The Spotlight Series
A Footballguys Spotlight is an in-depth look at a player. His plusses and minuses are examined, and we give you our bottom-line stance on his 2022 prospects. If a player listed below doesn't yet have a link, don't worry. It's coming soon.
With 8:55 left in the third quarter of a Week 16 matchup against the Cleveland Browns, Lamar Jackson ran a designed run (QB Power) to his left, gaining eight yards and a first down. Two plays later, he dropped back, scanned the field, and landed on Mark Ingram II to his left in the flat. Ingram took the ball the remaining ten yards for the touchdown.
It was the last touchdown Jackson threw in his MVP 2019 season. It capped off one of the most dominant dual-threat seasons in the modern era. The Ravens cruised to a 14-win season and rode a 12-game winning streak into the playoffs. They ultimately were unseated by the Tennessee Titans in the Divisional Round. But that stretch of play was the last the Ravens dominated, and it serves as the blueprint for returning to greatness. Jackson's ADP of QB4 suggests fantasy managers believe in a healthy return to form. We concur and see many reasons to believe in a return to superstardom.
Back to the Blueprint
The 2019 Ravens ran the football at an extremely high rate. Their 46% neutral script run rate was the second-lowest in the last six years. They bested that mark in 2020, running the ball 45% of the time in neutral game scripts. But Jackson's usage was much different. In 2019, Jackson averaged 11.73 rush attempts per game, the highest mark of all time from a quarterback. In 2020, he carried the ball 17 fewer times, averaging 10.6 rushes per game. Jackson also scrambled ten additional times and ran 18 fewer RPOs, indicating that the offense pulled back on designed quarterback runs. That carry number seems insignificant at face value, but it cost him nearly 100 yards - or ten fantasy points - on the ground, assuming he was as efficient with those carries as he was with his other 159. Ten additional fantasy points would have pushed up his points per game finish from QB9 to QB7. The dispersal of rush attempts wasn't the only difference in the Ravens' usage, though.
Jackson threw ten fewer touchdowns in 2020 than he did in 2019. His touchdown percentage of 9% always looked unsustainable, but the drop to 6.9% in 2020 still ranked fourth in the NFL. Nevertheless, the offensive scheme relied more heavily on the running backs at the goal line; their touchdown tally increased from 14 to 17. The Ravens went from first to seventh in the league in points scored, dropping even further to seventeenth in 2021. The 2019 Ravens gave 180 targets - a 43% share - to tight ends, ranking second in the league behind the Philadelphia Eagles. Upon Hayden Hurst's departure, that target share decreased to 29% in 2020 and 30% in 2021. Nick Boyle suffered a brutal injury and has never returned to his pre-injury form.
2021 was a different story altogether. Jackson played in just 12 games, many of which the Ravens struggled in. The Ravens' secondary was decimated throughout the year, forcing Jackson to throw the ball 31.8 times per game - his highest career mark. He never found his rhythm, which led to his worst career year throwing the football.
The blueprint for success for Jackson and the Ravens relies heavily on having two dynamic, pass-catching tight ends. They ranked 28th in the NFL in 11-personnel usage (three wide receivers) in 2019 but 1st in 22-personnel (two running backs and two tight ends). They utilized unique formations in goal-line packages that helped scheme tight ends to be wide open. And the front office's moves this offseason indicate a return to that blueprint.
The team added two tight ends on Day Three of the NFL Draft. Charlie Kolar and Isaiah Likely were dynamic pass-catching options in college, and both look to have a role behind Mark Andrews as rookies in 2022. Kolar is a good athlete that plays like a traditional tight end. Likely is more of a move tight end with an impressive vertical and good hands. The Ravens also shipped off the No. 1 receiver, Marquise Brown, for a pick they used on projected starting center Tyler Linderbaum. J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards are returning from injury, and Mike Davis and Tyler Badie were added to the running back room. Lamar Jackson added 15 pounds to his frame, seemingly raising the durability threshold. All signs point to a departure from the 2021 offense and a return to the one in which Jackson excels.
Looking Beneath the Surface
Despite Jackson's struggles, he finished as the QB7 in points per game in 2021. Removing his last game against Cleveland, in which he played just ten snaps, Jackson averaged 22.89 fantasy points per game - good for QB3 on the season. But his 2021 rushing production could indicate that his 2022 ceiling is higher than that. In games in which Jackson rushed the ball more than ten times, he averaged 27.0 points per game. That number dropped to 17.3 in games he rushed less than ten times.
Rushing output helps all quarterbacks, but Jackson's efficiency on the ground gives him the most significant advantage among his peers. Retaining that efficiency will be difficult if Ravens running backs don't improve in 2022. Injuries to the top-three running backs on the depth chart just before the season significantly affected the Ravens' offense and quarterback. The group averaged just 4.13 yards per carry, the lowest since Jackson took over as the full-time starter.
Ravens Running Back Yards-Per-Carry Average, by Year
|Year||RB Yards Per Carry|
Jackson also struggled with interceptions in 2021, throwing one on 3.4% of his attempts. The differentiation in the offense contributed to that, with receiver usage the highest it had been since he took the starting job in late 2018. His career-average mark of 1.9% applied to his 2021 stats would bring his total interceptions down to 7.3. Using this career average, Jackson's points per game would have increased to 23.8 when removing the above matchup against Cleveland. This action alone would have seen Jackson finish as the QB2. Looking beneath the surface, Jackson's 2021 was not too distant from his 2019 QB1 overall finish.
Forecasting the Supporting Cast
Jackson's detractors will point out that the Ravens traded his best receiver this offseason, but that isn't rooted in reality. First-team All-Pro tight end Mark Andrews returns and should see another high volume of targets. While his usage increased late in the year when Jackson was injured, he showed he could handle the higher workload and continue as the focal point of the passing offense. Sophomore Rashod Bateman will look to build off a modest 2021 in which he missed the first five weeks. Bateman averaged seven targets per game with Jackson at quarterback. James Proche, Devin Duvernay, and Tylan Wallace will battle for snaps as the second and third receivers on the depth chart. Proche is the favorite to win snaps in two-receiver sets and will take on a more prominent role. He has flashed when given the opportunity and can slide into the Marquise Brown role to a certain degree.
A quarterback's weapons typically indicate the ceiling he can reach, but that isn't the case with Jackson. The return of J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards will be a welcome one, as they will return the Ravens to the dynamic rushing attack they once were. Dobbins is a capable pass catcher, and rookie Tyler Badie could also play a key role on obvious passing downs. The inherent upgrades at running back will ease the load on Jackson from both a rushing and passing standpoint.
PROJECTIONS AND STATS
Lamar Jackson has been a dominant force in fantasy football since he arrived in the NFL in 2018. His 2019 season gave the Ravens a blueprint for the NFL's best offense. While they strayed from that blueprint a bit over the last two years, all signs point to a return to it. Jackson's ADP of QB4 indicates that fantasy managers expect success, but the heights he could reach far exceed that spot on the draft board. The Ravens have Jackson on the right path: rushing back to fantasy superstardom and a potential No. 1 overall finish.
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