimore can repeat that again in 2020 but it would be just as unwise to assume just because Jackson didn’t have to throw all that often last season that he is unable to do so.
If we eliminate everything Jackson contributed on the ground in 2019, he was still one of the league’s most productive quarterbacks. He led all quarterbacks in EPA on pass attempts and had the third-highest positive play rate (percentage of plays with positive EPA) among 42 quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts, per Sports Info Solutions.
Baltimore helped Jackson out a lot with its offensive scheme and use both the highest rate of play-action and pre-snap motion last season. While those are two strategies widely suggested for other quarterbacks and offenses to use more often in order to improve production, the help is viewed as another crutch for Jackson, who now needs to prove he can pass without it.
Part of what makes Jackson special is his ability to create big plays off play-action and throws outside of the pocket.
But as the Ravens did help open up the offense in the passing game, they at least did that beyond the line of scrimmage. Baltimore threw fewer screens (16) than any other team in the league last season and, in general, threw the ball at or behind the line of scrimmage at the seventh-lowest rate. That’s used to get many other quarterbacks easy completions to get the offense moving (though no team finished 2019 with positive EPA on throws at or behind the line) but Jackson and the Ravens got those on short throws beyond the line, which while they still were “easier” throws and completions, they took a little more reading of the defense than a screen.
Jackson’s numbers on throws without play-action last season were still among the best. On straight drop back pass attempts from the pocket, Jackson was second in EPA per attempt, behind only Patrick Mahomes, per SIS.
EPA per attempt on non-play-action passes from the pocket, 2019
This was all done without a consistent threat on the outside. Marquise Brown was dynamic when he was on the field but played just 51% of the offensive snaps in 14 games. Without Brown on the field, Baltimore’s top wide receivers were Seth Roberts and Willie Snead.
That’s partly the reason why Jackson and the Ravens relied so much on tight ends and the middle of the field in the passing game. The outside options just weren’t there. A deficiency like that could tank other passing offenses, but Jackson made it work. Baltimore’s tight ends weren’t just a shallow safety net. They were legitimate threats in the passing game Jackson trusted them, especially Mark Andrews, like on this third down against the New England Patriots:
The outside receivers should be better this season, at least with a healthier Brown to play a higher rate of snaps. Miles Boykin (on the receiving end of the play above) could also turn into a more developed outside receiver in Year 2.
Throwing On Empty
One way the Ravens trusted Jackson in the passing game was to have him with an empty backfield. Jackson had 119 dropbacks from empty, which was the fifth-most in the league. That total was over a quarter (25.8%) of Jackson’s dropbacks during the regular season. He was easily the most prolific passer from an empty backfield. Here are the eight quarterbacks with at least 100 dropbacks from empty last season, along with their EPA and positive play rates, per SIS.
Empty Attempts, 2019 (min. 100 dropbacks)
There are a number of dynamics at work here. Empty backfields typically force the defense to play the pass because there is no running threat. This typically brings with it a lot of press and a high blitz rate. But with Jackson alone in the backfield, there is still a dangerous run element (Jackson had 16 rushes for 170 yards from empty in 2019). That still puts the defense in a bind and allowed the Ravens to throw the ball all over the field. A majority of passes from empty come on quick reads to get the ball out, but Jackson also got a decent amount a deep attempts off without a running back beside him.
Empty Attempts, 20+ Air Yards (min. 10 att)
Even with that small sample of attempts, it showed Jackson has the ability to hit on high-value plays.
One area of the field where the Ravens really trusted Jackson out of empty was in the red zone. Using empty in the red zone can be a risky proposition. It’s the part of the field where running the ball has been proven to be more efficient, so taking away that threat in an enclosed space gives the defense and advantage of knowing what to expect. But as mentioned earlier, Jackson still presents that running threat.
Baltimore had the fifth-most dropbacks from empty in the red zone last season and the Ravens were easily the most productive. Every team had at least five such dropbacks last season and only 11 produced positive EPA. The Ravens led all teams with 0.68 EPA per attempt, thanks to eight touchdowns and no interceptions. Jackson excelled where many other offenses struggle to produce positive plays.
15 of those dropbacks and four of the touchdowns came in the high red zone (from the 19-11):
But also, Jackson went 4-of-5 for the other four touchdowns inside the 10 with nearly double the EPA of the next highest team (10.5 to 5.6). His ability to be patient and look to throw while knowing he has an option to run, is what makes him so dangerous as a passer all over the field, but especially in this high leverage area.
The Ravens and Lamar Jackson are will have to throw more in 2020. The rate success might not be the same as it was in 2019, but that doesn’t mean Jackson or the offense will be worse. Jackson will get the benefit of play-action and pre-snap motion to open up the offense, but that shouldn’t be viewed as a strike against him.
Jackson showed enough in other aspects of the passing game that he can be successful without them. The quarterback himself is just as responsible, if not more, for the way Baltimore can scheme the offense as actual the specifics of the scheme and that is why there should be little concern about how Jackson and the Ravens will fare in 2020.