Lombardi: Lamar Jackson among players to watch this season

August 17, 2022 11:07 AM
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Recently, when I saw Lamar Jackson being interviewed, I had to do a double take -- I didn’t recognize him.  His body had reconstructed for the better this offseason, as Jackson understood that he needed to become stronger for him to run, in both his upper and lower body.  Whatever he did, worked.  It also had me wondering:  Would he lose speed?  Would his rare acceleration dwindle away because of the added weight?  I asked some people who were watching him practice each day and their response was: “No, he actually looks faster.”  If that is the case -- and I have every reason to believe it’s true -- then watch out NFL, Lamar is coming. 

After watching the Ravens in their first preseason game against Tennessee and seeing Jackson’s added strength, I am all in on the Ravens being the best team in the AFC North, and Jackson having a great season.  Why?  Because even though Jackson didn’t play against the Titans, the offense looked slightly different. 

Tyler Huntley was under center more, the offense wasn’t all RPO’S and if that is the case, it will help Jackson get the ball outside the numbers and away from the middle of the field, where he makes most of his throws.  Plus, the Ravens offensive line which looked God awful last year will be improved.  With running back J.K. Dobbins back and a healthy left tackle in Ronnie Stanley, Baltimore will still be a strong running team.  With the added dimension of running the ball with the quarterback under center, and using boots and nakeds, this will enhance Jackson’s skill and give him easier throws outside. 

The Ravens will need to count on wide receiver Rashod Bateman to stay healthy, which he didn’t do during his rookie season.  He did flash talent, explosive quickness and good hands, though, and with Hollywood Brown no longer on the team Bateman will be the go-to outside receiver.  Let’s not get all emotional about losing Brown: He cost them dearly in the Lions game early in the season with his drops and was targeted 146 times (second-most on the team) and only caught 62.3% of those passes.  He is replaceable and Bateman can easily handle that role. 

Last season the Ravens lost five games by three points or less, and that was with a depleted roster and no starting quarterback.  With a little help and an improved Jackson, I am confident they won’t lose their last six games of the season and will post more than 10 wins. 

Darren Waller

It’s hard to find, big fast, tough and athletic tight ends who create mismatch problems for the defense.  Most can’t block and only affect the passing game, while others can only block and have a small role in the passing game.  Waller is the exception.  He can dominate the passing game, create mismatches all over the field and can block on the end of the line.  Now, with Josh McDaniels running the offense, Waller will have a breakout season. 

McDaniels knows how to create the matchups for Waller as he did for many seasons in New England with Rob Gronkowski, and last season with Hunter Henry.  Waller is a freak of nature, as he has Randy Moss-type speed down the field, incredible hands and the ability to explode in and out of his cuts.  With Davante Adams on one side and Hunter Renfrow in the slot, Waller will get a favorable matchup each game and exploit it.  Last season, Waller’s catch percentage was only 59.1%, which is ridiculously low (tight ends should be in the high 70’s or 80%) and McDaniels’ offense will make sure he is more productive.  In only 11 games last season, Waller catch two TD passes, which again is too low and one of the reasons the Raiders ranked 26th in red zone efficiency. 

Currently, Waller is nursing a sore hamstring and once that is healed, he will become the benefactor of Adams drawing all the coverage and McDaniels being able to exploit the adjustments in the defense.  The marriage between player and scheme is essential and this one will prove profitable to anyone who takes Waller on all his over bets. 

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