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Two targets, one mountain: Lamar Jackson is Ravens' big draft winner

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson recently let coach John Harbaugh know his reaction to his team’s draft, though it wasn’t extensive.

Harbaugh described Jackson as a “short texter.”

"I’ve gotten his thoughts, but it’s the brief version. He’s excited,” Harbaugh said during last weekend’s rookie minicamp. "I think Lamar, as much as anything, is thinking about doing what he can do so he can be the best that he can be, and then as a quarterback, work all these other guys into it from a chemistry standpoint. He can’t wait to get back, and I can’t wait to see him here.”

Jackson’s commentary was short, but it’s undeniable he was the big winner in the Ravens’ 2021 draft. Baltimore continued to bulk up on offense with early draft picks, adding two savvy wide receivers who know how to get open, as well as one of the draft’s mountainous blockers in the first four rounds.

The drafting of polished route runners Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace along with 6-foot-6, 357-pound guard Ben Cleveland provides more weapons and protection for Jackson, who is looking to take the next step as a passer and improve Baltimore’s chances of reaching the playoffs for a fourth straight year.

NFL history says it’s difficult to consistently make the postseason with an inconsistent passing attack. Last season, the Ravens became the fourth team -- and the first since the 2003 Ravens -- to finish last in the league in passing and qualify for the postseason since the NFL expanded to 12 playoff teams in 1990, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Bateman, the No. 27 overall pick in this year’s draft, has watched Jackson from afar and hopes to meet him soon.

"It’s a blessing to be his teammate,” Bateman said. "I’m just excited to get to work with him, so I can connect with him, learn how this offense goes, and hopefully, we can chase a Super Bowl and just continue to be us.”

ESPN’s Todd McShay called Bateman the most NFL-ready route runner. In 2019, Bateman averaged 20.3 yards per reception at Minnesota, the best mark by a Big Ten player in 18 years. But his stock fell after he was infected with COVID-19 during the summer and opted out of the 2020 season after five games.

Harbaugh praised the first impression made by Bateman, referring to him as a quick learner and a “no-nonsense guy.” Pro Football Focus believes Bateman is the type of alpha receiver who can get open at will — which is what Jackson needs.

"[He’s] everything we thought he would be, in terms of the athleticism and the skill set,” Harbaugh said. "That’s usually the case, but not always the case. What you see is not always what you get, and you don’t know until you get them out there in, really, the first rookie minicamp. I would say that he is as advertised from a talent standpoint.”

Like Bateman, Wallace won’t wow many with his athleticism. He just knows how to shake defenders and get the ball. McShay called Wallace his favorite pick by the Ravens. He had projected Wallace as a second-round selection.

Wallace fell to the fourth round (19th wide receiver taken) because of a disappointing pro day (sub-par vertical and broad jumps), which led some to speculate he was still recovering from the torn ACL he suffered in 2019. That overshadowed his production at Oklahoma State, where his 922 yards in 2020 led the Big 12 and his 1.1% drop rate ranked second best in the FBS.

During rookie minicamp, Wallace caught everything within his grasp. The biggest challenge was pacing himself.

“I was really nervous, and I wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing when I got out there,” Wallace said after his first day of rookie minicamp practice. "So, I’m trying my best to get into the playbook and learn it as best I can. I think the hard part for me is knowing when to put it down, for sure.”

Jackson should have more time to throw the ball to Bateman and Wallace because of Georgia guard Cleveland, who was selected in the third round.

With Cleveland listed as the Ravens' largest player by weight, his size will fit nicely in Baltimore’s rugged running game. But he was also a capable pass protector.

Over the past two seasons, Cleveland’s pass block success rate (four pressures on 473 pass blocks) was the best by a right guard in the SEC. He didn’t allow a pressure in seven of his nine games against a ranked opponent over that span.

The biggest question with Baltimore’s offensive line is whether Cleveland will win the starting job at left guard. But lining up right away for a line that includes two Pro Bowl players (Ronnie Stanley and Alejandro Villanueva) and the team’s most expensive free-agent signing (Kevin Zeitler) isn’t Cleveland’s primary concern.

“Right now, really and truly just focused on getting in sync with these new guys and learning this playbook,” Cleveland said. "You can’t go play fast until you know what you’re doing. [I’m] not really thinking ahead to fall [training] camp and that starting job. Obviously, that’s the goal for this year, but that can’t happen until I get the playbook down and learn my assignments.”

The Ravens are looking to avoid becoming the first team to finish last in the NFL in passing in back-to-back seasons since the Philadelphia Eagles in 1998 and 1999 (which coincidentally was where Harbaugh spent his first two seasons in the league).

Baltimore believes the upgraded supporting cast will stretch the field, as much horizontally as vertically. Last season, Jackson’s 94 completions outside the numbers were 27th in the league.

"This offense is really one that runs through Lamar, and we’re always going to do what gives us the best chance to win,” Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. "When you add talent like that, it’s really, I think, going to kind of expand our profile quite a bit, actually, to play with the kind of balance that we really want to play with. The field is about 53 yards wide, and I think people are going to have to defend all 53 yards of it.”